Nuruddin Farah

When the muezzin on the loudspeaker next door belts out the 2:30 call to prayer, Nuruddin Farah is caught off guard. Appropriately enough, the modest inner-city suburb of Johannesburg where PW is receiving the long-time exile and expatriate Somali writer for lunch has become the temporary haven for South Africa's population of Somali refugees. Perhaps for a dizzy instant it is as if Farah was never exiled from his war-torn, East African nation at the other end of the continent -- maybe he's been transported by the Muslim call to prayer, intoned five times a day, a sound that also summons the children to the community's Koranic school, an institution that binds the displaced together.

Farah, born in Somalia in 1945 to a merchant father and a p t mother, is the indefatigable chronicler of life in a Joyce's Dublin of his own, Mogadiscio on the Equator, the Somalian capital Americans know as Mogadishu, in which (apart from one brief return recently) he has not lived, except in his teeming imagination, for 23 years. Later, on a tour of the Johannesburg neighborhood, Nuruddin sits half-hidden in the back of the car. Were his clansmen to identify their great literary celebrity, there would be no end to the festivities. We spy on former homes, now pool table-equipped teahouses sponsored by the Red Cross, and rooms with telephones, as Somalis prefer to talk, talk... (rather than to read or write letters). Everywhere there's that Somali look: the high-domed forehead, lustrous eyes, teeth far apart, once useful for whistling up camels in the salty landscape. Now the camel-whistlers are hunkered down and haunted.

The Somalis of Farah's eight novels to date struggle on in their homeland. But the Somali civil war has caused 420,000 refugees to flee their homes. Yesterday, Tomorrow: Voices from the Somali Diaspora, his first work of nonfiction -- out in the U.S. from Cassell in January 2000 -- includes interviews with key refugees in the countries of the two former colonial powers, Britain and Italy, and in Switzerland and Sweden -- two other countries generous with assistance. The book has been several years in the making, he says, "because I had to raise the money myself, by continuing to write novels. Meeting the right people, transcribing and translating also took a long, long time. But there was a purpose to my not publishing it immediately. I didn't want it to be dismissed as just another refugee book. I've trimmed it, removed the fat, as I think every book should aim to remain readable and exciting in another 10 years. I've taken out all that d sn't contribute to the non-refugee's understanding of the refugee, of how it feels to live in someone else's land."

Tales of Mogadiscio

Farah has recently returned from an African writers' conference held in Djibouti, the former French Somaliland on the Red Sea, a safe enclave adjacent to the warring peninsula that is his Horn of Africa, the turbulent ground on which his two major trilogies, Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship (comprising Sweet & Sour Milk, Sardines and Close Sesame) and Blood in the Sun (Maps, Gifts, Secrets) are set. Arcade's new editions of Maps and Gifts (Forecasts, June 28), make available for the first time Stateside the trilogy that chronicles, through the everyday routines and social mores of middle-class commercial people in Mogadiscio, the devastating effects of nationalism and the plight of lost children in contemporary East Africa. In a dense, intricate style, and with a massive accumulation of local detail, the novels delve deeply into the interior motives of their protagonists -- an orphaned youth in Maps, torn between service in the Somalian Liberation Front and life in the capital city, and a widowed nurse in Gifts struggling to make ends meet and attend to her three children. The trilogy's final volume, Secrets, was published by Arcade in 1998 and will be out as a Penguin reprint in December. Farah says of the novels' new visibility here, "in my heart I really hope people will now read them as a threesome, seeing them as parts of one longer work."

Even at the beginning of his career, Farah's presence at international readings and conferences caused a stir. Back in March 1981, when Farah was hardly known, he gave a series of readings at a conference devoted to Commonwealth writers in Frankfurt, Germany. Although technically he did not qualify as one of those, and rumors were flying about English being hardly his first language (after Arabic, Somali, Italian and more), he held the audience rapt, reading with intense inner concentration in a gentlemanly, rounded English of beautiful clarity.

Farah's flight into exile in 1976 was dramatic. Word that his second novel, A Naked Needle, had been deemed treasonable by the Somalian government, reached him by telephone at the Fiumicino airport in Rome shortly before he was to return to Somalia. Warned not to risk returning home under threat of a prison sentence as a dissident or even execution as a traitor, Farah "decided, sitting in a friend's apartment in Rome, if I couldn't go back home then I would systematically make the rest of Africa my country." Since then, in his novels and in his public statements he has calmly denounced the Marxist autocracy into which his country fell. In addition to stints as a visiting professor at American universities, he has been based in Nigeria, in the Gambia, the Sudan, in Ethiopia, in Uganda and now -- with apartheid at last overthrown -- in Cape Town, South Africa, where he lives with his two young children and his wife, Amina Mama, newly appointed director of the Gender Studies Institute of the University of Cape Town. Has he become one of the world's most famous nomads? "Well, real Somali nomads have a purpose -- needing to graze their cows. But I'm maybe just a mover-about, wanting to experience each cultural unit of my continent."

