Swati Khurana reviews Nuruddin Farah’s novel, Hiding in Plain Sight
Every artist has her own creation story. Bella, a Somali refugee and protagonist in Nuruddin Farah’s 13th novel Hiding in Plain Sight, encounters a Malian Dogon carving. With “a cylindrical body, rods for arms, broken bits for eyes, thrown together as if in haste,” it became Bella’s talisman of good fortune. When she gazed at it, the formerly despondent adolescent finally felt “fulfilled, joyful, satisfied with life.” The stability that the sculpture effected was a godsend for Bella’s mother, who fled Mogasdishu with her family when Somalia collapsed, spent time in a Mombasa refugee camp before finally flying to Nairobi, where the family was presented with Italian visas, and struggled to settle her children in Rome. The Dogon sculpture emboldened Bella, so she “worked harder in school, earned better marks, and became more purposeful and organized” and even “volunteered to do the dishes when it was her turn without talking back to her mother.” Using crayons then a camera to capture the carving, Bella came to embrace photography as her passion.
In an interview with Bomb, Farah recounted that his own creation story as a writer began with his attraction to Arabic “script’s decorative quality, not its holiness.” Born in 1945 in Somalia, Kwame Anthony Appiah describes Farrah as a “feminist novelist” because he his stories are populated by “fully imagined women and men.” Farrah writes in English, his “not even third language,” after Somali, Arabic, Italian, and Amharic (Somali, his mother tongue, had no written script until 1972). He began to read secular works, namely Dostoevsky and Hugo, in Arabic, but he longed to read in English. When he found himself going to the dictionary for every other word, he committed himself to reading the English dictionary cover-to-cover for years. The early availability of an American Royal typewriter pushed him to write in English. In 1970, He wrote his first novel From a Crooked Rib in English. In 1972, he was in the process of writing a novel in Somali that was published weekly in a Mogasdishu newspaper, which was censored by the regime of Siad Barre. Farrah left Somalia for a British Council scholarship, wrote another book in English, and found himself an exile. Farrah’s novels are populated by Somalis, mostly living in Somalia, or in the case of Hiding in Plain Sight, living outside of their country. He is considered Somalia’s first novelist, and in 1998 he became the first African to win the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. The British sportsbetting site Ladbrokes set the odds for him winning the Nobel Prize at 20-to-1 for literature in 2015, but he was beaten out by Svetlana Alexievich.
Hiding in Plain Sight recounts a family’s re-creation story, or perhaps how death, war, and loss lead to new permutations of family. The book opens when Bella learns from an Italian newspaper that Aar, her cherished half brother, was murdered by religious extremists while working for the first U.N. mission to Mogasdishu following the city’s 1991 collapse. In haste, she grabs her cameras and, putting her international fashion photography career on pause, rushes to Nairobi, where her nephew and niece are in school. The children’s mother, Valerie, a British woman, had abandoned the family several years ago for her Indian female lover Padmini. Bella, unmarried and without children, feels “almost a religious calling” to reciprocate the devotion her older brother had to her when they were children, and deems “it is her turn to give him and his children all the devotion they require, setting aside her own needs and desires.”
Her role as a Somali woman photographer is to be “in total control” where her “subjects are as powerless as a rabbit caught in the headlights of an oncoming car.” With that control, she wants to subvert the colonial stereotypes and cliches about Africans. As she explained to a journalist who interviewed her in the past:
[…]the colonized Asians, Africans, North American Indians, and Australian aboriginals had been eroticized and trivialized by their colonizers. And just as American photographers produced naked portraits of Native Americans or Africans for the tourist trade, women photographed in the nude were put to a similar service.
When the interviewer asked what were her most delightful subjects to photograph, she said, “Aar, my brother, and his children.” Now, these are the very children she is compelled to rescue.
In Binyavanga Wainaina’s cheeky essay, which started as an email to the editor, “How to Write About Africa” published in Granta in 2005, he listed what writers could not write about:
Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.
