Nura Farah will on Thursday become the first author of Somali background to publish a novel in Finland. Her work Aavikon tyttäret (Daughters of the desert) tells the story of a Somali woman’s life in the desert as she dreams of becoming a poet, and her struggles to overcome traditional gender roles.
The central character in the story is a woman called Khadija, who would like to be a poet. In Somali culture, poetry is the domain of men and as a woman, Khadija’s daily life revolves around animal husbandry, child care and long journeys to fetch water.
“You get a big audience for yourself if you can speak beautifully,” says Farah. “In Somali culture people value eloquence.”
Although the novel is set in the 1950s, the oral poetry tradition remains strong in modern Somalia. Farah is hoping that this tradition will become familiar to Finns, who she hopes will get to know Somali culture.
“I especially wanted readers to take some poetry from my book, and that they might get to know something about desert life,” says Farah. “I hope that it’s not seen as simply a story about Somalis. This book isn’t just for Somalis; it can also be for Finns.”
Farah was born in 1979 in Saudi Arabia, and moved to Somalia as a child. At the age of 13 she emigrated to Finland with her mother and siblings. Her new home was in the grip of a deep recession, and according to Farah there was a fair amount of racism.
Fulfilment of a dream
At school she was bullied because of her skin colour, and her classmates called her ’Neekeri’ (a racial slur that can be translated as ’nigger’ or ’negro’), rather than her first name, Nura.
Now resident in Helsinki and trained as a lab assistant, the first-time author has never lived in the desert. Her inspiration for the book came from the canon of Somali literature and the stories of her relatives in Finland.
Aavikon tyttäret is the first book written by a Somali author to be published in Finnish. It would be a literary event anyway, as books about Somalia are rare indeed. The majority of Somali authors are male, and the country’s literary tradition is still young.
“I am the first, but I hope that I will not be the last to do like this,” says Farah. “This is the fulfilment of my dream.”