Award-winning writer and Sudanese novelist, Leila Aboulela, discovered Akuany, the protagonist of her most recent novel, River Spirit, on a bill of sale in the Sudan Archives at Durham University: ‘I knew that slavery existed in nineteenth century Sudan, but it was still a shock to hold in my hand proof of it, with a monetary figure and the names of buyer and seller.’
Editor’s note: This essay is available in our print issue, Pan-African Dreams. Buy the issue here.
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
I attended an American elementary school in Khartoum, so I grew up reading American books from its library. These books include Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. The first adult books I read were Daphne du Maurier’s novels titled Jamaica Inn and Rebecca. In my teens I started to read more seriously and widely. The books I read during this time were the Russian classics, and works of Naguib Mahfouz, Tayeb Salih, and Nawal El Saadawi.
What book from your childhood would you pass on to someone younger?
Every generation seems to have its own favourites and passing on books can sometimes result in disappointment. But I would recommend A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. And for older readers, I would recommend The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley and Malcolm X.
If your life so far was a series of texts, which text (fiction or non-fiction) represents you at this moment?
I can’t think of my life in this way. I feel as if my life is constantly shifting, moving, and slipping away. A text calcifies a stage or a moment in my life and I am not sure which would be the most representative.
I feel as if my life is constantly shifting, moving, and slipping away.
What’s the last thing you read and disagreed with?
I disagree with most of what I read in the media to the extent that I don’t even notice that I’ve disagreed.
What is your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I write first drafts early in the morning, before breakfast or going online. Then during the day, I continue a little, but I mostly edit what I had previously written. I aim at writing at least 800 fresh words per day. Although I do edit as a write, I put more effort into writing a first draft first. To some extent, I only edit when I am unable, for whatever reason, to continue writing more new material.
The West African edition of your latest novel, River Spirit, will be released in June 2023. What was your process for writing this book?
I spent a long time researching the history and following various leads. I read texts both in Arabic and English. I also tried hard to read primary sources and I had to often wade through hyperbole and propaganda to come closer to the truth.
River Spirit follows the coming-of-age story of a young woman, Akuany, during the Mahdist War in nineteenth-century Sudan. Why did you decide to write about this period in Sudanese history?
The rise of the Mahdi, the siege of Khartoum and the assassination of its British governor, Charles Gordon, was the thrilling historical story I had grown up with and studied in school and university. By writing about it, I wanted to share it with a contemporary audience and look at it with new eyes.
Why was it crucial to centre the voice of a young woman living in such a turbulent period in Sudanese history?
I decided to centre the voice of a woman in River Spirit because women are merely footnotes in the historical records. However, they played a major part in the Mahdist wars. They accompanied the armies. They cooked, nursed, set up market stalls every step of the way. They also spied and passed on valuable information. Fiction is a way of restoring women to the historical tapestry they have been excluded from.
You once mentioned that you had to conduct archival research for this novel. How relevant and revealing were your archival findings?
I ‘found’ my lead character Akuany on a bill of sale in the Sudan Archives at Durham University. I knew that slavery existed in nineteenth-century Sudan, but it was still a shock to hold in my hand proof of it, with a monetary figure and the names of buyer and seller. This led me to embark on extensive research about slavery in Sudan.
I decided to centre the voice of a woman in because women are merely footnotes in the historical records.
Compared to your other works of historical fiction such as Lyrics Alley, how different or similar was working on River Spirit?
In Lyrics Alley, I was writing about family history, and it was set in the 1950s, a period within living memory of many of the people I interviewed. River Spirit is set much further back in time and so the research was more extensive.
What’s the most interesting reaction/feedback you’ve had about River Spirit?
That it is a love story. I did not think as I was writing it that it was a love story. I was so focused on the history and the politics. But it is true, River Spirit is indeed a love story between Akuany and Yaseen and how they come together and draw apart throughout the turbulent years of their adulthood.
What books would you recommend to anyone interested in the lives or history of Sudanese people?
You were born in Cairo, and you later moved to Khartoum. You have also lived in Jakarta, Dubai, Doha, London, and Aberdeen. Which of these cities and its culture has fascinated you the most?
I was born in Cairo because my mother wanted to be with her family during the birth. I moved to Khartoum when I was six weeks old and lived continuously in Khartoum until my mid-twenties. In comparison I only lived in Jakarta, Dubai and Doha for a few years. The cities that fascinated me are the cities I wrote about—Khartoum, London and Aberdeen.
Who are the authors you’re most excited about today (and why?)
Isabella Hamad, Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin, Jennifer Makumbi, and Nadifa Mohamed. These authors are telling me things that I don’t know and rescuing me from writers who insist that I dumb down.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
It is one of my favourite writers—Jean Rhys. I read her autobiography Smile, Please. I have also read a work of fiction based on her life, it is titled A View of the Empire at Sunset by Caryl Phillips and now I am about to read her biography I Used to Live Here Once by Miranda Seymour.
River Spirit is indeed a love story between Akuany and Yaseen and how they come together and draw apart throughout the turbulent years of their adulthood.
What are you currently working on?
Short stories. I am too crushed by the war that started in Sudan to embark on a new novel.
Question from Celeste Mohammed: Being a published author is a dream come true for most, but is there any aspect of that experience that has come as an unpleasant surprise?
How subjective, precarious and random it all is—the success, the readership, the conditions that make writing possible, the connections and availability of opportunities.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft.
Which book have your read more than twice?⎈
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