Leila Aboulela’s latest book, Lyrics Alley recently won the 2011 Scottish Book of the Year Award and made the shortlist for the 2011 Commonwealth Writers Prize (Eurasia Region, Best Book). Aboulela is also a past winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing, which she received in 2000 for her short story The Museum. Her two other novels, The Translator (1999) and Minaret (2005), were both long-listed for the Orange Prize
Born in 1964 Cairo, Egypt, Leila Aboulela grew up in Khartoum, Sudan, where she graduated from Khartoum University in 1985 with a degree in Economics. Aboulela also holds an MSc and an MPhil degree in Statistics from the London School of Economics. For many years, she lived in Scotland, which is where she started her writing career.
Read her interview with Africa Book Club.
You are very well travelled, and have lived and worked in several countries. How has that influenced your writing?
It was travelling that first made me a writer. I started to write in 1992 after I had left Sudan and was living in Scotland. I was very homesick for Khartoum. People around me did not know much about Sudan or about Islam, the two things that made up my identity. This increased my feeling of alienation. The late eighties were the start of the anti-Islam sentiments in the Western media and my presence in Britain made me defensive. Suddenly I needed to express that life in Khartoum was good, that the people were good, that it was circumstances that had made us all leave rather than choice. I was in a culture and place which asserted every minute that ‘West is Best’, Africa is a mess, Islam oppresses women and that I should be grateful that I had escaped. Youth and pride made me resist this description. And this, I believe is what triggered my writing. I found my voice in fiction. The general theme of my early work was the culture shock and struggles faced by outsiders in Britain. Alienation, competition between modernity and tradition, the humiliation of being an economic or political refugee are all issues which informed my writing.
Your background, as a trained economist and statistician makes for an unlikely career in fiction writing. When and why did you decide to become a writer?
I had always enjoyed reading fiction and I read avidly as a child and a young adult. However, my strong subject at school was Maths and this is what led me to study Statistics at the University of Khartoum. My career plan was to teach in University and I never imagined that one day I would write my own novels. When I moved to Scotland with my husband and children I felt for the first time the urge to write. I attended Creative Writing Workshops held at the University of Aberdeen and soon what I regarded as a new hobby become more than that.
Do you juggle writing with a full-time job or other career?
At first I did. I was teaching Statistics and looking after my home and children. Then I decided to focus on my writing and my family.
Where do you draw your inspiration to write?
From childhood/young adult memories and also from what is happening around me. My first two novels The Translator and Minaret were inspired by the challenges facing Sudanese women in the West. The settings varied between Scotland and London but in both novels I relied heavily on my earlier memories of growing up and attending university in Khartoum.
Identity, religion and the interaction of cultures are running themes in your work – do you deliberately seek to explore these areas and why? Has this got to do with your own upbringing growing up and living in many different places and cultures?
From the beginning of my career I had wanted to write about Islam as a faith and about Muslims who, with varying degrees of success, are engaged with their faith. Over the past decade the media interest in Islam has focused on terrorism and the veil; for me the challenge is to resist explaining, defending or getting pulled into an agenda set by others. I write without looking over my shoulder, focusing on what I intimately know rather than on the issues that grab the headlines.
Even though my parents were both Muslims, Arabs and Africans, the social and cultural differences between them were a strong influence on me as a child. My mother was Egyptian and came from a metropolitan, academic background while my father was Sudanese and came from a large merchant family. The contrast between Egyptian and Sudanese culture was a constant theme of discussion in our house. At an early age, I was attuned to picking up the nuances and provocations of cultural differences. This was later to come out in my writing in the theme of culture clash and friction between contrasting people.
It’s been a little over a decade since you won the Caine Prize for African Writing for your story, The Museum. How important was winning the Caine Prize for your journey as a writer?
It was extremely important on both the professional and personal level. It brought me to the attention of literary London, it broadened my profile and it boosted the publication of my collection of short stories Coloured Light. There was also the boost of confidence and the feelings of approval and encouragement.
Were there other breaks, before or after winning the Caine Prize that really made a difference for you?
In 1996 I was selected by BBC Scotland for a workshop initiative aimed at minority writers. This led to radio broadcasts of my stories, the opportunity to write radio plays as well as an introduction to my agent, Stephanie Cabot, whom I am still with today.
Your latest book, Lyrics Alley was shortlisted for the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ First Prize (EurAsia region) and more recently won the Scottish Mortgage Investment Book Award for fiction. What’s this meant for you as a writer?
I was delighted with the news. It felt like a great honour. I won the Caine Prize for a short story so this is my first time to win as a novelist.
Tell us about the book.
Lyrics Alley was inspired by the life of my father’s cousin, the poet Hassan Awad Aboulela who found success in the 1950s when his lyrics became popular songs sung by the leading Sudanese singers of the time -Ahmed Al Mustafa and Sayyid Khalifa. My father had often spoken of Hassan and the tragic accident that left him bedridden at the age of eighteen. I grew up knowing the romantic and sad story of how Hassan’s engagement to his sweetheart had to be broken and how he put his feelings into words.
In the novel, I fictionalized Hassan as Nur (in Arabic the name means ‘light’) and he became the sun around which many other imaginary characters orbited. His father’s young Egyptian wife, Nabilah and her conflict with her co-wife, echoes the tension of Anglo-Egyptian rule in 1950s Sudan. Soraya and Mahmoud, as Nur’s sweetheart and father bore, in very different ways, the anguish and repercussions of the accident. And with them, the outsider and the thinker, Badr, the private tutor to the family who asks the question,”Why do bad things happen to good people?”
I would say that Lyrics Alley is about dashed hopes, about the personal persistent struggle against disappointment. Belonging to the post-Independence generation, I had to grow up within the disappointments and compromises of Independence. It was my father’s generation which witnessed the exhilaration of Independence and the subsequent crush of coups, military regimes and dysfunctional states. Although Lyrics Alley was inspired by my uncle, the novel was capturing my father’s times, the heady days of the 1950s when Sudan was actually a prosperous country before it became, a few decades later, one of the poorest in the world.
How has your work been received in your homeland Sudan, or in Egypt where you were born? Is the publishing industry and reading culture there thriving?
The feedback I receive is very warm and encouraging. Sudanese and Egyptian readers know ‘where I am coming from” and that makes for a more intimate reading experience. Many readers in Sudan and Egypt do read in English but my work has to be translated into Arabic in order to reach the majority. My novel The Translator was translated into Arabic and was very well received in Sudan. The translator Al Khatim Adlan is a well-known and highly respected Sudanese writer and his endorsement pulled in a great number of readers. In the next couple of months my short stories Coloured Lights are also going to be published in Arabic in Sudan.
Who’s your favourite writer, and what’s your favourite book?
As I was growing up my favorite writers ranged from Dostoyevsky and Daphne du Maurier. When I started to write, I hugely admired J M Coetzee Anita Desai, Ahdaf Soueif and Doris Lessing. In my own writing I have been influenced by Tayeb Salih and Naguib Mahfouz.
My favourite novels are Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and The Wedding of Zein by Tayeb Salih.
Are there writers from Africa or the Middle East that you admire?
Tayeb Salih, Naguib Mahfouz, Ahdaf Soueif as mentioned above. Also Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Abdulrazak Gurnah.