Nuruddin Farah

Portrait of Nuruddin Farah
  • Interview by James Romm
  • Issue 15
  • Free RadicalApril 2016

It has been half a century since Nuruddin Farah left his native Somalia to study philosophy and literature in India. In 1976, he became an official exile. The honesty of his fiction had made him an enemy of Somalia's then-emerging dictator, Mohamed Siad Barre. Farah has lived most of his life in Europe and the United States, but the tragedy of modern Somalia has never been far from his thoughts. In his twelve highly regarded novels, all written in English, he has explored the lives of Somalis who endured the repressive Siad Barre years and the violent civil war that followed, and of those who, like him, have joined the Somali diaspora. His prose is full of compassion, especially for Somali women, who, he feels, are often kept in subjection—though Bella, the photographer heroine of his 2014 novel Hiding in Plain Sight, has a conspicuous degree of control over her career and her future.

I spoke with Farah at his home in upstate New York, where he now teaches part of each year at Bard College. The winter afternoon grew steadily darker as we conversed. Even when we could barely see each other's faces, Farah remained fixed in his chair, weighing his words with intense concentration, oblivious to the gathering gloom.

James Romm

I thought we’d start with a question that you posed to your students in your description of the literature class you’re currently teaching: What difference can fiction make in the struggle for rights and justice?

Nuruddin Farah

Fiction often provides an alternative universe, and in the creation of an alternative universe, the author can start to dream. Even if everyday reality is different, difficult, harsh on people, the fiction writer can alter the unjust narrative. Therefore the writing of injustice is up the street of the novelist more than it is of the historian. My fiction usually tries to correct the incorrigible in society and to make sure that the voiceless are given a voice, the dictator is shown for what he is, and the weakness of patriarchy is also shown. That’s what fiction can do, far better than most other forms of expression.

What particular injustices are you addressing in Hiding in Plain Sight?

It begins in a politicized world. One character’s brother is murdered by a terrorist. An injustice has been done to an innocent person—that is in the back of your mind. And there are injustices for Somalis visiting Kenya.… The African in Africa, often through economic injustice, lives a very difficult life.

The heroine of that novel, Bella, moves easily between two worlds, the continent of Europe and the continent of Africa. Is that reflective of your experience?

I’ve been in exile for a long time. People in many different places, for reasons unknown to me, have been very kind to me. Not everyone receives the same sorts of kindnesses that I receive. My decision to opt for exile is a consequence of a dictatorial threat for Somalis. The dictator indicated that if I had returned after writing A Naked Needle, my second novel, I would spend a great deal of time in prison.


At the time I was young and I didn’t have much money. I didn’t have the wherewithal to live in Europe. An Italian friend of mine who was going, ironically, to Somalia asked me to housesit in Trieste, and house sitting involved feeding the cat, watering the plants, and I could live there as long as I wanted to—a very generous offer. Yugoslavia was close enough, and it was a lot cheaper than Italy. My friends and I would go once a month to Yugoslavia to purchase meat and fish and then freeze it. We used to take jeans and sell them in Yugoslavia, pretend the jeans were for our use if the customs officer looked, and then the Yugoslavs would sell them to Russia or somewhere else. So we were in that kind of world, on the fringes of legality.

In the case of Somalis, from an early age, we are made to believe there is no other race that’s superior to the Somali. We’re told—in the way Americans are also told, at least by films—that there is nothing impossible for a Somali, nothing that a Somali can’t do. Some refugees would refuse right from the beginning, “I’m not going to change, I’m going to remain a Somali, and I’m going to act like a Somali.” In America or Europe, wherever the Somalis have found themselves, you would find some Somalis at the top in their profession, despite having arrived as refugees. Or you would find them at the bottom. There seem to be none in between.

How would you describe your relationship with Somalia now?

I go there often enough, once or twice a year. My sister was killed in Kabul, in a restaurant bombing. I have started a foundation in Somalia to honor her memory. My sister used to be a nutritionist, and I take gifts to the hospitals, especially hospitals away from the cities.

Do you feel hopeful about Somalia’s future, or the region’s future more generally?

The region has been messed up by outsider politics, including the Americans going into Somalia in 1993. They didn’t do what should have been done, which was to disarm the warring militias and the warlords. The terrorizing warlords took courage from the fact that the Americans left after the dirty game of pulling a dead Marine through the dusty streets. They have done similar things in other places. They don’t finish the job, and if you don’t finish it, the devil will finish it for you. That is what happened in the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq.


Compared to the past twenty years, Somalia is better. But there is no sense of optimism. The move toward peace is taking too long. It’s become fashionable for everyone to glorify the gun, which is also glorified here, but in Somalia what you do is you negotiate by bringing up the gun, and then quite often, you have your way, or at least somebody will say, “We can’t give you everything, but we will give you half of what you’re asking for.” The American presence has contributed to that. Young boys in Somalia a few years ago, after the Americans left, were walking like the American GIs.

And now you’re writing a novel about migration?

Yes, the second part of a trilogy, set in Oslo.

This is your fourth trilogy.

I’ve written all manner of trilogies. One is the type of trilogy in which characters reappear in each novel. That is the normal kind of trilogy. Three novels can also share a thematic concern, meaning that although the characters do not return, there is an idea that connects them. The trilogy that came out in 1979, 1981, and 1983, Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship, had recurring characters. In Maps (1986), Gifts (1993), and Secrets (1998), the thing that united them was a thematic concern: collapse. The pre-collapse of Somalia, a country teetering on the precipice.


All parts of the current trilogy will be about Somalis who live abroad, and who may not return to Somalia itself, but live in Europe, in the way Bella does. The third part of the trilogy is going to be set in South Africa.

The most recent wave of migrants leaving Africa for Europe is a different kind of emigration than that of your generation.

My generation went to Europe to go to universities, to take specializations, and we were small in number. Many returned home to jobs because the economy in Africa was doing much better than it is now. There was hope tied to political independence. I compare what’s happening now, Africans coming in droves to Europe, to what happened in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when Europeans came in droves to America. If Canada and the U.S. and Latin America had closed their doors, what would have become of the Irish, what would have become of the Italians? They came in flimsy boats and it was a miracle they survived. Very few returned to where they had come from.

Photo by Tanya Marcuse