Yinka Olatunbosun reflects on the substance in the words of the Somali novelist, playwright and scholar with 22 years of self-imposed exile, Nuruddin Farrah, during his last visit to Nigeria at the Ake Book and Arts Festival in Lagos
Nuruddin Farah’s first novel,From A Crooked Rib, published in 1970 was considered a critique of patriarchy and misogyny. He made a lot of female friends after this book hit the shelves. In his second novel, he decided to write about a misogynist- a self-hating, women-hating character. It turned out to be his one of his most controversial books. Titled, A Naked Needle, the book didn’t sit well with the Siad Barre Government in Somalia.
“I was given thirty years in prison if I return to Somalia,’’ said the author during a session with Kunle Ajibade, a veteran journalist, who was also sentenced to life imprisonment during the military era in Nigeria.
“Then, I was sentenced to death for a novel called Sweet and Sour Milk.’’
It was great to meet Farah, and greater to hear from a writer who is socially committed and determined to live in exile. At 73, his unwavering spirit was palpable as he spoke to a large audience-completely overwhelmed by his very simplistic approach to very complicated subjects in the world of his works.
He had been nominated consistently for the Nobel Prize in Literature, won other prestigious literary prizes while his books had been translated into 17 languages. He saw the opportunity that life in exile offers to a writer.
“So, I went I into exile and continued writing. I usually say this to young African writers that if you live in the same household as your mother or older brother, you may not be able to do much writing. But if you go away from them to somewhere else, you may be able to do excellent writing because this distance in exile allows you the possibility of seeing things from distance and therefore evaluating things for what they are.
In Somalia, my family members would always say to me, “We love you but you are stupid risking your life.” The only thing that happened immediately to the members of my family was that eight of my brothers and sisters lost their jobs. They couldn’t work for the state so they had to find other means.’’
Farah was a terror to dictatorship in his home country as well as other dictators in Africa. For him, dictators are everywhere, not just in government.
“I don’t see dictator as someone who comes out of the blue and for whom we are unprepared. I usually see very many dictators in very many households in Nigeria, Somalia and most places in the world. It is because we tolerate the tyrants the father who is a tyrant or the mother who is the matriarch and a tyrant. We enable these tyrants in every household to invest their authority in the Dictator Supreme. Many husbands who treat their child badly or their wives badly in households will only make dictators in government. We only see the president because we all suffer from the President. If we do not have the small tyrants in every household, there wouldn’t be tyrants in government,’’ he said.
Farah broke down civil war into a concept that evolves from a domestic setting. Using the example of a married couple in dispute, he explained to the audience that as soon as one of the couple seeks a third party in the matter, alliances that will threaten to union can easily be formed.
One painful decision that Farah had to make was to take A Naked Needle out of print. He said it had become a bible for misogynists based on misinterpretation and he would not wish to be responsible for men mistreating women.