Recently in The Guardian, Ben Okri admonished “black and African writers” who “are read for their novels about slavery, colonialism, poverty, civil wars, imprisonment, female circumcision” in his essay titled, ‘A mental tyranny is keeping black writers from greatness.’ A rebuttal by Sofia Samatar followed, aptly titled “Black and African writers don’t need instructions from Ben Okri.” Samatar argues that black writers need “better readers,” who applaud the freedom of writers to write on any and all subjects. The very freedom Farrah embodies by writing about war, female circumcision, designer jeans, and art, is reflected in Bella, a self-actualized female character.
Grief merges politics, the characters’ emotional trajectories, and their romantic. Much of the book’s plot centers on the minutia of people’s lives after the death of loved one. While geopolitics looms in the background, the novel is filled with extraordinarily domestic scenes including dishwashing, meal preparation, grocery shopping, leaving voicemails, getting stuck in traffic, unpacking suitcases, and throwing a dinner party.
But the exotic and erotic pull of the taboos that Wainaina refers to also appear, as Farrah is interested how different populations ponder what it is to be a Somali woman. Valerie becomes obsessed with whether Bella had even been circumcised, and when Bella says “No,” Valerie asks, “Were you spared because you were special?” Bella, composed but silently outraged that her ex-sister-in-law “who was married to a Somali man and gave birth to children who are part Somali, has just demonstrated that she knows next to nothing about Somalis.” Later, Bella unequivocally refers to infibulation as “a most terrible barbarity.”
Bella wrestles with what she ought to be: “not only as a woman but also a Somali woman, she has had to defy harsh social conditioning to establish herself as a person equal in all respects to a man.” During her first night in Nairobi, she seeks to set herself apart from the Somali immigrants in Kenya (6% of the population) by wearing “stylish jeans” instead of “body tents.” Later that night, she is harassed, along with other Somalis she meets, by a Kenyan peddler who didn’t make a sale. He tells them, “My goods are not from a flea pit, where you come from and where you rightly belong. Terrorists, the lot of you, who have no right to be here! Blowing up our malls, terrorizing our nation. Go back to where you came from!” The violent outburst draws attention from uniformed security guards, and startled Bella rushes to catch a taxi.
Bella is a woman worthy of her name: she is “a dark-eyed beauty with a prominent nose,” who has “the slimmest of waists for a woman her age and an African’s high buttocks,” and is bluntly “drop-dead gorgeous…charming, well read and intelligent.” Having no shortage of possible suitors, she has a trio of men: HandsomeBoy, a Kenyan part-time model and sociology student; Humboldt, a successful Brazilian sculptor of African origin; and Cisse, a Malian philosopher living in New York. Bella is fully in control with “keys to their houses or apartments, and she can come and go as she pleases, while none of them even has her exact address.” Bella’s discretion about her love life inspires Valerie and Padmini to wonder if Bella is like some “women who hide in plain sight”—a closeted lesbian. Bella says she never married because, “With a brother like Aar, how could I?” Bella’s extreme devotion to her brother propels the narrative.
In a subplot, Valerie and Padmini are in Kampala, Uganda attempting to deal with a land dispute, a legacy from Idi Amin’s 1972 expulsion of Indians from the country. Months after the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act (which originally proposed the death penalty for same-sex relationships and then dropped that in favor for life imprisonment) was signed into law, Padmini, already a persecuted ethnic minority in Uganda, and Valerie were videotaped having sex. That video went viral and is used to imprison them — all of which is a ruse to extort money from Padmini and force her to relinquish any claim to her family’s property. When they are released, troubles follow them to Nairobi.
Despite Valerie and Padmini’s indiscretions, and Valerie’s initial abandonment of her children, Farrah makes it clear that the reader ought to judge Valerie for her actions, not for her sexual orientation. Even when she is drunk, cruel, or shockingly indiscreet, the other characters show her incredible compassion. One of her children says, “She didn’t have to stay with dad. And it would have been okay if she left him for a woman.” And Bella tells the children, “In much of Africa, being gay is considered an abomination. I hope you are more advanced in your own views and are more tolerant of other people’s choices. What people do and who they do it with is their own private affair.” Later, it is revealed that Valerie’s drunken father abused her in childhood. Her lover too develops as the story progresses: Padmini tries to urge Valerie to move to the U.K., where proposals for gay marriage are being considered, talks about how great and lively Gay Pride is in Capetown, and tells the children her favorite “gay classics:” Zami by Audre Lorde, Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeannette Winterson.
