A Conversation with Leila Aboulela
Leila Aboulela, from Sudan, is the author of four acclaimed novels and, most recently, a collection of short stories entitled Elsewhere, Home. She talks to Lisa Clifford about writing, identity, and living between two worlds.
“I’ve come down in the world.” That’s how Najwa, an upper class, Westernised Sudanese woman forced out of her homeland by a military coup, describes her new British life in Aboulela’s novel Minaret. It’s also how Aboulela herself secretly felt after leaving the warmth and colour of her native Khartoum for a chilly 1990s Scotland. Her husband was away working on the oil rigs (an apparatus for offshore oil drilling) leaving her alone with their two young children – it was writing that saved her from homesickness and isolation.
“Living in Aberdeen [Scotland] was harder than I thought it would be,” said Aboulela, a smiling and thoughtful woman dressed in a bright headscarf. “I didn’t think of myself as a person attached to their roots or home, but in reality I found it hard to adjust.”
“The characters I chose to write about were less privileged than myself and had harder lives. There were so many people having a rougher time than I was, I couldn’t complain. So I had to invent characters with more somber circumstances than me and put all my feelings into them which was very satisfying.”
Aboulela loved reading as a child, including classic British authors like Daphne du Maurier and said her idea of pure joy was sitting with a book. Good grades in maths, however, pushed her towards a statistics degree at Khartoum University, and she taught the subject after arriving in Scotland. Aboulela began writing short stories as an escape and, after getting several published, abandoned the world of numbers forever. “I fit in better somehow as a writer than a statistics teacher,” Aboulela said.
Alienation, religion and Muslims – male and female – caught between two worlds, dominate Aboulela’s writing. In The Translator, her debut novel, Sammar, a Sudanese widow, and Rae, a Scottish academic, are drawn to each other despite their cultural and religious differences. For Minaret’s Najwa, it was religion and London’s Regent’s Park Mosque that provided solace and a sense of identity in an unfamiliar and hostile world.
Aboulela says that portraying ordinary, everyday faith is important to her, as it’s a subject not often dealt with by fiction writers. “You get books about very fundamentalist characters or you get characters who are atheists and have rejected religion,” she said. “In reality there are a lot of people in the middle. But in fiction, there is a lack of representation of the average person of faith.”
Aboulela insists that she’s not a political writer or an activist – preferring to reflect on life rather than change it. Nor is she sure she’s a classic feminist. “In a Sudanese context, I’d consider myself a feminist because I support girls’ education and I wrote against FGM in my novel Lyrics Alley, but I don’t see myself as a feminist in the British context,” she said. “There is a lot of difference. A Sudanese feminist would have loyalty to traditions, religion and family that are very different to that of a British feminist.”
Though she struggled at first to adjust to her new country, Aboulela acknowledges life would have been far different had she stayed in Sudan. As a young woman, writing love stories would have been impossible. Sitting thousands of miles away in Aberdeen, she was able to let her imagination run wild. “I could write what I wanted to write,” she said. “I understand that a lot of young girls in Sudan would find it hard to express themselves creatively. It’s a kind of self-censorship.”
Though she writes in English, much of Aboulela’s work has been translated into Arabic. Her Sudanese audience, however, is mainly expatriate given that high taxes make books like hers hard to come by in Sudan (a situation made worse by rampant government censorship and the curbing of freedom of expression). Aboulela is determined to encourage more young women to write and travelled to Omdurman, Sudan earlier this year to teach a creative writing workshop for men and women where they read a story by South Sudanese author Stella Gaitano. “We need to encourage young women to write,” Aboulela said. She hopes to go back to Sudan, perhaps with her daughter who Aboulela raised to appreciate her diverse heritage.
She hopes her children can learn from both the Sudanese and British cultures, though admits the current climate of palpable Islamophobia following the terror attacks in Europe is disturbing. However, Aboulela does see cause to hope and believes an invisible process of acceptance is running alongside the more visible intolerance. “There is more acceptance of Muslims,” she said. “Europe is accepting Islam as being here to stay. There is more awareness of Ramadan when people are fasting, shops are selling more modest clothing, that kind of thing.”
And her next novel? Aboulela’s not saying at the moment, except that “ideas aren’t the problem. Pulling them off is the challenge, writing in a convincing way so it becomes a fully-formed novel in the end…In the beginning the words were pouring out of me. There was an urgency and intensity. Now I can think more about the characters, the flow and the dynamics of the story.”
From Women in Islam Issue 3 (2017)