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"Defeat is an orphan; victory has a hundred fathers."
In Maps, Askar, a newly-delivered orphan boy, bloody from the womb, is discovered by a peasant woman in the war-torn province of Ogaden. His father killed in battle, his mother dead from childbirth, he is taken in by the woman who raises him as her own. In Gifts, Duniya, a single mother, becomes guardian to a foundling said to have been left in a rubbish bin. In Secrets, Kalaman, a computer entrepreneur from Mogadiscio, begins a soul-searching journey into the secrets surrounding his birth with the help of a shape-shifter named Sholoongo, herself abandoned as an infant and raised by lionesses.
The painful, tender question of "Who am I?" is one that Nuruddin Farah's characters obsessively ask themselves while living in a society where blood ties are everything, where who your father is can mean life or death. Orphans of all sortsabandoned babies, tetherless ideologies, displaced peoples, and fragmented countriesare at the heart of each book in the Blood in the Sun trilogy. It is Farah's agility as a writer and his opulent imagination that tie them together into an overarching exploration of the meaning of identity.
Born in 1945, Farah was raised in the Ogaden, a Somali- speaking region that was put under Ethiopian control by the Western powers that drew the modern map of Africa. The question of political and national identity was challenging enough "Am I Somali or Ethiopian?"but was further complicated by the other cultural currents that wind through the region. As a boy, Farah's imagination was shaped by a world where sparrows and bees prophesy to humans, a world steeped both in ancient animistic beliefs and in the Islamic religion. His mother was a poet in the Somali oral tradition who introduced him to the deeper rhythms of nature and language. He spoke Somali, Amharic, Arabic, and Italian before learning English, the language in which he writes today.
In 1963, a savage war with Ethiopia over the Ogaden shattered the Somali economy and drove Farah's family from its home to the capital Mogadiscio. The novels he published in response to these events, including his trilogy Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship, were denounced by the Somali dictator, Siyad Barre. For his own safety, Farah did not return to his country after completing his studies in England in 1974. From abroad, he saw Somalia implode in the 1990s as competing factions waged a brutal civil war in the streets of Mogadiscio. More than forty thousand people, most of them civilians, perished in one six-month period, creating a wasteland of widows and orphans. Farah did not set foot on Somali soil again until 1996.
He began work on the Blood in the Sun trilogy almost ten years into his exile. Though out of range of the gunfire, Farah remained deeply committed to writing about his country and his people. In Maps, Secrets, and Gifts, politics are presentthe dead bodies, the factions, and the checkpoints are therebut it is the intricate, intriguing structure of Somali family life that shines brightly within the context of travel, war, and displacement. Mothers, fathers, sex, blood, loyalty, and magic are examined with humor and a striking lyricism that confirm Nuruddin Farah as a writer of singular originality.
Maps, first published in Britain and the United States in 1986, takes place in the embattled Ogaden. It is a delicate and mystical evocation of the bonds of mother to son, and son to mother-country. Askar, a Somali orphan, recounts his life with his "mother" Misra, an Ethiopian woman, through fragmented, almost hallucinatory memories and dreams. He is raised in the warmth of Misra's visceral love, sleeping curled up with her every night, crying soulfully when she is far away. Eventually he imagines his body is an extension of hers, a third leg. From an early age he becomes acutely aware of her menstrual cycles, which he believes he experiences too. Bloodwhether flowing from a wound, imagined in one of Askar's dreams of rivers and war, or "read" by Misra as a means of telling the futureis the tie that connects mother and child, although they share no biological bond.
Askar's love and loyalty are tested when Misra is accused of betraying the location of a pro-Somali group that is fighting to capture the Ogaden. Now living with his uncle in Mogadiscio and about to join the Somali fight, Askar is pulled between loyalty to Misra and obedience to Somalia. He looks for truth, and questions truth, in maps drawn by foreign hands, in the physical reality of his own body, in the spirituality of Misra, and in his country. It is all of these things and none of these things that make him who he is. Askar is a man of his "own creation."
