Leila Aboulela is the author of the story collection Elsewhere, Home. Her other books include the novels The Kindness of Enemies and Lyrics Alley. She grew up in Sudan and lives in Scotland.
Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in Elsewhere, Home, and do you see changes in your writing over the years?
A: Over 20 years. The earliest was "Coloured Lights" (one of the shorter stories) and the most recent "Pages of Fruit" (the longest). I find it easier to write now than I did when I first started. The writing flows faster, I suppose, because I have more confidence.
Early in my career, the writing was somewhat sluggish, the paragraphs denser, the reading pace slower. Also, my early writing had more descriptions of Sudan and my childhood/youth there as it was all still fresh in my mind. I left Sudan in 1987 and even when I go back there now, I find that it has changed dramatically.
So in a sense, what I captured of Sudan in my early writing has become elusive. The sense of acute homesickness and alienation has also lessened in my work. In the most recent stories such as "The Circle Line," the characters are more sophisticated, more at ease as they move between cities. I wanted to capture how younger generations respond to having a mixed identity, how they can feel equally at home in different places.
Q: How did you decide on the order in which the stories would appear?
A: To be honest, I can’t remember. For sure, though, I wanted the longest story to be at the end and I wanted to start off with a strong story - "Summer Maze."
Q: You've said that your focus has been on themes of migration, homesickness, and belonging. How have your own experiences as someone who moved from Sudan to Scotland affected your writing?
A: It was the move that made me start to write. So in fact, my writing is grounded in the experience itself. I hadn’t grown up wanting to become a writer. True, I loved reading and I was always reading but I felt no desire to write.
When I moved, I was in my mid-20s with two young children and the move also coincided with my failure to complete a Ph.D in Statistics. This disoriented me and to navigate my way through all this newness, I felt compelled to write.
I felt that I was writing about things that couldn’t be said in polite society. Contrary to expectations, when immigrants get together they never talk about homesickness or their anxieties about bringing up their children away from their home culture. Fiction offered me a space to say these things.
But of course, writing was not all about venting my particular feelings. I wanted to write well, I wanted to produce good stories. Without a Creative Writing degree (or even an English Literature one) I had to educate myself by reading, practicing and figuring out things on my own.
Q: How was the collection's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: My editor and I discussed the title at length. At first, I thought that the title of the book should be the title of one of the stories. It was my editor who came up with the idea of using another phrase that would be evocative of the stories as a whole.
I warmed to the word “home” straightaway. How it carried the sense of warmth and belonging. It also reminded me of “homesickness” which is also an important presence in the book. Many of the characters experience homesickness and yet they are resigned to their situation as immigrants.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am working on more short stories, although I should be researching my new novel, which is set in 19th century Sudan!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: My novel Bird Summons, about three Muslim women on a road trip to the Scottish Highlands, has recently been published in the UK and is due to be published in the US next year.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Leila Aboulela.