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The Sudanese Storyteller

SISTERS Editor Na’ima B. Robert talks to the Sudanese novelist Leila Aboulela about writing, worship and why she is happier in real life than in her fiction.

“I’ve come down in the world. I’ve slid to a place where the ceiling is low and there isn’t much room to move. Most of the time I’m used to it … I accept my sentence and do not brood or look back.”– Najwa, in ‘Minaret’



I first met Leila Aboulela at the Bradford Book Festival in 2005 and was struck by her quiet confidence and gentle smile. And, as soon as I read the first page of her book ‘Minaret’, I fell in love with her beautiful prose. Before her novel, ‘Lyrics Alley’ was released in December 2010, I spoke to Leila about her family background, about growing up in Sudan and how she approaches novel writing as a Muslim.



N. How would you describe your family background? I always imagine the main female character in Minaret as being based on your own experiences in Sudan – is that the case?0210
L. My father was Sudanese and my mother Egyptian. We had a privileged and cosmopolitan lifestyle which exposed me to many different kinds of people. So you could say I had a fairly liberal secular upbringing like that of my heroine Najwa in Minaret, but I exaggerated a lot in Minaret. In Minaret I made Najwa’s journey dramatic: from being highly secular/decadent to becoming very religious, whereas my own background was kind of in the middle. Also, unlike Najwa, I always had an instinctive shyness. I didn’t like it if boys looked at me or complimented me, I would immediately withdraw.



I was very close to my Egyptian grandmother and from an early age, she grounded me in an awareness of Allah (SWT) and in asking for His help. Because I often saw her reading tafsir, I wanted to become like her, knowledgeable and intellectually able. This awareness of Muslim teaching was reinforced and continued by my mother who consistently supported and expressed respect for religious people, even though we did not move in such circles. My mother encouraged me to take all my studies seriously and, in secondary school, Islamic Education became one of my favourite subjects.



When I went to university, I continued to move in liberal circles and I became conscious of the disdain with which religious people were held by left-wing intellectuals. This troubled me and discouraged me from wearing the hijab, although I spent a lot of time on the campus watching and admiring the girls who did. They seemed to me to be romantic and intriguing. It was only after I got married and moved to london that I started to wear hijab.



N. What were the earliest signs of a career as a writer?

L. I only started to write when I was 28 years old; after I had my first two children.



N. But you were an avid reader…

L. Yes, I was an avid reader. Growing up in Sudan, I read for pleasure whatever came my way and that was dictated by the availability of books both in terms of quality and quantity. I was a student in the Faculty of Economics at the University of Khartoum, specialising in Statistics and so literature was not one of my subjects.

N. And who were your favourite authors?

L. In English I read Charlotte Bronte, Antonia White, Somerset Maugham. Translated from Russian, I read Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. In Arabic, I read Tayeb Salih, Zeinab Bilal and Ihsan Abdel-Qudoos. My favourite novels were all written by women: Jane Eyre, Rebecca, Little Women, A Wrinkle in Time. It was only when I moved to Britain that I started reading African and Asian writers.


N. So how and when did the writing begin?

L. My move from Sudan to Britain made me start to write. The sharp contrast between Khartoum and Scotland – the weather, the people, the culture – compelled me to comment, to compare and contrast, to notice absences and observe additions. I was very homesick for Khartoum and I wanted to write about a certain beauty and a certain happiness that was characteristic of a city not known for its tourist value. People around me did not know much about Sudan or about Islam, the two things that made up my identity. This increased my loneliness and feelings of exile. In addition, the anti-Arab and anti- Islam atmosphere in the media following the first Gulf war made me want to write articles and non-fiction. But I found that I didn’t have the talent for doing that; fiction was where my strength was. It was attending Creative Writing Workshops that really spurred me on as I had a good response to my writing and encouragement to start sending my work off to publishers.


N. How did you first come to be published? Was it a surprise?

L. No it wasn’t a surprise – after receiving so many rejections, I was relieved and grateful! At the very beginning, I had a couple of short stories published in Scottish literary magazines. My first break came when one of my stories was included in HarperCollins’ annual anthology of Scottish Short Stories. I easily found an agent but it was hard to find a publisher for my first novel The Translator. I still keep a file of all my rejection letters! Many of them said that my writing was ‘too quiet’. I think that in the mid-nineties the themes I was dealing with were ahead of their time.




N. What do you feel is the role of a Muslim novelist? What is your intention when you write?
L. From the beginning of my writing career, I wanted to show the psychology, the state of mind and the emotions of a person who had faith. I was interested in going deep, not just looking at “Muslim” as a cultural or political identity but something close to the centre, something that transcended but didn’t deny gender, nationality, class and race. I wanted to write fiction that reflected Islamic logic; fictional worlds where cause and effect are governed by Muslim rationale. Every Muslim novelist will have their own inspirations and motivations. I don’t think I should tell them what their role should be. At the very least though, there should be accuracy in matters of Islamic Law and practice. For example I recently read a story set in rural Pakistan in which a village woman gets divorced and then remarries within a week. This, of course, can never happen in a Muslim country because she has to complete her iddah (waiting period) first. These kinds of slips make the writer come across as sloppy.



N. What has been the response of the global Muslim community to your work?
L. It has been very positive. I have been published in Indonesia, Turkey, Lebanon and Sudan. I would like to reach more Muslim readers. My biggest dream is that my books be used to teach English in Muslim countries. Instead of reading novels in English that are alien or remote to their culture and sensibilities, Muslim students would respond and identify with my characters and their predicaments.



N. Finally, how much of your own life – how much of you – is in your books?
L. There is naturally a little of me in my books. I say naturally because fiction is a dream crafted to seem real, and so much of our dreams are extensions and distortions of our own anxieties and obsessions. However, my stories and novels are not autobiographically accurate. Certain parts of my life are exaggerated while others are completely ignored. I have been told that in real life, I am more cheerful and happier than in my fiction. This is true. I have had a happy life, Alhamdulillah, and Allah (SWT) has given me more than I can ever be grateful for. But when I write, a kind of sadness seeps out and I am not sure where it is coming from.




Leila Aboulela won the first Caine Prize for African Writing. Her novel Lyrics Alley is set in 1950s Sudan and is inspired by the life of her uncle the poet Hassan Awad Aboulela who wrote the lyrics for many popular Sudanese songs. Leila is the author of two other novels: The Translator, one of The New York Times 100 Notable Books of the Year, and Minaret– both long-listed for the Orange Prize and the IMPAC Dublin Award. Her collection of short stories Coloured Lights was short-listed for the Macmillan Silver PEN Award. Leila grew up in Khartoum, lived much of her adult live in Scotland and now lives in Doha.