In Gifts (1993), Farah moves ahead to the 1990s, artfully exploring identity and interdependence in a starving Somalia through the eyes of a single mother. Duniya, the head nurse at a maternity hospital in Mogadiscio, has established a relatively self-sufficient home with her children (no small feat for a divorcée in a patriarchal society), when two unexpected events transform her life. First she accepts a ride to work from Bosaaso, a wealthy family friend who has returned from the West to do charity work in his home country. That evening she receives another "gift," a newborn baby which her daughter says has been abandoned. These two giftsheralded by vivid, magical dreams of cats and butterflies in the mode of Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquezlaunch a tale that is part love story, part mystery, and, ultimately, a subtle reflection on giving and receiving, dependence and reciprocity.
Women are respected and revered, even feared, in Farah's novels. Ever since the publication of his first book, From a Crooked Rib (1970), he has been regarded as a man uniquely gifted at portraying women's perspectives. Farah movingly describes how Somali women derive their identities from their male associations. Women, attempting self-definition, face harsher resistance; Duniya must fight to learn to drive and to swim. Gifts have always been double-edged swords for her. Her in-laws have given her a home, but require in return that she relinquish her young daughter. In a country defined by grim images telecast by the Western media and by the self-serving aims of the foreign givers, Duniya realizes that "no giving was innocent." But along with the orphan comes a vision of escape from this labyrinth of dependence: a romance with Bosaaso that is as whimsical as a butterfly's flight and as selfless as a mother's love.
"Mothers matter a lot, fathers not," a young Kalaman chants in Secrets, the third novel of the trilogy, published in 1998. Set on the brink of Somalia's breakup into warring clans, the novel asks, "Whose son am I?" This question is as loaded as a rifle, and is the object of Kalaman's obsessive pursuit into family secrets. Birds, crocodiles, elephants, tamarind juice, and locusts inhabit both real life and dreams as Kalaman interviews the members of his family about the origins of his birth and name. It is the appearance of Sholoongo, a one-woman wrecking crew intent on bearing Kalaman's child, that pries loose the family's secrets. Her mysterious involvement with each of themmother, father, and grandfatherproduces a bizarre mix of taboo-breaking sexual, political, and personal revelations.
In Farah's novels, biological fathers, like names, matter little in the hierarchy of truth. Fathers are absent in Maps and Gifts, and almost no one has a surname. In Secrets, the answer to Kalaman's father-quest comes in the form of memories of his childhood. Tender moments in his father's engraving shop, sitting with his grandfather under a mango tree, listening to centuries-old storiesthese are what connect him to his familial past. "In place of sperm, I thought it was the river of his humanity which flowed into my blood, a more precious thing, everlasting in my memory." The internal strife of Kalaman's family reflects the fate of Somalia, and Farah speaks volumes about his country's misguided preoccupation with paternal identity when Kalaman reflects, "We live in tragic times, when a chance birth can make so much difference to how one is viewed, when a secret ensconced in the recesses of untamed memories assigns one an inferior or a superior position."
Such accidents of birth and such distorted perceptions of difference became important enough to kill for, Farah says, when Somalia was politically orphaned: when its former dictator lost his war with Ethiopia for the Ogaden, but failed to resign. In the face of ruin and defeat, the self-proclaimed "father of the country" left a leaderless vacuum that Somalis filled by reviving long-dead clan loyalties. These allegiances, vehemently defended with talk of blood and bloodlines, are destructive in the modern world.
Askar, Duniya, and Kalaman learn there is no simple answer to the question, "Who am I?", nor should there be. Even when we know who our blood parents are, the world we occupy is as distant from theirs as the Ogaden is from Oklahoma, where Farah accepted the 1998 Neustadt Prize. In the speech he made on that occasion, he said, "A question I've often asked myself is: are my parents continued in me? . . . We met, my parents and I, as though we were travelers meeting in a transit lounge. As children raised apart, we were, in essentials, journeymen of the future, hybrids of a new sort." To Farah, this conditional relationship with the past, this spiritual orphanhood, is Somalia's greatest loss and its dearest hope.
