I Dreamed of Africa

Nuruddin Farah Talks About Raw Nerves, Refugees, and the Imagination

One of the only major African writers who continues to live in Africa, the Somalian novelist Nuruddin Farah playfully and defiantly walks a tightrope between the exploration of ideas and the exhilaration of formal invention. Farah grapples with moral and philosophical dilemmas about human nature and the course of complicated familial, communal, historical, and political relationships.

With the publication of his latest book, Yesterday, Tomorrow: Voices From the Somali Diaspora (Continuum), and the republication of the first two novels in his Blood in the Suntrilogy—Secrets and Gifts (Arcade)—Farah is starting to be recognized by a wider public more familiar with major African writers such as Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe. In his introduction to Farah's talk as part of Bard College's newly founded program in human rights, Nobel laureate Achebe characterized Farah as someone who "defined himself differently from what adversity had presented to him." This characterization points to a quality in Farah distinguishing him from writers whose exile has taken them far from Africa.

As Farah put it: "Africa provides me with the neurosis on which I base my self-analysis. I am interested in the possibility of the collapse, and the collapse that is kept at bay. If I were to live in the States or Europe, the urgency would be lost. My creative imagination inhabits Africa. And for me Africa has no boundaries, Africa is an abstraction, Africa is a place from where I come. I continually remind myself of my loyalty to that ideal, my loyalty to defining and redefining myself in the context of Africa." This loyalty appears in Farah's novels as a constant striving for utopia, despite all signs marking the impossibility of ever achieving such a space.

Through the trilogy, Farah has re-created a Somalia that is both very real and absolutely imaginary. In Blood in the Sun, for example, he painstakingly explores all the permutations involved in the tensions between political affiliations and blood relations, to the point of collapsing boundaries between human, animal, and natural realms. "Through the entire trilogy, you will find things having to do with orphans, with blood, with birds, with light and darkness, and shade and sun." Given that Farah writes in English, but was brought up in Somali, Arabic, Amharic, and Italian (and could just as easily have decided to write in one of those languages), these leitmotivs resonate in startling ways, constantly teaching us to read anew: "Some people would say that I tread on virgin territory as far as breaking taboos are concerned, whereas what I am actually doing is teasing the logic out of the illogicality of people who say, for example, that we are related because we are of the same blood." This logic is both cumulative and relentless, always leading to that point—whether through an event or emotion—at which Farah cannot flinch or turn away from what his subjects reveal. The point when, as Farah puts it, "they just speak out, in the name of truth, against their own people, against themselves."

His latest book, Yesterday, Tomorrow, based on extensive interviews with Somali refugees, follows this relentless logic and willingness to face the unimaginable. "Unlike South Africa," he notes, "where there has been 'Truth and Reconciliation' soon after the collapse of apartheid, there hasn't been such an encounter between Somalis who have done such terrible things to one another. It took a book like Yesterday, Tomorrow, and novels like Maps, Gifts, and Secrets, to give representative Somalis the opportunity to debate." Since the only space available for such open debate is between the covers of a book because the social and political institutions have collapsed, this leads to what Farah terms a "philosophical but very real question." As he asks: "Can you produce a good Somalia out of the rotten one? Can anything be salvaged from the ruins? What kind of a Somalia will emerge from the rubble, the phoenix that will arise?"

Perhaps more openly than in his novels, Farah confronted his own background as he spoke to refugees in various states of distress: "Even though, in many senses, I'm a privileged Somali, I'm also basically a Somali caught in the vortex that has swept throughout the Somali nation, with family, and similar difficulties moving around or settling down because of my Somali passport. But the tension remained within me, because I didn't know how to fully expose my exposed nerves to the very people who were showing me their fractured nerves, their damaged selves, the people speaking to me in damaged tongues, with damaged memories."

Despite the depths Farah's imagination has plumbed, the realities he confronted upon visiting Somalia after the war revealed new shocks. Learning of an incident where women who had fled into a mosque to escape the fighting were raped in the presence of an imam, Farah sought ways to assimilate this into his work. "The shock is still with me and I think it will continue to haunt me because the story was told to me in Mogadishu, when I was having trouble finishing Secrets, and it opened a door in my head. The reason such things shocked me is that I hadn't yet imagined them. I failed in my imagining." It is precisely such failings—with all the personal and collective pain they embody—that Nuruddin Farah acknowledges and records. In the spirit of the self-discovery coursing throughout one of his early novels, Maps, Farah is a guide we can trust to chart the course of a battered humanity.

 
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