I wanted to like Nuruddin Farah’s most recent novel Hiding in Plain Sight. I really did. Farah, the prolific and distinguished Somali writer, is often spoken of as a contender for the Nobel Prize in literature. (For more background on his life and work, click here.
I read his novel Knots several years ago and was struck by his feminism. In that novel, the protagonist Cambara, a Somali woman who lives in Canada, returns to Somalia to take care of some business. She and the other female characters struck me as the only ones in the novel with any sense. The women took care of all the things that needed to be done, while the men were busy fighting each other and chewing khat. If I had not known who the author was, I would have thought it was a woman. Farah’s new novel Hiding in Plain Sight also has a woman as a main character. Not only that, but the novel also portrays homosexuality as something which should not be condemned or punished. For any number of reasons, then, I was excited to read the book.
The novel opens with a focus on Aar, a sensitive Somali expat who is stationed in the UN office in Somalia briefly as a logistics officer. Tragically, he dies when terrorists bomb the building he is in. (This death happens in the beginning of the book, so I am not giving anything away here.) The novel then switches perspective to Aar’s sister Bella. The remainder of Hiding focuses on Bella and her attempts to deal not only with her grief but also to forge a new family with Aar’s children. At the same time, she has to deal with Aar’s ex-wife Valerie, who abandoned him and his children ten years earlier to live with her female lover, Padmini.
One of the themes of the novel is the issue of sexual freedom. Farah’s philosophy about sexuality seems to be summed up in this quotation:
“In Bella’s mind, freedom are a package, so the freedoms denied daily to millions of citizens in Africa or the Middle East are bound up with the lack of democracy in these parts of the world. The choices individuals make in their private lives are just as important as the choices they make at the ballot box. Public displays of affection, whether between a man and a woman or two men or two women, are but expressions of democratic behavior. No one, not even the president of the country, should have the power and the authority to define love—including whom to love.” (35)
Farah’s openness to sexual freedom is a laudable goal. If that is his goal, though, I wonder why he chose to make Valerie (the lesbian mother of Aar’s children) such a nightmarish character. She is selfish to the extreme, she has no understanding of the concept of gratitude, she is an alcoholic, and her emotions are completely erratic. I know that everybody is flawed, and there is no reason to paint a lesbian character as a saint. Still, Valerie’s flaws were so extreme and her good qualities so few that I find her hard to accept as a believable character.
And while I do appreciate a male author who writes about strong female characters in a positive way, it seemed to me that Bella, the main character, was more of an idea (a strong, independent woman) than a believable, complex character. She struck me as person without any emotional attachments or vulnerabilities, except for her attachment to her brother. I suppose Farah could be suggesting that she was TOO attached to her brother, which was why she found every other man lacking in comparison. That could explain her inability (or unwillingness) to connect emotionally with anybody else, I suppose. That changes, though, when she becomes attached to Aar’s children and wants to serve as their surrogate mother.
I imagine that at least part of Farah’s goal was to educate non-Somali readers about his war-torn country, especially in terms of its prevailing attitudes toward sexuality. I think he was successful in that goal. However, I think Hiding in Plain Sight worked better as an educational tool than as a successful novel. The novel was written mainly from Bella’s perspective. Ideally, readers would be able to get inside her head and see things the way she does. However, often her thoughts do not sound at all realistic because Farah is using them to educate his readers rather than to portray a character. For example, on page 135 of my edition, Bella thinks,
She knows that Aar, unlike most Somalis raised in the urban centers in the south of the country, had no issue with male homosexuality and couldn’t be bothered about lesbianism. As for herself. . . she acknowledges that maybe she is not quite as advanced in her attitudes as she likes to think. But with her three lovers, she knows that she cannot afford to throw stones at anyone in a similar position. Many Somalis would think there was something wrong with her, would see her as worse than a whore, because no cash exchanged hands.” (135)
If this were really a reflection of what Bella was thinking, she would not need to provide so much background explanation. The novel contains far too much of this type of didactic internal thoughts for more tastes.
Often the dialogue suffers from a similar weakness. People in casual conversation, when they are not talking about food, often launch into mini-lectures on Important Subjects that also do not seem realistic.
For example, in one scene, Salif (a teenage boy) is upset with his mother Valerie, who abandoned them for ten years and now suddenly wants to be back in their lives. His frustration is understandable, but the formality of his word choice strikes me as unbelievable:
“And let me add this, for what it’s worth, Mum. You haven’t asked us anything about Dad, what he was like as a father to us after you left. All you have done is create confusion in my head about the circumstances of his burial, urging me to act without even bothering to ascertain the legal and logistical implications.” (138)
“Ascertain the legal and logistical implications?” Really? Does any teenage boy talk like that in casual conversation?
Overall, I would give the novel an “A” for good intentions, but a “C” for execution. I could not get past the wooden writing style and unrealistic characters enough to get engaged in the story.
Having said that, I am not ready to give up on Nuruddin Farah. I do plan to read some more of his earlier work. If you have read his work, which book would you recommend?
This post is my first entry in my own Around the World Reading Challenge. This is my African entry.
It is also my fifth and final entry in the African Reading Challenge for 2014 hosted by kinna at Kinna Reads. (It is late, I know. Sorry!) http://kinnareads.com/2014/01/14/2014-africa-reading-challenge/