Nuruddin Farah is the winner of the 1998 Neustadt International Prize for Literature. He is the author of eight novels. Farah, who was exiled from his native Somalia nearly twenty-five years ago, lives in Cape Town, South Africa, with his wife, daughter, and son.
Who or what influenced you to become a writer? Why did you decide to write in English, rather than in Somali, Amharic, or Arabic?
In 1968 I began work on From a Crooked Rib, my first published novel, in preparation for a reflection on the politics of gender in Somali society long before feminism became a byword. Moreover I remember receiving a letter from the British publisher who asked me if I was a man or a woman. Soon after its publication in 1970, I got used to receiving letters addressed to me as Ms. or Mrs. Farah, and for a good while I was at a loss as to whether I should disabuse them of their assumption by telling them that I was after all a man. Suffice it for the moment to say that I emulated my mother, an oral poet, who exercised a towering influence on me during my pliant teens when I displayed my initial interest in writing. I used to watch her compose her poems, used to watch her, with utter fascination, as she paced back and forth in a room with a door pushed to so she would have all the peace in the world. It was a great joy to me when, on re-emerging, she spoke the completed poem aloud to herself, a great joy for me to eavesdrop on her. On occasion, she would ask me to learn it by heart so I would be the one to deliver it to a rhapsodist who would chant it to the audience for which the poem was intended. I decided to write in English, given that Somali, my mother tongue, had no standardized orthography in 1965. And if I chose to write in English and not in Arabic or Amharic, the other foreign languages in which I received my formal education, it was because of a fortuitous purchase I had made, that of an American typewriter, which, I felt, helped me write like a song.
Misra, Duniya, and Sholoongo are strong women by any standards, but even more striking in a patriarchal Muslim society. Were there women in your life who served as models for any of these characters?
By way of apology, maybe because I feel that I transgressed into a literary territory that was my mother's before I inveigled myself into it, I've said elsewhere that everything I've written is a tribute to the strength and wisdom with which my mother inspired me during my young years. Besides I tend to be attracted to strong women who can take the authority of their voice and use it effectively in order to defend their position, if only because I see women as a symbol of the subjugated self in everyone of us. I take it as given: that in every man there is a woman, and that in every woman there is a man, that there is a child in every adult. And that it is necessary to create the space in which everyone is free. I take it as given, too, that the society as a whole cannot be described as "democratic" until every man, woman and child is liberated from the constraints of male-stipulated system of subjugation, especially of women. To achieve this, you need strong women.
The Somalia described in your novels is enriched by many different traditionspre-Islamic, Islamic, and Western. Who are the Somalis? What unites them as a people?
For almost nine centuries, Somalis have been in constant communication with the Middle East through Islam; with the Indian subcontinent through trade; and with Europe as a consequence of our country being partitioned into spheres colonized by Italy, Britain, and France, not to mention the two other Somali-speaking "spoils" that were gifted to neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya. Somali being a spoken language but not a written one meant that we could only be educated in foreign languages. This resulted in a great number of us becoming polyglots. In my immediate family, we are able to communicate, read and write in the languages of our colonial masters, in addition to those of Russia and Germany where two of my brothers did their postgraduate studies. I feel there is something forward-looking about knowing other languages and there is something outward looking about studying other cultures so one could read the classics in the original. Reading A Thousand and One Nights and then Dostoyevsky, Victor Hugo, and other European classics enriched my understanding of my own culture. Moreover, coming from a small, poor country in Africa, I've found it worth my while to receive what the world has on offer and along with it the knowledge that eventually made the world larger, greater, and more varied, confident that my life would become all the richer.
Although many foreigners think of Somalia as a place of intense internecine strife, the conflicts in your stories are not blood feuds between family clans. How is the Western view of the country distorted?
