TOKYO For Somali native Nuruddin Farah, the author of 11 novels, exile -- with all its pain -- has enabled him to turn storytelling into an art form, distilling the complications of his tortured homeland into something people understand.
His latest book, "Crossbones", is the final volume of a trilogy and follows Malik, a half-Somali war correspondent based in New York, as he arrives in Somalia in 2006 to a precarious calm just days before Ethiopia invades the country.
Farah, 65, has lived largely outside Somalia since the early 1960s. Describing it as one of the world's most "lied about" countries, both by foreigners and Somalis themselves, he hopes his books help paint a truer picture of what life, and people, are like there.
Farah spoke about writing, exile and his hopes for Somalia.
Q: How much of this trilogy is based on real life?
A: "Much of it is, in the sense that obviously the names change, the situations change. But the story, the basic narrative, remains unaltered. The reason is, I try as much as I can to follow the story of Somalia before it becomes history. Obviously what I try to do is to give an alternative version to the version being given by those in power, those who are victims. I'm not one of those who sides with either group. I try to be on the side of what we call journalistic justice."
Q: In general, you say you would like your books to become the basis of a story before things change. What inspired this particular book in the trilogy?
A: "Obviously, when one writes the first of a trilogy, one has the third part in mind -- insofar as one can have a vague idea of what goes into it. Then naturally one has to, as a writer, adjust and re-adjust to make the story being told fit in with what has come before. So the third part has been determined to a certain extent by what went into the previous ones -- the characters, and so on and so forth. Then once you re-introduce the same characters, the situation will have changed. Somebody will be ten years older, maybe the wife has died, maybe he is sick, maybe he's older. Therefore you have to follow the guidelines of the people about whom you are telling the story.
"In total, the three books are set in Somalia and about the civil war, that's something they share in common. The second thing they share is that concerned Somalis (have) returned from places of comfort outside Somalia to witness for themselves, for different reasons, what is happening in the country."
Q: In this book you return to a lot of the same characters. Why did you construct the trilogy this way?
A: "Probably this is my shortcoming -- wel1, some people may say it -- often I choose intellectuals, or people who are articulate enough to say what they want. Now the situation in Somalia has become more complex, and for you to understand a complex situation, you need people who can unravel complexity. I find it quite irritating -- again, I have high respect for many, many journalists -- but some of the journalists fly into a town, talk to the taxi driver and fly out that evening -- and report on stories and incidents that have taken place. A taxi driver in New York, no matter how good he is, can't tell me everything about New York. I need, if possible, a professor at Columbia, I need an intellectual who can unravel why Obama is behaving the way he is behaving today. Maybe this is not always possible, but I like peope who read the books to get away with some sort of answer, some sort of understanding of what they are."
Q: Somalia, once again, is facing fresh troubles. What can a writer do when their country's in such a hard situation?
A: "Well, what a writer can do to stop it is to write about it, and write truthfully about it, without fear. Ideally I would wish to live there, if I could, but safety considerations stop me. I go there quite often, as I said -- every two years at least. So the writer can do that... The writer's job, as best as he or she can, is to tell the truth as he or she sees it, without fear and without prejudice."
Q: How has exile defined you as a writer?
A: "To write fiction I think it's best to be away from the place about which you're writing. The reason is that distance distills. It makes things much clearer. And if you were to take the most pedestrian way of explaining, you cannot see the ground on which you are standing. You cannot really unravel a situation you're in, you have to step back. To turn story-telling into an art form, you have to do what every viewer of a canvas -- painting -- does. If you get very close, you hardly see anything. You take a relative distance so you can have a more complete perspective on the colours, the tones and the different hues in the painting. Exile has enabled me to see Somalia from a distillable distance."
Q: Do you have hope for the future of Somalia?
A: "I do. Somalia can't get any worse than it has been, and therefore one can't stay at the bottom all the time. If shaken, and we're being continuously shaken, we'll go up -- hopefully stronger."
(Reporting by Elaine Lies, editing by Paul Casciato)