The three novels in Farah's first trilogy were published in the U.S. by Graywolf Press in 1982, to critical acclaim. But he wasn't well known until 1987, when Maps was published in the U.S. by Pantheon. Farah remembers being "terribly irritated because I then became the author of only one book called Maps... The reason Maps somehow captured the imagination of the academic world was because, I guess, at the time it came out it was considered to be the best book ever on nationalism and its self-destructiveness." At virtually every American university where he's subsequently taught postcolonial literature courses, he's found Maps on the syllabus. "Now, let me tell you, when it came to teaching other people's work, I did it; but during seminars about my own novel, I would always take a leave of absence!"

A Flowering of U.S. Interest

The author mentions with warmth the trio "who have changed my entire career": his agent, Nicole Aragi at Watkins Loomis, to whom he was referred by Walter Mosley after an amicable parting from his previous agent, Henry Dunow; Dick Seaver, his current editor-publisher at Arcade; and Sean McDonald, who brought Farah to Arcade before decamping last year to Nan Talese's imprint at Doubleday. In 1997, Aragi sold Secrets to Arcade with an exclusive option on Maps and Gifts. The three novels were packaged with matching jackets, designed by McDonald, and the reviews have been sterling. Last year, the New York Times Book Review called Farah "the most important African novelist to emerge in the last 25 years."

Perhaps the timing was at last right for him, Farah remarks rather dryly. What with the hugely memorable coverage of the American rescue invasion of Somalia in 1994, "the American middle-class intellectual was more or less waiting for the unspoken-for Somali, the one who tells them the things that are private."

In Farah's opinion, the turning point in the U.S. came for him late last year when he was awarded the $40,000 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, from a list of nominees that included the likes of John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich and Philip Roth. The prize is sponsored by the University of Oklahoma and its journal, World Literature Today, which devoted its Autumn 1998 issue to Farah's life and work. His candidacy was sponsored by Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong'o, who paid tribute to Farah's characteristic themes: the rival claims of personal, clan and national identities; the unique place of indomitable women in the struggle for human rights in Africa; and the Cold War politics that supported African dictators until their countries collapsed into civil war.

Now that his work is spawning studies -- like Derek Wright's The Novels of Nuruddin Farah (Bayreuth African Studies, 1994) and Nuruddin Farah, by Patricia Alden and Louis Tremaine, a new critical study in the Twayne's World Authors Series -- how is Farah handling the body of secondary writing that has collected around his work? "The secondary cannot take place until the first has taken place," he replies, "but the first cannot continue in total ignorance of the second. After all, critics like my French translator, Jacqueline Bardolph, have become good friends -- but we do not talk about the books. I stay away from all that, because I do not wish in my way to guide her or anyone else in any direction." Rather, he says, he is influenced by the world of other writers who are friends -- he mentions Salman Rushdie, Chinua Achebe, Doris Lessing, Derek Walcott -- among whom a certain mutual inspiration and admiration circulate.

When Secrets appeared last year, Arcade sent Farah on a coast-to-coast publicity tour. He d sn't mind such promotional work, "because then I meet my closet Farah-readers.... But you know," he adds confidently, "each single one of my books has made its own friends. I'm usually very lucky in not having to bother about looking after the books. They can look after themselves."

He is currently working on a new book, about which he will say just this: "It is a novel and set in civil war Mogadiscio once again, between 1991 and '94, picking up the story where Secrets left off. It includes the famine and the well-intentioned arrival of the U.N. and the U.S. gone disastrous." At last he has a first draft done, and yes, he says (when it is jokingly suggested that he can only work in threes), he feels it is the start of a new trilogy. Can he foresee its end? "No, no, all I know is its beginning!"

Gray is a freelance writer and critic based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and the author of Free-Lancers and Literary Biography in South Africa (Editions Rodopi).

Correction: The editor of Michael Kammen's book on Robert Gwathmey, published by the University of North Carolina Press (Interview, Aug. 2), was Sian Hunter. UNC Press director Kate Torrey obtained funding for the project.