Friday, October 19, 2012

Nuruddin Farah speaks at World Lit SFU

Image from Goodreads

The Westminster Savings Lecture Theatre was packed tonight when Somali-born author Nuruddin Farah visited Simon Fraser University's Surrey campus yesterday to read to students and members of the public from his latest book, Crossbones. I glimpsed Anosh Irani, sitting in the front row.

Farah is a small and soft-spoken man, and at first the crowd, many of them young students, seemed hesitant, unresponsive to his humour. The audience was rapt when Farah read his opening scene, an encounter between a woman in a "body tent" and an illiterate teenage military recruit in Ray Bans and a baseball cap. The novel takes place in Mogadishu, Somalia.

After this reading, he took a sip of water and looked at the MC. "Shall I go on? What is the protocol?" Signalled to continue, he delivered his formal address, entitled "Green in the Salad of My Judgment."

In this personal essay, Farah spoke of his life as the fourth of eleven children in post-colonial Somalia. He related the trouble he got into with his first paid work as a writer. He was ten years old when, hired to write a letter for an illiterate adult, he deviated from the words the client dictated, with dramatic results.

He described being made to recite the Koran in Arabic in school though he understood it imperfectly, and he related an ironic situation in which he was accidentally offered hospitality meant for a devout Muslim Arab, and not a Somali with an Arabic name.

For his publications, works of fiction, Farah has subjected to death threats exiled from his home country for over twenty-five years.

It was during the question period that the audience fully warmed to this remarkable man. In response to several queries, he expressed firm views and answered questions by telling more stories. A self-described secularist, he nonetheless believes that we are put on earth for a reason, in his case, to write.

It is a poignant reality that most of his Somali contemporaries are now dead. Some fell victim to the violence that rocked the country, while others died of preventible diseases for the lack of a simple vaccination. Thus, Farah meditates on why has he been spared.

It is in the nature of writers, he said, to take the side of justice, and writing a novel is a democratic act. He praised Italo Calvino, a master writer who "could imagine a world greater than Italy." Really good stories, he said, could have happened anywhere.

This unassuming man, now in his mid-sixties, speaks Somali, Arabic, Amharic and English. He has published many novels and won numerous literary prizes. He has even published a re-write of the ancient Greek drama Antigone; it features a suicide bomber. He lives in Cape Town and teaches for part of the year at at the University of Minnesota.

Kudos to SFU World Literature Program for bringing Nuruddin Farah to a Vancouver audience for the first time.

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