The first African to win the Neustadt International Prize for Literature (in 1998), Nuruddin Farah has been described by some of the world’s foremost writers not just as “one of the finest contemporary African novelists” (Salman Rushdie) but “one of the world’s great writers” (Ishmael Reed). Though fluent in five languages, Farah chooses to write in English, partly because his native Somali language acquired a standardized orthography only in 1972.
Farah was born in 1945 in Baidoa, in what is now Somalia, and grew up in Kallafo, in the Somali-speaking Ogaden region of Ethiopia. The ethnically and linguistically mixed area of his childhood contributed to his early fascination with literature. He spoke Somali at home but at school learned Amharic, Arabic and English, and later Italian. Farah worked in the Ministry of Education in Somalia as a clerk/typist before leaving for India to study philosophy and literature at Punjab University, Chandigarh. He returned to Mogadishu to teach after taking his first degree, then left Somalia for Britain, where he studied theater. In his peripatetic restlessness, he has taken up residence in a succession of African countries, and has taught at universities in Africa, Europe and America.
His novella Why Die So Soon? appeared in 1965 and brought him to public attention in Somalia. His first full novel, From a Crooked Rib (reissued in June 2006 by Penguin), was published in 1970; it has since achieved worldwide cult status, admired for its empathetic portrait of a Somali woman struggling with the restraints of traditional Somali society. He is noted for his portrayals of strong women in patriarchal societies. Farah published his second novel, A Naked Needle, in England in 1976, after running afoul of Somalia’s dictatorial regime, which would not issue a license for him to stage his play and also discontinued the publication of his only novel in Somali.
Farah’s next three novels, Sweet and Sour Milk (1979),Sardines (1981), and Close Sesame (1985) comprise the trilogy known collectively as “Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship.” Upon the publication of Sweet and Sour Milk, which won the English-speaking Union Literary Award, Farah became persona non grata in Somalia. In exile, Farah began what has become a lifelong literary project: “To keep my country alive by writing about it.”
In addition to his plays, a couple of which have been produced in England and Nigeria, and Yesterday, Tomorrow (2000), his non-fiction book about Somali refugees in Africa and Europe, Farah’s other works include Knots (2007), Links (2004), and the “Blood in the Sun” trilogy, which consists of Maps (1986), Gifts (1992) and Secrets (1998).
In the summer of 1996, Farah visited Somalia for the first time in more than twenty years. In recent years he has made frequent visits to Mogadishu for research purposes and to broker dialogue between the various armed groups vying for power in Somalia. Farah lives in Cape Town, South Africa.