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Nuruddin Farah: By the Book

Sunday 16 November 2014

NOV. 13, 2014

The author of “Hiding in Plain Sight” wasn’t much of a reader as a child: “Books were hard to come by . . . where I grew up, but also because there were no books for children in those days.”

What books are currently on your night stand?

I have the novels “Shame,” by Salman Rushdie, and “Snow Falling on Cedars,” by David Guterson, on my night stand, because I am teaching them this term at Bard.

And what’s the last truly great book you read?

I have most recently reread a truly great novel, “In the Castle of My Skin,” in view of the fact that a friend of mine and I were preparing to interview George Lamming in Barbados for an African/Afro-Caribbean archive that we are in the process of setting up as soon as we find it a home.

Who is your favorite novelist of all time? And your favorite novelist writing today?

My favorite novelist of all time is James Joyce. As for my favorite novelist writing today: I am afraid I won’t tell you who that is.

Your mother was a poet. Did you grow up reading poetry, and do you still read it today? Who are your favorite poets?

No, I did not grow up reading poetry. However, I listened a great deal to Somali oral poetry, derived great delight from hearing it recited and learnt a lot from it. As a child, I often eavesdropped on my mother as she authored her poetry.

Who are your favorite Somali writers?

I greatly admire the works of two Somali authors: Abdourahman Waberi, from Djibouti, who writes in French, and Cristina Ali Farah (no relation), from Mogadishu, who writes in Italian.

And what are the best books about Somalia?

The best book about recent events in Somalia is undoubtedly “Clan Cleansing in Somalia,” by Lidwien Kapteijns, a must-read for anyone wanting to unravel the complicated nature of our civil war.

Growing up in Somalia and Ethiopia, what kind of reader were you? What were your favorite children’s books or stories?

I wasn’t much of a reader. Not only because books were hard to come by in the Ogaden, where I grew up, but also because there were no books for children or young adults in those days. So I had to read what I could find.

That way, I read and reread “A Thousand and One Nights” many times. And thanks to my eldest brother, I also read Victor Hugo and Dostoyevsky, which were available only in Arabic. Later, my brother lent me other dog-eared novels in English, among them Agatha Christie and Hemingway.

If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?

I would say that reading Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” just as I embarked on writing my first novel, “From a Crooked Rib,” made me the writer, the person, I am at present.

Is there a certain type of book you try to steer clear of as a reader? And a type of story you’re drawn to?

There are no books I would steer clear of as a reader, because I appreciate the effort that goes into writing a book. I also believe that all stories are to be valued for the great quality that they most of them contain — potentially speaking.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

If I were in a position to do so, I would make it compulsory for every Somali politician to read “Clan Cleansing in Somalia,” by Lidwien Kapteijns. If you could meet any author, dead or living, who would it be, and why? If I could, I would meet C. L. R. James, because I missed the one and only chance I had to dine with him a few years before his death.

You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?

I would invite my good friends Aleksandar Hemon, Ilija Trojanow and Walter Mosley.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

As a member of the writing community, I feel it would be unwise of me to give you the name or author of the book I put down without finishing.

What’s the one book you wish someone else would write?

I always wish someone else would write the books I couldn’t write myself.

Of the books you have written, which is your favorite or most important to you?

My last published novel remains my favorite novel until I’ve completed another.

Whom would you want to write your life story?

I doubt my life story is interesting enough for anyone to write it.

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?

I wish I had read more of the world’s classics than I have.

What do you plan to read next?

I am planning to read “Smilla’s Sense of Snow,” by Peter Hoeg, and “The Circle of Reason,” by Amitav Ghosh, the two novels I’ll be teaching in the coming weeks.

A version of this article appears in print on November 16, 2014, on page BR8 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Nuruddin Farah.

See online: Nuruddin Farah: By the Book