A Year in Reading: Leila Aboulela

December 13, 2016 | 6 books mentioned 3 min read

covercoverAnita Desai is one of my favorite writers and I’ve been steadily rereading her novels.  Clear Light of Day took me back to a time of dutiful daughters, crumbling leafy bungalows, and afternoon tea. Moving on to Fasting, Feasting, I imagined in the first half of the novel that I was in that very same bungalow where the dutiful daughter was even more severely restricted by her bad luck and selfish parents. Afterwards the two novels flowed and merged in my mind. The calmest of language and the richness of the details made me inhabit a world that might be limited in space but is beautiful and completely believable.

coverAnother example of a woman inhabiting a limited space (this time physically as well) comes in the debut novel The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader.  I did not know this before, but in medieval times an anchoress was a Christian nun who chooses to withdraw from the world and devote herself to prayer and fasting. Traumatized by her sister’s death in childbirth, Sarah, the 17-year-old English protagonist, agrees to shut herself up forever in a small cell on the side of the village church. That cell is symbolic of her future grave and indeed right underneath her, in the ground, a former anchoress had been buried. Sarah’s turbulent interior life and the detailed research that went into writing the novel kept me fascinated until the very end.  It also made me reflect on how the idea that “Islam oppresses women” has nowadays become endemic and with it goes hand in hand a disingenuous overlooking of the situation of women in other cultures and past historical periods. The Hindu women of Anita Desai’s novels and Robyn Cadwallader’s medieval anchoress redress this balance through expansion and empathy rather than exclusion and derision.

coverAnother impressive debut this year was Born on a Tuesday by Elnathan John. Dantala, a young boy in northwest Nigeria, is caught up in electoral violence. He finds a home and personal advancement within the Muslim community led by the open-minded Sheikh Jamal. When the sheikh loses a major funder in Saudi Arabia to his radical rival, the former’s movement is undermined and weakened. I was carried along by the endearing voice of the young, sensitive narrator, his instinctive goodness and intelligence in making sense and finding beauty in the brutality, poverty, and oppression surrounding him. The novel manages to pull off two aims at the same time — giving the reader a sophisticated understanding of contemporary Nigerian politics and the pleasure of a tender and classy coming of age story.

coverReading interviews with writers online can sometimes feel repetitive. Listening to them speak at festivals, I am often conscious that they are constrained by the particular format of the event. So I was excited when I borrowed Here & Now: Letters 2008-2011 by Paul Auster and J.M Coetzee from the public library and found in its thoughtfulness, tone, and insights everything I long to find listening to two great writers deep in conversation. Auster and Coetzee cover a wide range of topics not only literature and film, but also sport, marriage, and politics. Because they are not in opposition to each other, the exchanges are revealing rather than combative, peeling back layers and circling topics from different angles.

cover2016 turned out to be an exceptionally good year for Sudanese literature in English. The Book of Khartoum edited by Raphael Cormack and Max Shmookler is a contemporary collection of short stories from Sudan’s top writers, carefully selected and translated. The unifying theme is the capital city, its Arab-African fusion, and the upheavals wrought by urbanization and civil war. A more heavy-weight and inclusive anthology, as its title reveals, is Literary Sudans: An Anthology of Literature from Sudan and South Sudan edited by Bhakti Shringarpure. Also exciting in 2016 was that for the first time in its history, Banipal, the U.K. magazine of modern Arab 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.

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won the first Caine Prize for African Writing. She is the author of four novels, a collection of short stories, and several radio plays. Her novels, The Translator, a New York Times 100 Notable Books of the Year, Minaret, and Lyrics Alley, were all long listed for the Orange Prize. Lyrics Alley was Fiction Winner of the Scottish Book Awards and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize. Leila’s book of short stories Coloured Lights was short-listed for the MacMillan Silver PEN award. Her work has been translated into 14 languages. She grew up in Khartoum and now lives in Aberdeen. Her most recent novel is 2015’s The Kindness of Enemies.