Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Nuruddin Farah in Evanston + Rey Andújar's Candela Is Out

Last night, I finally got to meet and hear Nuruddin Farah (1945-, at left), one of the most important African novelists and perhaps Somalia's best known author, read from his work.

I almost had the opportunity to meet him back in 2001, when we happened to be staying at the same guest house, but my schedule didn't fully coincide with his, and so it didn't happen. Then we'd talked about bringing him to the university, and I'd even gotten his email from a former colleague, but things didn't work out. So I was elated when Reg Gibbons sent along an email to say that Farah would be in town to promote his newest novel, Knots (Penguin, 2007).

Knots, Farah's 10th novel overall, is the second book in his third, unnamed trilogy, and follows Links (2004). The previous trilogies are Variations on the Theme of An African Dictatorship, which includes the volumes Sweet and Sour Milk (1979), Sardines (1981), and Close Sesame (1983); and Blood in the Sun, which includes the remarkable Maps (1986), which was the first volume of his I'd read, Gifts (1993), and Secrets (1998). He was visiting from Cape Town, where he now lives, and he made it clear that he didn't want to discuss politics--though he was perfectly willing to--but rather the work, his work, itself.

He read a sliver from Knots, which I haven't yet perused, but I was struck by one of the first things he said, which was that the name of the protagonist, Cambara, was pronounced "Ambara," a name akin to its Arab cognate, and "amber." The C was silent. Not that I know anything about Somali or any other North African language, but a silent initial "c" did make me sit up. The section concerned Cambara's return to her family's house in Mogadishu (which he spells in the Italian fashion, Mogadiscio), which was now occupied by another family. There was enough suspense to make me want to read more, though Farah's voice and intonation had the effect of lulling me, even though the prose itself wasn't really incantatory. It was almost as if I were listening to an elder and what he was saying was less important than that I was listening. I usually don't have this experience at readings, even by elders, so I did jot it down.

In the Q&A session, people did raise questions relating to his work and life. I asked about the trilogies and how he conceptualized them, whether it was as a whole, in advance, or whether--though I didn't put it so adroitly--he produced them in a more exploratory manner. He talked about ambition, compared himself to a sprinter rather than a marathoner--though 10 novels is close to marathon level, no? He added a bit more, but again, I found his net of words casting a little spell, so I was registering less what he said than the fact that he was saying it. Some other points he made during the discussion were that he was a professional novelist, and not at academic (any more), so he was able to produce work fairly quickly; 5 months, I believe he said, for Knots. (I'd take the 5 year plan!) The only thing he needed, he added, was "time and a quiet place." What novelist doesn't? He stated that his novels were in a conversation with readers and other novels, not only from Africa, but across the globe and history. In fact, he suggested that "quietness, time and a newspaper 50 days old" would do the trick.

When asked about inspiration, he returned to the notion that his reading was broad, which led him to criticize the vast majority of American literature, which he claimed was driven by commerce. But then he raised another question, which was what from any era would last; much of what was being acclaimed now, he posited, wouldn't, and he included his own books. He then spoke about Shakespeare in relation to a call years ago for Africans to read African writers, and pointed out that Shakespeare's territory was broad, like Achebe's, Dante's, and some other writers. It went far beyond the little island the size of a "tissue" (was that the metaphor, or was it "napkin"?). True, true. Returning to inspiration, Maps, I believe he said, had been inspired by Camara Laye's The African Child--a novel I haven't read, though I have read the exquisite The Radiance of the Prince--while Links was sparked in part by George H. W. Bush's follies in Somalia, which the former president had characterized under the rubric of "doing good" and "the work of God." Well, we recall where that led...and now the US is back in Somalia, under the guise of the Ethiopian military, battling alleged Islamic militants it claims are allied to Al Qaeda.... Through the Q&QA, he was suitably resinous, or rather, he wasn't giving too much quarter, though he did answer the questions eagerly. Then he concluded the event with the opening chapter from Maps, which famously unfolds in the second person. This time I heard every word he uttered. I was glad I'd been able to make it, and afterwards, like a schoolboy, I got his autograph. I also think that between Reg, me, and several other colleagues, we'll get him to campus this time.


Young Dominican powerhouse writer Rey Emmanuel Andújar has sent word that his new book, Candela (Alfaguara), is now out. Here's the beautiful ad I received from him; he gave readings in Puerto Rico last week and on Monday.

A writeup of the novel is here. (According to the Cronica Digital article, the cover image below is titled "La Matinée" o "Desnudo con paraguas," by the highly regarded Puerto Rican painter Francisco Rodón. An Listín Diario interview with Andújar can be found here. (Both are in Spanish.)

1 comment:

  1. Hi, John!

    It was a good piece that you had on Nuruddin Farah. I read several books of his first two sets of trilogies, without a doubt, he is among the best writers in Africa and the world.

    To his people in Ogadēn [and the diaspora], though, Farah is seen as a writer, who failed to lend his powerful penship to their just and noble cause for freedom and independence.

    Magan Shekeye
    Edmonton AB