Even though I am aware that it is seldom wise to generalize, I would none the less argue that when foreigners speak about Somalia, a great number of them fail to pay heed to the multiple versions of the Somali reality. Foreign scholars and journalists alike see the current crisis in the country as a one-single issue, describing it in a kind of shorthand, namely "clan conflict!" The crises unfolding in Somalia are as complex as the politics of any other nation, even if one reduce the crisis to one that has been brought to the by social injustices, by colonialism, by nationalism gone to seed, and by a twenty-one year old dictatorship, that of Siyad Barre. In other words, Somalia is country resplendent with contradictions, not a one-single issue land!
Throughout the trilogy, the boundary between animals and humans is blurred. Why do animals have such a prominent place in your work?
It is common for our poets to use animal imagery, maybe as result of the Somalis' daily proximity to animals with which we share the same space, occasionally the same room. The camel, among poets, is alluded to as the "Mother of man," metaphors such as this frequently serving as a leitmotif in the tradition. That I collapse the boundaries between the animal and the human world is due to the way in which Somalis, as Muslims, see the animals, extensions of themselves, companions in this world. (There is a verse in the Koran which states that "No kind of beast is there on the earth, nor fowl that flies with its wingsbut is a community like you!") In addition to this, it is possible that my four-year sojourn in India as a student in my early twenties has made me appreciate the closeness between animal and human imageries, thereby making my life richer and more fulfilled. In Hindu mythology, Hanuman is seen as a beneficent guardian spirit and is viewed as a model of devotion.
Your characters violate Islamic as well as universal taboos, engaging in bestiality, incest, pedophilia, and murder. Why this interest in breaking taboos?
It is only as much an interest in breaking taboos as turning, say, the collapse of Mogadiscio to bear, in a metaphorical sense, on the upheaval that is at the root of the crisis in Somalia. In other words, it is worth our while to ask ourselves the question why it is people are shocked less by the cruelty they commit against one another and more by reading about explicit sex, or incest, or a man "mating" with a beastthings that are commonly done.
You named your trilogy Blood in the Sun. Blood is certainly everywhere in Maps, though less prominent in Gifts and Secrets. How does blood tie the novels together?
From the earliest times, the magic of creation was seen as residing in the blood women retained in the womb and which was thought to coagulate into a baby. So blood is where we all began, blood our ancestor, blood our kinship, blood, the thicker the better, our immediate family unit.
The narrative style and tone of the three novels ranges from serious to lighthearted, realistic to dreamlike, linear to fragmented. Why do you tell the stories in such different voices?
I would like to give everyone the chance to be heard, even if I disapprove of the positions they take. It is for this reason that I tell the stories in the different narrative voices of the characters so that a balance is maintained. I am sufficiently democratic to insist that a person is the position he or she assumes, no more and no less. Maybe the stories told in my novels are but a multiplicity of ideas, each idea represented or put forth by a speaker. Now it is altogether a different matter when you ask about the "you," "I," and "he" pronouns in Maps. Let me say this and briefly too: from my early years, I've always had a problem when it comes to pronouns, and I am more than certain I would run into further trouble if I were to attempt to meddle with them. I suggest that we let the pronouns in Maps be and that we . . . you . . . I enjoy the novel for what it is!
Several central characters in your work are expatriates who return home after living in the West. Their lives abroad are somehow unfulfilled. Do you wish to return to Somalia one day?
I've heard it said time and again by Somalis that their lives remain unfulfilled until they return to the land of their birth. It is fair to suppose that I employ the detached vision of the expatriates who return after a long absence, because they manage to focus better. Also, because they have are in a position to remember what was there before, memory being central to the telling of all stories. Do I wish to return to Somalia? Of course I do. There is nothing that will give me as much pleasure as a visit to Somalia, followed by a final move to Mogadiscio.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a new novel set during the Somali civil war.
