Sunday, August 16, 2020

Q&A with Leila Aboulela

Leila Aboulela is the author of the new novel Bird Summons. Her other books include The Kindness of Enemies and Elsewhere, Home. She was born in Cairo and grew up in Khartoum, and now lives in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Bird Summons, and for your three characters?

A: I had a strong image of these three women in a car heading out of town. I didn’t know much about them or where they were going, except that I was sure that they weren’t moving out of the city.

Part of the image was that the woman in the driving seat was the one most enthusiastic about the trip while the one sitting in the back more reserved and reflective. It then made sense that the woman sitting in the passenger seat would be closer in friendship to the driver.

I came into Bird Summons after having researched and written a novel set in the 19th century, The Kindness of Enemies, and I was eager to write about the modern world of social media and how immigrant women are now more connected than ever to their country of origin.

So, my initial interest was on how the three women would be in the car together but still connected to other countries (and people) through their phones.

They end up staying at a converted monastery and at first I imagined them collectively going through a spiritual experience which they would interpret in different ways but I found the characters developing separately and in a sense having their own individual moments of reckoning and their distinctive spiritual journeys.   

Q: In The Washington Post's review of the book, Keija Parssinen writes, "Leila Aboulela’s latest novel, the elegant Bird Summons, gives mischievous treatment to the classic road trip narrative. The Sudanese Aboulela, who now lives in Scotland, doubly subverts what in the West is a traditionally white, male genre by casting Muslim women as the rogue adventurers." What do you think of that description?

A: It was a nice surprise. Certainly, on my part I didn’t set out to deliberately subvert a genre. I did though read the script for Thelma & Louise as I was writing Bird Summons and I was aware that the relationship between Thelma and Louise was very much warmer and supportive than that between Salma, Moni, and Iman, who are more combative.

Q: What role do you see the Hoopoe character playing in the novel, and how was the book's title chosen?

A: The working title of the novel was The Hoopoe, but when I reached the third draft, I started thinking that not everyone would know what a hoopoe was, so I changed the title to the more general Bird Summons. Interestingly, in the Arabic translation of the novel, which is coming out soon, the title is The Hoopoe -When it Speaks.

I see the Hoopoe as the figure of the spiritual guide who imparts ancient wisdom through his stories. He is, though, limited in agency and the women must make their own choices and follow their own paths.

Q: Did you need to do any research to write this novel, and if so, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I learnt a lot about Scotland’s folktales.

An amazing writer that I came across in my research was the children’s fantasy novelist George MacDonald, who lived in Aberdeenshire - very close to where I live now. He wrote the The Princess and the Goblin and he was a huge influence on C.S. Lewis, actually his mentor.

It was a lovely surprise to come across his writing and see the connections with Lewis. Both were committed Christians and their faith guided their writing.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on a novel set in 19th century Sudan during a revolution against colonial rule. I’m having to do a lot of research, but it is fascinating to see the different points of view and luckily there is a lot of material available though it tends to focus on men’s lives rather than women’s.

The novel is realistic and it seems that I’ve placed all the magic I’m capable of (at least for the time being) in Bird Summons.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Leila Aboulela.

No comments:

Post a Comment