Q: In the build up to the KABAFEST 2017, many concerns were raised regarding safety and the political terrain in Northern Nigeria. How did you prepare your mind to defy the ruckus and brace yourself for the festival as the headliner?

Leila: When I first saw all these calls on social media for me to boycott the festival, I did hesitate. But then I took advice from my publishers and from trusted friends such as Zukiswa Wanner, Abubakar Ibrahim and Helon Habila. They said, go, so I said my prayers and went.

Q: How did you find Northern Nigeria in relation to your home country, Sudan?

Leila: To my delight, Northern Nigeria reminded me very much of Sudan. The people looked familiar and hearing the azan in darkly lit streets made me imagine I was in Omdurman. All this combined to make me feel comfortable and at home. Northern Nigeria, though, is richer than Sudan in terms of greenery and rainfall. The climate in Sudan is much harsher and hotter.

“To my delight, Northern Nigeria reminded me very much of Sudan.”

Q: You had a 2-day fiction workshop with female writers in Kaduna. How would you describe the direction and flair of writing from this part of Nigeria?

Leila: The 20-plus writers who attended the workshop were dynamic and engaged with the writing process and with contemporary fiction. In their assignments, many tackled difficult, sensitive topics and we did spend time discussing the specific challenges facing women writers. A prevalent concern was the reaction of family and wider society and how readers were likely to assume that fictional characters were the author herself or people known to her. This, of course, is problematic in that it can lead to self-censoring or to writing that is stilted and self-conscious. It’s important for a writer to feel free from constraints and pressures.   

Read:‘Against the grain’: a panel discussion purely in Hausa

Q: A lot of the writing coming from Northern Nigeria is predominantly in Hausa, with a few writing in English, which gives the impression that there is not much literary work coming out of this part of the country. Do you feel the same happens in Sudan: Is there a lack of awareness of the body of literature written in Arabic by English readers from outside?

Leila: In Britain and the US, only a small percentage of the literature that is published is translated, and this includes works translated from European languages. However, things have improved in recent years and there is now a healthy interest in translated literature. Most Sudanese writers write in Arabic. However, within Arab literary circles they are often marginalised. This leads to a situation where Sudanese writing is a minority within a minority, facing extra hurdles in order to come to the attention of the world. 

In conversation: Sudanese writer Leila Aboulela. Photo: Anselm Ngutsav/This is Africa

Q: Are there any Arabic novels that you read while growing up that have influenced your writing?

Leila: Tayeb Salih’s novels Season of Migration to the North and The Wedding of Zein were a big influence, as were the novels of the Egyptian writer Ihsan Abdel Qudous. I was introduced to Naguib Mahfouz through the popular film adaptations of his novels before starting to read him.

Q: Your works have been translated into Arabic, but don’t you think there is not enough translation of literature by Sudanese writers in Arabic into English?

Leila: This is true. The year 2016 turned out to be an exceptionally good one for Sudanese literature in English and I hope the trend continues. The Book of Khartoum, edited by Raphael Cormack and Max Shmookler, is a contemporary collection of short stories from Sudan’s top writers. It included this year’s Caine Prize-winning story. A more inclusive anthology, as its title shows, was Literary Sudans – An Anthology of North and South Sudan, edited by Bhakti Shringarpure. Also exciting in 2016 was that for the first time in its history, Banipal (UK) the magazine of Modern Arabic Literature devoted an entire issue, its 55th, to new Sudanese literature. I hope this interest in Sudanese literature continues and grows in the years to come.     

“I hope this interest in Sudanese literature continues and grows in the years to come.”

Q. Bushra Elfadil is the second Sudanese writer to win the Caine Prize after you, with his work translated from Arabic to English. Do you see this serving as a springboard towards a lot of translation from Arabic, Hausa and other African languages to give us a taste of literature from these windows? 

Leila: Yes, this is a wonderful development. Not only is Bushra Elfadil the first to win with a story translated from Arabic buthe is the first to win with a story translated from any African language. This will certainly encourage future judging panels to consider translated stories. It will also encourage the translation and publishing of writing from African languages.

Women Power: Harnessing the potential of women in northern Nigeria. Photo: Anselm Ngutsav/This is Africa

Q. In your Booklogue discussion with Kola Tubosun during KABAFEST you said you were terrified by the “T word that ends with a suffix”. Do you think as Muslims the world does not understand that you have the same fear as everyone else concerning these radical issues? 

Leila: I was reading a section of my novel The Kindness of Enemies, in which a young man is arrested on terrorism charges. The narrator, who is a family friend, describes the reason the police say they have a warrant for the arrest as charges that “start with t and ending with a suffix”. By not spelling out the word “terrorism”, the text conveys the great fear and shame of the characters and the magnitude of what they are up against. Regarding your question, yes, it is not clear to the Western world that Muslims are the ones who are suffering the most from terrorism. Muslim terrorists are mostly killing Muslims. In addition, the greater scrutiny that young Muslims face in Britain, because of anti-terror legislation, causes the Muslim community to feel that they are unfairly under suspicion.    

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Q. Your work, especially your short stories, reflect a sense of displacement; a search for identity and longing for home. Do these emanate subconsciously from your own experiences?

Leila: When I first started writing, I started writing out of a sense of homesickness. That was in my late 20s, after I had moved from Sudan to Scotland. I wrote to explore the culture shock I was living through. I felt a great sense of alienation and difficulty in adjusting. People around me did not know much about Sudan or about Islam, the two things that made up my identity. This increased my loneliness and feeling of exile. The short stories I wrote at that time reflected my feelings. As I kept on writing, I was able to tackle other subjects but to some extent these themes still follow me.    

Q: After The Kindness of Enemies, what next should we be expecting?

Leila: A novel with fantasy elements about three troubled women who set out on a road trip and become transformed by the landscape. My working title is The Hoopoe but that might well change upon publication.