Leila Aboulela is the author of three novels, Lyrics Alley, Minaret, and The Translator, and a collection of short stories, Coloured Lights. She grew up in Khartoum, has spent many years in Scotland, and currently lives in Aberdeen.
Q: Lyrics Alley was inspired by the life of your uncle. How much did you already know about your uncle's story before beginning the novel, and did you need to do a great deal of research to write it?
A: I had always known that my father’s cousin Hassan Awad Aboulela was famous. From a very young age I knew the story of Hassan’s swimming accident. Hassan was older than my father and my father had looked up to him. They went to the same school and it was perceived that they would work side by side in the family business. The accident and its repercussions (confining Hassan to his bed for the rest of his life, putting an end to his dreams of university and marriage) traumatized my father who at the time was thirteen years old.
Most of the research I undertook for Lyrics Alley was to capture the political scene of 1950s Sudan and the living conditions in Umdurman. In informal family interviews with Hassan’s sister and other members of the family I was given many domestic details. But it was my father telling his version of adjusting to Hassan’s quadriplegia that made it all vivid. My father spoke often and candidly about Hassan’s condition, appalled by the realistic details. As portrayed in the novel, Umdurman family life was very open, hardly anything was kept secret. And this was why my father knew so much that was intimate.
Q: Minaret tells the story of Najwa, who is from a wealthy Sudanese family but ends up cleaning houses in London and coming closer to her Muslim faith. Is Najwa's story specific to her location, or is her situation similar to that of other immigrants facing life in a new country?
A: I would like to believe that Minaret does have something significant to say about the lives of immigrants in a new country. However when writing the novel, I conceived of Najwa as a distinct character with specific circumstances and I did not worry about her being representative of a wider group of people. This would have put too much burden on me as a writer and would have stifled my imagination. Also the Regents Park area of London is very important to Minaret. From 1982 onwards, I ended up spending a lot of time there. The elegance of the park, the down-to-earth atmosphere of the Central Mosque, the extravagant shops of the High Street – the mix and character of this area in London inspired Minaret.
Q: In The Translator, you write about the relationship between a Sudanese Muslim woman living in Scotland, and a Scottish man who is a scholar of Islam. What can readers take away from their cross-cultural story?
A: I think that their cross-cultural story is a sign of the times. In the work place more and more people now are coming into contact with colleagues of different cultures. The work environment creates a real sense of solidarity and mutual respect – but in reality people’s backgrounds can be acutely different. When romance encroaches on the working relationship, it brings to the surface all the differences that were previously hidden. Both Rae and Sammar in The Translator have integrity and loyalty to the values of their respective cultures yet they want to be together. This is the dilemma that they are facing and I think that readers would be asking themselves what they would do if they were faced with a similar dilemma.
Q: On your website, you write, "My fictional worlds reflect Muslim logic. But my characters do not necessarily behave as 'good' Muslims; they are not ideals or role models. They are flawed and complex, trying to practise their faith or make sense of Allah's will, in difficult circumstances." Which of your characters do you think are the most successful in practicing their faith, given the circumstances in which they are living?
A: Badr in Lyrics Alley is easily the most successful. He is the most educated of all my characters and the one who is more consciously religious. I admire the balance in his life. On the one hand he is very down to earth while at the same time capable of experiencing spiritual depth. Sammar in The Translator is also successful although her grief and depression are burdens that she is carrying with her on her journey.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am working on a radio play, a response to Albert Camus’s classic The Outsider. This will be aired on BBC Radio in the autumn to coincide with the Camus centenary. I am also half-way through a novel about the legendary warrior Imam Shamyl who united the tribes of the Caucasus to fight a jihad against Russian Imperial expansion. The novel is partly set in 19th century Russia as well as present-day Scotland.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb