Sudanese novelist Leila Aboulela recently sat down for a BookRising podcast with Radical Books Collective’s Bhakti Shringarpure. Aboulela spoke on an array of topics starting with an evocative and deeply incisive reflection on the works of recent Nobel winner Abdulrazak Gurnah. The conversation then moved on to topics such as literature from Sudan that must be translated, on the differences between literature of East Africa and West Africa, on writing about Muslim lives and culture, and the importance of diaspora readerships and novels.
Listen to the full podcast here:
We decided that since Gurnah’s works still not widely available and our Gurnah book club coming up in February, we should transcribe some of Aboulela’s brilliant observations on the themes, ideas and style of his novels. Here are some selections:
On the three kinds of Abdulrazak Gurnah novels
“Gurnah’s novels are beautiful, immersive and very approachable. It is very easy to get into them, to sync into them. Once you become a fan, you want to keep reading him because he circles around similar themes. Zukiswa Wanner described Gurnah’s work as being on the quiet side and that might be one of the reasons that he hasn’t been making waves. He has two kinds of novels. He’s got the novel which is about displacement. So, he’s got the young man who comes to England as Gurnah himself did in 1967 and he goes through the feeling of alienation, encountering racism…not homesickness — because the characters are very much aware that they have left a place of defeat, of misery and they have come for a better life.”
“It is very emotional. He is very specific within this area of Zanzibar itself. There is often a person immigrating from Zanzibar to England. One kind of novel is about alienation, and then the inter-racial relationships. But then there are also these historical novels which are set in the past in Zanzibar. So, his concerns are not overtly political. They are very much to do with the person.”
“He very interested in family secrets. The person is ashamed of something, is guilty and then we slowly realize that there is a family secret involved, and it is usually to do with shame around debt.”
“He excels so much about writing about the kind of people who are made small by injustice and oppression. So, they are not heroes in the sense that they are defiant and they fight back. And we know when we are reading that them this is actually what happens. This is what cruelty, injustice and poverty does — that it crushes people…at the same time celebrating their humanity, celebrating their sense of resilience but they are crushed people. They are people who have experienced humiliation and they have got to a point when they would rather look away, rather than confront or retaliate. They have been reduced to that.”
“There is sardonic humor that goes along and it is almost like a reflex that the character facing racism, for example, they respond by making fun of the racist but also making fun of themselves. So, there is humor as a way of defense…like the person is so hurt by the racism and so bitter but they are going to pretend that they are laughing about it to deal with it.”
On style and storytelling
“There is this person narrating a story and keeping us interested and revealing little by little. There is this kind of seduction going on, that we are given dribs and drabs. There are wonderful descriptions of the place – Zanzibar — he is so good at describing people and women. The African Muslim women do come across vividly in his writing. The dialogue also is of a very high standard and impeccable. So, I mean writing from beginning to end is perfect. It is of such a high standard.
“One of my favorite novels, Admiring Silence, has got a quote that really made a big impression on me and it says, “after all these years I can’t get over the feeling of being alien in England, of being a foreigner. Sometimes I think that what I feel for England is disappointed love.” And this “disappointed love” is infused through these novels.”
Leila Aboulela is a writer from Sudan and currently lives in Aberdeen, Scotland. She has published five novels, two short story collections and many radio plays. She was the first every recipient of the Caine Prize for African Writing in the year 2000 for her short story "The Museum" and her novels have been long-listed for the Women's Prize for Fiction. Aboulela's short-story collection Elsewhere, Home was the winner of the 2018 Saltire Fiction Book of the Year Award.