Gifts, by Nuruddin Farah.
Gifts, by Nuruddin Farah. Penguin Books (2000), Paperback, 256 pages.
A significant novel about giving and receiving in a community in Somalia, by a well-regarded African author.
Nuruddin Farah was born in Somalia in 1945, and has written numerous novels about his homeland. He has lived aboard much of his life, sometimes because of threats on his life for his writings. Gifts is part of his “Blood on the Sun” trilogy. As the name implies, Gifts focuses on the giving and taking that structure life. In Somalia to accept a tangible or intangible gift carries the requirement of giving something back in return. In this book, Farah uses gifts as a means for exploring how human beings define their duty and responsibility to others in daily life.
In Gifts, the main character is Duniya, a woman in her thirties living in Mogadishu. Although she has been married twice, she is raising her children alone. Although a strong and capable woman, she gets flustered when Bosaaso, an attractive, educated man, enters her life. Her adolescent daughter brings home a parentless infant, raising new questions of duty. She argues with her children and the attraction between her and Bosaaso grows stronger. Duniya is hesitant to accept all that Bosaaso offers for fear of becoming dependent on him. She is unwilling to owe him more than she is willing to repay. As Duniya considers gifts in her personal life, Farah repeatedly raises the question of Somalia receiving huge gifts from the European countries and the United States. He views the one-way relationship that the foreign aid fosters as humiliating and ultimately destructive although essential for survival.
I became curious about Farah when I read in several places that he was an unusual male writer who writes sympathetically about women. This was certainly true in Gifts. His women characters are capable and independent, often complaining about men and male privilege. Yet his depiction of Duniya’s sudden mood shifts and bouts of fumbling behavior seemed to be overdrawn.
Reading globally, I have found many books in which I felt very comfortably immersed in a culture different from my own. Sometimes, however, books leave me feeling like an observer on the edges of another time and place. Gifts had that affect on me. Characters thought and acted in patterns that were foreign to me. Farah’s writing also had an unfamiliar cadence, an Africanism even though the words were in English. I don’t hold this against Farah. I respect authors who are true to their own roots. I just wish I could have moved more deeply into this book.
I recommend Gifts to readers interested in Africa and African literature or in the complexity of our human interactions.