- Names carry great weight in all three books. How do the orphans' names (Kalaman = "cul-de-sac," Maageclaawe = "nameless one") sever them from their families and societies? Why do two of the adoptive mothers, Duniya and Misra, have names that mean "cosmos"? How is the contingency of identity expressed in the changeability of characters names (Misra, Bosaaso, Nonno)? Does Askar live up to his name, which means "the soldier" in Somali?
- On what terms do the ancient and modern worlds meet in Farah's books? In the heat of a heady conversation with his father about scorpions, skeletons, and the nature of secrets, Kalaman says, "I found myself picking my nose with an outrageous indifference." At the end of a high-flown discussion in Gifts about the difference between monotheistic and early Somali religions, Duniya asks, "What does all this mean, in plain language?" How does Farah temper his weightiest debates with humor and irony? Does he want us to take them seriously?
- "Sooner or later, sex!" exclaims Uncle Hilaal in Secrets, voicing a refrain that accompanies the entire trilogy. Why is sex and the breaking of taboos so important in these stories? How is sex related to social power and to women's rights?
- "Like all good Somali poets, I used women as a symbol for Somalia," Farah said in an interview, "because, when the women are free, then and only then can we talk about a free Somalia." Which of the women in the trilogy might serve as such symbols? What qualities and experiences are most striking in a nation represented by Misra, Duniya, Damaac, or Sholoongo?
- Askar says that he "invents Misra" from the day he is born. In what sense is this true? To what extent is Askar his own midwife, a witness of his own birth?
- How does Askar become initiated into the world of maps? What defined his view of the world before he saw his first map? How does Farah use maps to counterpose intuition and intellect, the world of the body and the world of the mind?
- At the end of the novel, Askar identifies the three narrative voices of the novel as judge, witness, and audience. Which of the narrators, the "I," "you," or "he" voice, is most sympathetic to Askar? Which is most judgmental? Why do you think Farah chose to tell the story from three perspectives rather than one?
- Askar seems to possess the power to travel in time, to move backward or forward, witnessing both the future and his own past. How do these shifting narratives affect the way that the story unfolds?
- The foundling is given many roles. Mire thinks of him as a catalyst, while Taariq ascribes to him a mythic role like that of Moses. Duniya thinks that everyone turns the baby into what they think they want, or what they lack. Why does the baby remain so featureless? How does he become a "metaphor" to Duniya and Bosaaso? Why do Duniya's instincts that the baby is all right betray her?
- Taariq's "Story of a Cow" is a parable that illuminates many different types of giving and receiving. How does giving change
in times of plenty and times of adversity? What distinguishes gifts from strangers, from neighbors, from family, from friends, and from God?
- What is the significance of the two insectsthe butterfly and the dragonflythat float through Duniya's dreams and thoughts in the first half of the book?
- In the novel's concluding passage, who is "the other Duniya?" Why is Duniya "the chronicler" uncertain about how to continue? Which Duniya is Bosaaso married to?
- Many of the book's chapters conclude with news stories about Somalia, most of them concerned with foreign aid. What counterpoint do these clips provide to the main narrative? Are there cultural distinctions between European and African notions of giving (Ingrid's "gift" of china to Bosaaso, for example) or simply individual differences?
- Farah is as interested in dreams and memories as he is in secrets. In the story of the wise man who distributes milk (chapter 2), why does such an absurd, seemingly trivial crime, have such dire consequences? Who is the foodgiver who stands in judgment of the boy?
- Farah once said we all have the ability to shapeshift
through selective memories and through sheer will. Sholoongo is a shapeshifter, yet how real is her power? Does anyone ever see her change form? How is she able to reinvent herself to suit her needs? What kind of force does she represent, and what does she
accomplish in the end?
- How are magic and taboo linked? "Taboos point in the main to uncleanness, sacredness, and fear," says Sholoongo's brother Timir. In which direction does magic point?
- Kalaman's father warns, "When bones have remained buried for years, it may be unwise to dig them up, for they may have changed shape." How do secrets change with time? How are secrets connected to clan rivalries, to contending memories of the past? How does the warfare that surrounds the characters make ancient secrets seem more important?