Leila Aboulela – A Talk
For the love of written words…
Leila Aboulela is a name that is rising on the literary map worldwide. An essential Arab writer, Leila renders a glimpse of her world in snippets of experiences, laden with conflict, convoluted political subterfuge and decades of dissonance and discord. An author of four novels, a collection of short stories and several radio plays, Leila Aboulela’s novels, The Translator, has been marked as New York Times 100 Notable Books of the Year. Her other works Minaret and Lyrics Alley were all long-listed for the Orange Prize. Her novel ‘Lyrics Alley’ was also Fiction Winner of the Scottish Book Awards and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize. Leila’s book of short stories Colored Lights was short-listed for the MacMillan Silver PEN award. Her work has been translated into 14 languages. I met Leila Aboulela recently at the 9th Emirates Airline Festival of Literature and spoke to her about words, inspiration, motivation, and about being a writer.
What does it take to be a writer these days?
You have to have a passion for it and you have to want to do it. And you also have to have the tenacity in spite of rejection and discouragements, because it is a competitive field. You should try to improve your writing, stop the distraction and make time for it, all these things add up. You need to self-discipline.
What do you think our challenges are right now?
Well, I think our challenges are that we shouldn’t be angry or defensive and we need to be calm and go for quality and produce something new rather than always react to things, sometimes the problem is that we react and become extremely defensive.
How do you think the political situation has affected the Muslims writers?
There is a vibrant scene despite all that. People are writing there are very good writers that are writing across the board, nonfiction and fiction both. Sometimes paradoxically you know what happens in the news can create greater interest in what Muslim writer are saying so the situation is better now maybe 20- years ago or 30 years ago when there were not many writers being published.
Coetzee has said about you that “you have a quiet anger”, how would you explain that?
That was when I was very young. But I believe that the anger has to be the fuel, not the ingredient. The fuel that keeps you going as a writer but not in your work.
Naguib Mahfouz is one of your favorite writer, do you take inspiration from his narrative style?
It depends on what you are writing about. It changes from novel to novel. When I wrote lyrics alley it had a lot of characters and a big cast. So the slower pace to it but with the new one kindness of enemy has a fast pace and fewer characters and it is dramatic.
How do you find your characters?
The characters are all around it is not difficult to find them. People are people and the still have the same problems they always had, but I think with fiction you can’t really be making it up to date.
You are part Egyptian and part Sudanese, what social landscape attracts you the most?
Sudan, because I spent a lot of time there growing up and I think the place where you grow up it stays with you, I mean the visual images and all that.
Any advice for the upcoming writers?
Don’t worry what people would think about your characters and don’t worry that they would think that the character is you. I think this can inhibit a lot a women writer. They worry about it and they kind of censor it. As a writer, you should not care. Pretend that no one is going to read it, it is like you are an actor on the stage you know that they are watching you but the audience is in the dark. So when you are writing you have to pretend that the reader isn’t there and you can always change the character, like their nationality or profession etc, they would never guess.