NAIROBI: Somali writer Nuruddin Farah says his latest novel was born of two frustrations – the triumph of hard-line religious conservatism in his homeland, and the scant attention paid to victims of Islamist attacks in the capital Mogadishu.
Farah, one of Africa’s best known and most prolific writers, has been living in exile for the last 18 years. But “Hiding in Plain Sight,” like many of his 11 previous novels, is populated by Somali characters and hacks away at stereotypes.
“I have been fighting against the idea of giving in to despair,” Farah, 70, told Reuters in an interview. “I thought, these people’s lives had to be told ... every person who is killed has someone who loves him or her, someone who is relying on them.”
The novel opens with Aar, who escaped civil war as a child but returns to Mogadishu as an adult, being killed in a suicide bombing attack on the United Nations compound by the Islamist militant group Al-Shabab – an all-too real threat in modern-day Mogadishu.
The novel then follows his family – his sister Bella, his two young children, and his estranged wife Valerie – as they rebuild their lives without him in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, long a refuge of Somalis fleeing chaos.
Farah, who came of age in Mogadishu before the 1991 overthrow of dictator Mohammad Siad Barre, and fled as the country began its descent into civil war, says his writing is informed by the Mogadishu of his youth – a vibrant Indian Ocean trading post celebrated for its rich and open culture. He said Bella, a fashion photographer based in Rome who returns to Nairobi to mother Aar’s two children, was based on the self-possessed, modern women Farah remembers from his youth.
Farah’s decision to put a lesbian couple at the heart of the novel – Aar’s estranged widow, Valerie, left him for a woman named Padmini – and to have other characters embrace the couple, is a critique of how conservatism has seized hold of Somalia.
“This novel represents the secular past of Mogadishu – when Mogadishu was one of the greatest cosmopolitan cities in Africa,” Farah said. “In the cosmopolitan Mogadishu in which I grew up as a young man, there was space for homosexuals,” he said. “That is the kind of life that we lived – tolerant of one another, accepting differences.”
The novel, released in East Africa last weekend at the Kwani? Litfest following publication in Europe and North America, is the first in a trilogy. The next installment, “North of Dawn,” is set in Oslo and examines a clash between right-wing Europeans and radical Islamists. The third, set in South Africa, will look at “whether or not your body is your own, or whether you have to agree to the dictates of other people,” Farah said.
Asked if he would return to Mogadishu to live, Farah, who now lives in South Africa, was doubtful.
“I suppose if there were bookshops, if there were cinemas one could go...” he said, his voice trailing off, wistfully. “I could imagine living in [Mogadishu] if that kind of life were to return.”
“I don’t know how long it would take to get that back.”