Another writer could now be added to Padmini’s list: Binyavanga Wainaina’s moving piece “I’m a Homosexual, Mum” was published online in January 2014, instantly going viral. International news agencies reported on it, thus alerting the world to the draconian anti-LBGT laws in Nigeria, Uganda, and elsewhere on the continent. Here Wainaina writes so convincingly of his own growing awareness of who he is::
There will be this feeling again. Stronger, firmer now. Aged maybe seven. Once with another slow easy golfer at Nakuru Golf Club, and I am shaking because he shook my hand. Then I am crying alone in the toilet because the repeat of this feeling has made me suddenly ripped apart and lonely. The feeling is not sexual. It is certain. It is overwhelming. It wants to make a home. It comes every few months like a bout of malaria and leaves me shaken for days, and confused for months. I do nothing about it.
As a senior writer of his generation, Farrah takes a powerful stance against criminalization of homosexuality and the encroachment of dictatorial regimes into the private lives of their citizens.
The compulsion of a childless adult to care for her or his niece and nephew in the face of unexpected loss can spring, Farah reveals in this novel, from a bond greater than any romantic or sexual bond—the bond among siblings. There “is in each of us a secret chamber whose key we offer to those we choose — a husband, a wife, a brother, a sister, a lover, or lovers known to no one but ourselves.” It is only through her commitment to her niece and nephew, that Bella begins to fill her own secret, intimate chamber.
Bella buys her niece and nephew cameras and builds them a darkroom; she tells them about her father and her initial exposure to Dogon art, the carving that made her who she is. The Dogons’ work, she explains, “is an art not meant for public viewing, so it can be seen in private homes and scared places.”
As Bella educates her charges, Dogon country, which had been a tourist destination since French anthropologist Marcel Griaule began studying Mali in 1931, descends into crisis, caught in the crossfire between Malian government forces and Tuareg rebels. While Farrah wrote this novel,a Timbuktu library was set on fire, destroying thousands of manuscripts dating back to the 13th century, dealing with subjects ranging from “religious studies to mathematics, medicine, astronomy, music, literature, poetry, architecture and women’s and children’s rights,” according to the U.N. News Centre. Hiding in Plain Sight examines, both implicitly and explicitly, in the case of Somalia and Mali respectively, the tensions between a historic, artistic cosmopolitanism and modern, geopolitical provincialism.
The crisis of the Dogon mirrors the crisis in Tamarind Market in Mogadishu, which Farrah wrote about in the his essay “Of Tamarind & Cosmopolitanism.” Since the 10th century Tamarind Market “was an open city with no walls, to which anyone could come, provided he or she lived in harmony or peace with those already there…And it was prosperous, thanks to its residents, many of them artisans hailing originally from the Middle East or the Indian subcontinent,” writes Farrah. It was destroyed in 1991 by “a conglomerate of pastoralists acting under the command of city-based firebrands set on dispossessing the city of its ‘foreign’ elements.”
Through a United Nations mission, the tension between “urbophobic” pastoralists and cosmopolitan communities that killed Aar, a Somali returning to Mogadishu. The novel serves as unintended elegy: Farah had completed a draft before the author’s own sister Basra Farah Hassan, who worked with UNICEF, was killed in a Kabul restaurant on January 19, 2014. Hiding in Plain Sight leaves us with an incredible sense of loss of all the things that once were, but allows us to imagine all that is yet to come, as new borders are crossed, and families are created.
Born in India, SWATI KHURANA is a New York City-based writer and artist. She has been published in The New York Times, Guernica, The Offing, and elsewhere. A graduate of the Hunter College MFA program and Kundiman fellow, she is working on her first novel The No.1 Printshop of Lahore. Occasionally, she asks strangers to show her their saved cell phone messages, so she can transcribe them onto translucent paper, and roll them into scrolls.