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Gifts
By Nuruddin Farah
Arcade. 246 pp. $23.95

Maps
By Nuruddin Farah
Arcade. 259 pp. $23.95

Reviewed by Charles R. Larson, a fiction and book review editor of WorldView and the editor of "Under African Skies: Modern African Stories."

Sunday, September 26, 1999

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In the haphazard way that books are published in the United States, Nuruddin Farah's Secrets was made available by his current publisher before Maps and Gifts, although the three books constitute an unconventional trilogy that concludes with Secrets.

The scrambled ordering says much about continuing attitudes toward Africa, still regarded by many Americans as the Dark Continent. Chinua Achebe and perhaps Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Ben Okri are likely to be the names American readers recognize if they have a modicum of familiarity with the continent's literature. Nuruddin Farah, a Somali and their artistic equal in every way, did not receive much attention in the United States until he won the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1998. When America sent troops into Somalia in 1993, I doubt that anyone in the Clinton administration had ever heard of Farah. Secrets and its companion volumes may have changed this.

What has been so extraordinary about Farah's fiction from the very beginning is the central place he has given women. Farah is, in fact, one of his continent's major feminists. I realize that that statement is likely to unsettle some readers. But until recently the continent has produced few important women writers (education favored men), and the male writers have mined the masculine world while often ignoring female characters in their novels. Many of the early African novels had little to do with male-female relationships, concerned as they were with broader issues of colonialism and liberation.

At the beginning of his career, when he published From a Crooked Rib (1970), Farah's intentions were known. One of the novel's female characters states, "But that is what we women are -- just like cattle, properties of someone or other, either your parents or your husband." The novel goes on to refute that statement, as does much of Farah's subsequent writing. Still, for years the author received letters addressed to him as "Miss" or "Ms." Perhaps his readers were confused by his family name, linking him somehow to actress Farrah Fawcett.

In Secrets, although the main character is Kalaman, a man, it is the woman Sholoongo who controls all the moves. She initiated him sexually when he was prepubescent. True, she is slightly older, but not that much. As Secrets opens, Sholoongo returns to Somalia after many years of living abroad. Her goal is to seduce Kalaman once again so that she can conceive a child by him. No matter that Kalaman is already engaged to marry someone else. Sholoongo is one aggressive (and fascinating) woman who is accustomed to getting what she wants. Moreover, as the novel unfolds, it quickly becomes apparent that the people in Kalaman's family, including his parents and his grandfather, have been part of a sexual gavotte that has continued for years, not without damage to the participants' psyches. In once sense, the center of Farah's novel is sexuality, a subject most African writers have avoided but one that ought to make him right at home with American readers.

Where do Maps and Gifts belong in Farah's trilogy?

The ambivalent relationship at the center of Maps is once again between a man and an older woman, in this case an orphan named Askar and his surrogate mother, Misra. From the beginning, Misra is so thrilled to have a baby that she smothers Askar with her misdirected love. She insists that the child sleep with her for years beyond what would be considered healthy. When he is somewhat older, Askar has difficulty separating his identity from hers. He thinks of himself as an "extension of Misra's body." Her bodily functions, particularly menstruation, he thinks of as his own (Farah's collective title for the trilogy is Blood in the Sun). In Maps, blood is everywhere: Askar believes that he can also menstruate, because on at least one occasion he wakes up in bed covered with blood. He wonders if he is pregnant, though the fetus he imagines inside him is an older woman. In another incident late in the story, when Askar attempts to break the ties that bind him to Misra, he tastes and smells the stench of blood in his mouth, though he can detect no blood in his saliva.

What Farah accomplishes with such conviction is a linkage between motherhood and nationhood. Born in the Ogaden, in a disputed part of territory between Ethiopia and Somalia, Askar not only must sort out his conflicting feelings for his surrogate mother but also must learn what it is to be Somalian. When he makes the physical break with Misra, he goes to Mogadishu. The bloody conflict between the two countries over the disputed land, however, becomes an extension of his own conflict with Misra. As Askar concludes, life is blood and sacrifice, "the shedding of one's blood for a cause and for one's country; in short, life is the drinking of enemy blood and vengeance." And maps? If nothing else, they distort our sense of the past: both as nations and as families, particularly in Africa, where boundaries between countries are constantly in flux and remain the subject of bloody warfare.

Gifts extends Farah's territory beyond Somalia and the Ogaden to an international playing field. In once sense, there is nothing new here: Gifts (particularly international aid) inevitably come with strings attached. Who benefits more when grain is sent to Somalia during famine, the starving Somalis or the American farmers? "To starve is to be of media interest these days." Worse, "Foreign food donations create a buffer zone between corrupt leaders and the starving masses. Foreign food donations also sabotage the African's ability to survive with dignity." But famine and political unrest in Somalia are only the backdrop to the more crucial issue of gifts (particularly unexpected ones) within individual families and their influence on the internal dynamics of those families.

Duniya, the main character of Gifts, is a middle-aged woman twice married, the first time by arrangement to a blind man 40 years older than she. Her three grown children have problems and careers of their own. To support herself, Duniya works as a nurse at the Benaadir Maternity Hospital in Mogadishu, seemingly secure enough -- both financially and emotionally. Two stultifying marriages are behind her; she ought to be able to enjoy a modicum of serenity and stability. Then one day her daughter returns home with a foundling, an abandoned baby boy.

The unexpected "gift" of the child turns their lives upside down, arriving as it does with the return of Bosaaco, Duniya's old flame. Bosaaco brings home to Duniya several awful truths. Though she has been a wife and a mother, she has never known love. Nor has she ever had much of an identity of her own. So what must she relinquish for Bosaaco's love -- her newly acquired independence? Is it possible to fuse the two and lose nothing in the process? In a totally original manner, Nuruddin Farah has transplanted Kate Chopin's The Awakening to Somalia, although unlike Chopin he gives the story a happy ending. Moreover, Gifts shows us that age is not an impediment to fulfillment and that some givers expect nothing in return.

Most of Nuruddin Farah's writing life has been spent in exile from Somalia. The early novels rendered him persona non grata, making it impossible for him to return to the country of his birth. His books were banned by his country's leaders. After more than 20 years, he briefly visited Mogadishu, having accepted his lot as an exiled writer. As he stated during an interview a decade ago, "What is the topic of literature? It began with the expulsion of Adam from paradise. What, in fact, writers do is to play around either with the myth of creation or with the myth of return." Fortunately, for Nuruddin Farah that exile from paradise did not simply involve Adam but also Adam's companion. And in Farah's fiction, Eve has come into her own, achieving an equality missing in the works of many of the continent's other writers.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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