We managed to have a quick Q&A with Leila Aboulela author of Elsewhere, Home to find out more about being an award-winning novelist and playwright.
Q: When you first began to write, where did you think writing would take you?
A: At first, writing was a hobby. I wanted to make good use of my free time (which wasn’t much as I had two young children and a part-time job as a Statistics lecturer), make friends, have an outlet for my thoughts and feelings. Ambition and taking writing seriously developed later. I did have a clear intention, though, when I first started to write. I wanted to cure my homesickness and I wanted to put Islam in English literature. To some extent I achieved these goals almost immediately with my first novel The Translator. Being a writer enabled me to have a new life in Britain, to become someone I could not have been had I stayed in Sudan (not because one can’t be a woman writer in Sudan but because for me personally the writing was triggered by the move from Sudan to Britain). And I was happy that the reading public in Britain and elsewhere were open to the faith content in my work.
Q: Where do you do most of your writing? Can you describe to me the space where you are happiest working?
A: I am not fussy about space as long as I am alone, it’s quiet and no one is looking over my shoulders! I would never be able to write fiction in a café, for example. The room I am writing in now is my study. I keep the blinds down and the lights on. This probably sounds awful, but it makes me feel sealed in. I’ve written in rooms with views before, but I don’t particularly miss them. The sun would sometimes hurt my eyes and I’m inside the text anyway and not seeing anything else!
Q: What were the things you missed most about Sudan when you first moved to Aberdeen?
A: Everything – the visuals, the people, my sense of belonging. At the same time, I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what I was missing! The writing was a way of answering this question.
Q: Have those things changed over time?
A: Over time, the homesickness did recede, but it would flare up like flu from time to time. Over the past ten years, I’ve visited Sudan more and more. It has changed so much that it’s not the same place that I miss anymore. I miss the Sudan I grew up in but that’s nostalgia for childhood and yearning for the past- it’s not the same as homesickness.
Q: What does ‘home’ mean to you?
A: Home is where I feel a total sense of belonging, where I don’t have to explain or justify my presence, where I am taken for granted but not devalued, a place where I have agency, where I am not frightened to speak out, or feel wary of being misunderstood. A place of safety and nourishment. Home could be a physical space- the Aberdeen Central Library, a cousin’s house in Khartoum, Mecca during the Pilgrimage. Or it is being surrounded by my family anywhere in the world, even in an anonymous hotel room. The intellectual space I occupy with readers, writers and publishers, inside the pages of fiction, is also a kind of home.
Q: You have won and been listed for many, many prizes over the years, including the Scottish Book Awards, the Caine Prize for African Writing, The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Orange Prize. What does it mean to you to have your work recognized in this way?
A: It means a great deal. Especially when I was starting out, this kind of prize recognition did feel like a stamp of approval. I think prizes are great for writers and for drawing attention to a particular work. On the other hand, they can create a competitive, superficial culture of winners and losers- regardless of content. I have recently started to place more emphasis on the response of academics to my writing. Most of the learned, nuanced readings of my work is taking place within scholarly articles. I am happy that my work is taught in universities and that students are using it as subject matter for their PhDs.
Q: As well as your short stories, your novels The Translator, Minaret, Lyrics Alley and The Kindness of Enemies are loved by readers far and wide. Do you approach writing short stories and novels in the same way? If not, what are the differences?
A: Novels are long journeys. It is not only the number of words, but the years spent in writing them. Embarking on a novel is a commitment. I have to ask myself, ‘Will I be able to sustain fascination is this particular topic and in these particular characters for several years?’’ Short stories, on the other hand, don’t require this kind of long-term commitment. I can dip into the world of a short story and be out again within a relatively short period of time. This enables me to take risks and to follow instincts. Some of the stories in Elsewhere, Home such as The Aromatherapist’s Husband or Farida’s Eyes are detours, taking me away from my regular themes and yet they were fun to write. A story like Pages of Fruit, which is the longest in the collection and covers several decades and countries, felt like a novel when I was writing it, especially as it was very emotional for me and I could have kept going with the theme- but the narrow focus on the two main characters made it more suitable for the short story form. I must admit that writing thirteen separate short stories is much more difficult than writing one novel. In total, there is more work packed in a story collection, more skill than in one single novel.
About Leila Aboulela
Leila Aboulela is an award-winning novelist and playwright. Her novels, which were all longlisted for the Orange Prize, include The Translator (a New York Times Notable Book of the Year), Minaret and Lyrics Alley. Lyrics Alley was also Fiction Winner of the Scottish Book Awards. Translated into fourteen languages, Aboulela’s work has received a high profile for its distinctive exploration of identity, migration and Islamic spirituality. Aboulela grew up in Khartoum, Sudan, and now lives in Aberdeen.
Leila Aboulela’s latest collection of short stories Elsewhere, Home is available to purchase with free UK delivery here