Somali writer considered one of the greatest contemporary writers in the world.
first novel From a Crooked Rib in London in 1970, at the age of 25, becoming, with that work, Somalia’s first novelist (though of course by no means her first great literary figure, since he was raised within a tradition of brilliant oral literature that can now circulate as audio recordings). Farah speaks not only Somali but also Italian, Arabic, Amharic, and, of course, the wonderful English of his nine novels.
He’s a writer who has written largely about one place—Somalia—yet manages to sustain a cosmopolitan vision. He’s a feminist novelist in a part of the world where that’s almost unknown among male writers. And even when he’s following a big story—about what dictatorship does to a society—he tells it through the lives of fully imagined women and men, and their families, their friendships, their vices and virtues; he tells it through what makes them individual, unique, special, and through what makes them like the rest of us, human. In 1974 he left Somalia to begin a period of peregrination of a sort that would have made sense to his nomadic Somali ancestors, though he has ranged over a wider territory, living in Europe, North America, and Africa. Two years later, he published A Naked Needle, catching the unfriendly eye of Siad Barre, Somalia’s dictator, and bringing about a 22-year exile that only ended five years after Siad Barre’s departure had plunged Somalia into a crisis from which it has still not emerged.
Born in Baidoa, Somalia, Farah is the son of a merchant father and a poet mother. As a child, he attended school at Kallafo in the Ogaden, and studied English, Arabic, and Amharic. In 1963, three years after Somalia's independence, Farah was forced to flee the Ogaden following serious border conflicts. For several years thereafter, he pursued a degree in philosophy, literature and sociology at Panjab University in Chandigarh, India.
After releasing an early short story in his native Somali language, Farah shifted to writing in English while still attending university in India. His first novel, From a Crooked Rib (1970), told the story of a nomad girl who flees from an arranged marriage to a much older man. The novel earned him mild but international acclaim. On a tour of Europe following the publication of A Naked Needle (1976), Farah was warned that the Somali government planned to arrest him over its contents. Rather than return and face imprisonment, Farah began a self-imposed exile that would last for twenty-two years, teaching in the United States, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Sudan, and India. In 1990, he received a grant from the German Academic Exchange Service and moved to Berlin.
Farah describes his purpose for writing as an attempt "to keep my country alive by writing about it". His trilogies of novels Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship (1980-1983) and Blood in the Sun (1986-1999) form the core of his work. Though Variations was well-received in a number of countries, Farah's reputation was cemented by his most famous novel, Maps (1986), the first part of his Blood in the Sun trilogy. Maps, which is set during the Ogaden conflict of 1977, employs the innovative technique of second-person narration for exploring questions of cultural identity in a post-independence world. He followed the novel with Gifts (1993) and Secrets (1998), both of which earned awards.
Farah has garnered acclaim as one of the greatest contemporary writers in the world. Having published many short stories, novels and essays, his prose has earned him, among other accolades, the Premio Cavour in Italy, the Kurt Tucholsky Prize in Sweden, the Lettre Ulysses Award in Berlin, and in 1998, the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature. In the same year, the French edition of his novel Gifts also won the St. Malo Literature Festival’s prize. In addition, Farah is a perennial nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature, which is one of the only major literary prizes he has yet to win.