When we left Mogadiscio, in Nuruddin Farah’s novel “Crossbones,” it was to the sound of a character crying, “What a dastardly city!” And of Somalia: “What an accursed country!” In Farah’s new work, “Hiding in Plain Sight,” we’re back in that once beautiful, now broken city on the eastern coast of Africa only long enough to meet Aar, a logistics officer working for the United Nations, before he dies in a suicide attack in his office — whereupon he becomes a ghost forcefully haunting the rest of the novel.
Farah, who has taught at the University of Minnesota and now splits his time between New York and South Africa, has long been a literary emissary of his native land, which political strife and civil war have turned into a nation of refugees, with vast numbers of Somalis now living abroad, many in Minnesota. In Kenya, where Aar’s children live and attend school and where he has a house, 6 percent of the population is Somali — enough, it seems, to generate the requisite prejudices and stereotypes. The whole novel, in fact, might be read as a sort of map of displaced people living in a welter of conflicting generalizations. When we first encounter Bella, Aar’s newly bereaved sister whose point of view dominates the novel, a taxi driver is advising her: “Signorina, take notice. … You are in Rome, whose proud citizens frown on public weeping!”
Bella, the product of an affair between a Somali woman and an Italian man, is an accomplished and successful photographer with lovers on three continents: one “very, very handsome; another (with whom she would have at least one child) who was very, very intelligent; and for the third, she would choose a stud — a well-hung partner with whom she would enjoy sex.” Thus, Bella is herself something of an anti-stereotype, a role she happily plays up when she’s confronted with received wisdom (everything from “I imagined every Somali woman underwent infibulation” to “Somali women don’t go to restaurants”).
As Aar’s executor and his only living relative, Bella flies at once to Kenya to comfort his children — and, ultimately, to mother them. Their Somali mother, Valerie, many years earlier had ditched home and family for an Indian woman, Padmini, whose recent attempt to reclaim ancestral land in Uganda has prompted its now-owner to make a complaint about her homosexuality, landing the couple in jail in Kampala. And she, Valerie, is the one who taunts Bella about female circumcision. She’s all-around awful, flying home — when Bella’s money springs her, much to Valerie’s outrage — ostensibly to re-establish herself in her children’s lives.
“The woman is clearly insane,” Bella thinks, and the bulk of the book is given over to flouting her without hurting her children. Mostly, this is a matter of logistics, of planning meals and sleeping arrangements, contending with traffic and legal questions, the practicalities and mechanics of going on, conducting grief — as much for a lost homeland as for a brother and father — out of hiding and into the plain, often all too general, business of everyday life.
Ellen Akins teaches in the MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University. She lives in northern Wisconsin.