Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah finishes up three autumns with English as the CLA Winton Chair.
Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah first visited Minneapolis, and specifically the Department of English at the University of Minnesota, in 1988 as an Edelstein-Keller Visiting Writer in the Creative Writing Program--years before the Twin Cities became a major destination for Somali refugees fleeing civil war. Little did he know that he would return numerous times, culminating with a three-autumn tenure starting in 2010 as the College of Liberal Arts' Winton Chair.
English has again been privileged to play host. And Farah has more than returned the favor. He has taught three graduate courses in English. He gave the fall 2010 Commencement address. In September 2011, he published his 11th novel Crossbones, which has received wide acclaim across the U.S., Europe, and Africa, and is a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. His publication reading packed the Central Minneapolis Library, one of three readings presented under the department's auspices in collaboration with CLA and community partners. He's also written and produced staged readings for two plays, the latest of which, A Stone Thrown at the Guilty, is presented in revised form December 7 and 8 at Rarig Center's Stoll Thrust Theatre.
These theatrical productions have been exhilarating for a writer who has always been interested in drama. This fall, he's had the opportunity, because of the Winton Chair, to hire celebrated British theater director Irina Brown to workshop and develop A Stone Thrown at the Guilty. The reading, featuring professional Twin Cities actors Sonja Parks and Bruce Young, as well as local Somali youth, will be followed by a discussion led by Brown and Farah, presenting a rare opportunity for Twin Cities audiences to observe a world-class theater director develop a work of drama with an esteemed international writer.
"The ethical and political ideas the play raised have an urgency that felt very current," says Brown, who has directed two plays at London's National Theatre. "It is inspired by Dostoyevsky, and, like Dostoyevsky, Farah is not afraid to tackle complex dilemmas of faith, of political and social turbulence. The insight, courage, and potential of this play made me believe we should find a rehearsal room to develop this piece. I am thrilled that now we get such a wonderful opportunity to work together."
Another highpoint of Farah's time here has been teaching. "I've enjoyed the students, from whom I've learned a great deal," Farah acknowledges. "They've been quite impressive.
"I've also had the opportunity to mount some courses that probably hadn't been tried before. The experience of mounting original courses and teaching them, and then finding that the students have also enjoyed them, has meant a great deal to me."
Farah is thankful to the department for providing him this freedom, which he has embraced with course reading lists ranging across continents. The first course focused on books that, in Farah's words, "changed our understanding of literature in the 20th century," and included Günter Grass, Joseph Conrad, and Chinua Achebe. The second, also a reading course, tackled first novels by authors who would go on to write paradigm-shifting work. This year, Farah's students are reading authors known for books written in their second, third, or fourth language, such as Michael Ondaatje and Henry Roth.
He has delighted too in having a foot in both disciplines of English, drawing students from the Creative Writing and doctoral literature programs. Declares Farah: "My principle when teaching is to say to the students, 'I can't teach you to write or to research. What I can do for you, however, is make you appreciate reading.' It's only after you understand and appreciate the art of reading, and the act of reading, that you can write and research better."
Finally, Farah has very much appreciated his interactions with the greater Somali community in the Twin Cities, through high school and college talks, community meetings, and, particularly this fall, the process of staging the play reading, which has involved young people as actors, graphic designers, and publicists. "The first two years I was talking to the community at large," Farah describes, "which was successful in that people were still feeling the wounds, the scars of the civil war. This past year I have been concentrating mainly on the young, because now you have a crop of young Somalis, some of whom are interested in theater, some of whom are interested in literature and culture. We've been talking about how to remain Somali and at the same time fulfill their American dream."
Farah, who is held in great esteem by many Somalis for his achievements, is uniquely qualified to talk about that balance. His second novel, A Naked Needle (1976), was not well-received by the Somali government of dictator Siyad Barre, and Farah was encouraged not to return. He has chosen to remain an Africa-based writer by living, teaching, and writing in many African countries and currently resides in Capetown, South Africa. And yet he is also a citizen of the world, receiving international literary prizes such as the Neustadt and flying to countries around the world for talks and residencies. During his stint in Minnesota, he has become a familiar face to an airport cab company. How does he stay sane and grounded in the midst of such upheaval?
"By keeping my eyes on the ball," Farah responds, "and the ball is Somalia. Focusing on what makes me continue to live and work and think, which is: I am a writer, I come from Somalia, and on top of that the world has been kind to me. The fact that I have been able to hold the Winton Chair for three semesters has strengthened my belief in that kindness," he says with emphasis.
"I'm very grateful to CLA and to Dean James Parente. I'm very grateful also to my friends in Minneapolis."
The door's always open.
The Winton Chair in the Liberal Arts was established in October 1987 to encourage "innovative, distinctive research in the liberal arts" with the special directive that the chair be held by individuals whose research or creative work "questions established patterns of thought." The benefactors were David Michael Winton and Penny Rand Winton.