Writer Leila Aboulela: Realism Is Still the Favorite School In Narrative

Writer Leila Aboulela:  Realism Is Still the Favorite School In Narrative

By: Mohamed Najeeb Mohamed Ali

KHARTOUM (Sudanow) - Sudanese novelist, story writer, Leila Aboulela ,  has shone very brightly as a novelist and story writer in a very short while.

Born in Khartoum in 1964 for a Sudanese father and an Egyptian mother, Leila Aboulela lives with her husband in England since 1989 and writes in English.

Her short story ‘The Museum”,  published within her collection of short stories ’Colored Lights’, has won the Caine Prize for African Writing , and  went on to be short-listed for the Macmillan Silver PEN award.

Her latest novel, The Kindness of Enemies is inspired by the life of Imam Shamil, who united the tribes of the Caucasus to fight against Russian Imperial expansion.

Leila's novel Lyrics Alley, was Fiction Winner of the Scottish Book Awards and short-listed for a Regional Commonwealth Writers Prize.

She is also the author of the novels The Translator (a New York Times 100 Notable Book of the Year) and Minaret. All three novels were long-listed for the Orange Prize and the IMPAC Dublin Award.
Aboulela’s works has been translated into fourteen languages and included in publications such as Granta, The Washington Post and The Guardian. The BBC Radio has adapted her work extensively and broadcast a number of her plays including The Mystic Life and the historical drama The Lion of Chechnya. The five-part radio serialization of her novel The Translator was short-listed for the RIMA (Race In the Media Award).

Her novel “Lyrics Alley” is a marrying of biography and art. The novel depicts the tragic story of her uncle, poet Hassan Awad Aboulela, who was paralyzed  while nose-diving  at a swimming pool in Egypt. 

Mohamed Najeeb with the writer


Sudanow has conducted a brief interview with Leila on her life in England and her experiment as a literary writer. Following is a translation of the interview which was originally conducted in Arabic:

Q: Leila Aboulela writes in English, though she had spent her childhood and part of her adulthood within Arab societies. She had left for England after graduating in economics from the University of Khartoum. Why English?

A: English had never been my choice. It was an imposition of my education and readings ever since I was a young girl. It had accompanied me in my readings and education. I think English suits me better than Arabic, which, sadly, I could not command as required. This option has been perpetuated by my living in England within an English society which I wanted to address in its own language about the pre-occupations of a Moslem-Arab woman that lives among them.

Q: You have several identities: You are the daughter of a Sudanese father and an Egyptian mother. You have espoused a husband whose father is Sudanese and his mother is British. What is the influence of this identity on you as a writer?

A: I am a combination of identities. While in Sudan, I was living with the dual identity of the Nile Valley (Sudan-Egypt) and when I settled in England, my identities and my nationalities grew more. Consequently, all those cultures had left their thumb print on me. I am indebted to all these identities for giving me a wider sight that I am now used to.

Q: In your novel Lyrics Alley you told the story of Poet Hassan Awad Aboulela. It is a well known life story. What did your novel add to the Poet’s biography? 

A: Hassan Awad Aboulela’s biography is rich in tales, because of his handicap. His life was an integral part of the extended family I belong to. I had tried to marry this biography with novelistic narrative. I tackled the late Hassan’s life story through the combining of many characters in one character to avoid distracting the reader with too many characters and also to keep a little relationship between the biography and what I wanted to show in my narrative.

Q: You once said that had you not lived outside Sudan, you might not have written what you wrote. What is the relationship between living in exile and narrative writing?

A: Living in exile disconnects you from what you are used to. I think exile is the worst of fates as orientalist Edward Saeed had put it. It is a severe punishment to leave your country. Exile is a motive for narrative writing. It awakens the desires to tell about nostalgia. Had I not left Khartoum, perhaps I might not have written what I wrote. Reading was a consolation in my exile, a very helpful pastime. I had made a list of books that appealed to me. In English I chose Charles Dickens and Somerset Maugham and other names. In Tayeb Salih’s ‘Wedding of Zain”, I found an image of the Sudanese life I left behind. The list had included other names of Arab men and women novelists. All those voluntary readings had helped me decide what I wanted to say narrative-wise.

Q: Your novel ’The Translator ‘had echoed highly well in the Sudanese cultural arena. Many writers had written about it. What exactly had prompted you to tell a story about an Arab-Moslem woman who lives in a society that would sure impose its culture on her?

A: At my early days in England I became aware about the challenges that face an Arab-Moslem woman living in a Western society and who has a responsibility to bring up her children in such a society. I began to feel the problems and anxieties that surround such women and to ask questions about the problems that face Moslems in those societies. Now, as you can see, the scope of those problems has widened, years after I wrote The Translator. I was writing with great sentiment. But if I have to write The Translator now, the matter could be more difficult.

Q: Creative genres have overlapped each other. There emerged narrative writings that intersect the past Arab and international narrative. To what school do you belong?

A: I find myself in the realistic school. I have no inclination towards experimentation in writing. It is my view that the actuality, with all its challenges, needs us to call it by its true names, now that the realistic school was and still is the most important school in narrative. The English realistic classics and the realistic novels written in English by foreign writers appeal too much to me. I belong to this category.  







  1. Essam Rajab

    I enjoyed reading this interview. Brief yet rich in both questions & answers.

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