Just off the plane from South Africa, still in his warm-weather clothes and sandals, Nuruddin Farah headed to a shoestore in Dinkytown to get something appropriate for winter.
"Are you from Africa?" the clerk asked.
"Yes," said Farah, who is Somalia's most famous novelist and was in Minneapolis to teach at the University of Minnesota.
"Which country?" the clerk asked.
For Farah, even chance encounters are opportunities to educate. "Where do you think I'm from?" he asked.
The woman was stumped; she could not name a single country in Africa. Farah gave her an assignment: "You look up some countries and I'll come back tomorrow at noon," he told her. "If you name three African countries and they're the wrong ones, then I'll tell you the truth."
All this was observed and recounted by fellow U faculty member Charlie Sugnet, who says it was not the first time he had witnessed Farah using casual encounters to teach about the wider world.
Teaching about the wider world -- especially his beloved, troubled homeland -- has been a driving force in Farah's life and books.
The author of 11 novels, including his latest, "Crossbones," Farah is considered one of Africa's best writers. His name comes up just about every year as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. The New York Review of Books calls him the most important African novelist to emerge in the past 25 years and one of the most sophisticated voices in modern fiction. In 1998, he became the first African writer to receive the prestigious Neustadt International Prize for Literature.
His topic is Somalia, the country where he was born and lived as a young man, the country that was lost to him for 20 years when he was forced into exile.
In 1976 he published his second novel, "A Naked Needle." Set in Mogadishu, the book takes a satirical look at misogyny under dictator Siad Barre. Incensed, Barre ordered Farah's imprisonment should he ever return to Somalia.
Farah stayed away, but he would not be silenced. Instead, he set out, he said, to "keep my country alive by writing about it."
Now based in Cape Town, South Africa, Farah says that Somalia is never far from his thoughts. He carries a Somali passport, and now that Barre is no longer in power he visits often to do research. He writes passionately and hauntingly, preserving with words the land, the culture, the history and the people.
"Crossbones" is the third book in his "Past Imperfect" trilogy, which examines life and death in the chaos that has engulfed Somalia since the civil war began in 1991. He often writes in three installments because, he says, he cannot do justice to such broad and complex themes as civil war and dictatorship in one book.
"It's a disease," Farah says with a grin. "A disease of being long-winded."
To examine these issues fairly, he explains, one must look at them from different angles. How are children affected by civil war? What happens to the elderly? The women?
In "Crossbones," he weaves the tales of several people, including a Somali exile returning to his homeland, a teenager who leaves Minneapolis to fight with a terrorist group, and a journalist who tries to document the rise of religious extremism and piracy, the latest byproducts of the war.
'Not about us'
One morning during the first week of classes, Farah sat in his second-floor office on campus, surrounded by unpacked boxes. He's back at the U, where he holds the Winton Chair in the College of Liberal Arts and where he is teaching for three autumns.
He was born in 1945 in Baidoa, Somalia, one of 10 children. His father worked for the British government. When Farah was a child, he moved with his family to the city of Kallafo in the Somali-speaking part of Ogaden, a desert region of Ethiopia. His mother was a community poet, who recited her poems at weddings.
Farah was a restless child. His older brother fed his restlessness with books, promising Farah a soccer ball or some other treat if the boy could finish a book and tell him what it was about.
And just like that, "I got hooked," Farah said.
As a teenager, he read Agatha Christie and Victor Hugo because there were no Somali authors. But he craved Somali characters. "I discovered the stories, although interesting, were not about us," he said. "So my initial interest was to fill that gap."
He did this by rewriting his favorite books, giving the characters Somali names and changing their descriptions and experiences to resemble his own life experiences. From that, it was a simple step to start writing his own stories.
Sugnet, Farah's colleague at the U, remembers the first time he met Farah, who struck him at the time as a scrappy and controversial fellow. Sugnet had been searching for an African writer to invite to the U, and someone suggested Farah. Later, at a conference in London, Sugnet attended a talk about postcolonial literature and language. Indian writer Anita Desai made an argument for writing in English instead of Hindi.
"There was this guy there who kept asking her difficult questions," Sugnet said. "And I figured it must be him." He was right.
Influence remains strong
The man who writes to keep Somalia alive has had plenty to write about lately, with a devastating famine threatening to kill hundreds of thousands in the East African nation, and the rise of an Al-Qaida affiliate.
"I would say that his contribution is to have been critical for a very, very long time of narrow African nationalisms that turn out to be tyrannies," Sugnet said. "To be very critical of the way gender equations are usually mapped and have an alternative to that. [And] to have women characters who are important."
Farah, now 65, continues to fill the void in literature on Somalia with his stories. His prolific track record, however, makes the process of creating new works a bit more time-consuming.
"I've never suffered from writer's block," he says, "but it takes me longer and longer now. I don't want to repeat myself."