Centering History and Education in Fiction: A Dialogue with Leila Aboulela



Leila Aboulela is an award-winning novelist whose work has received critical recognition for its distinctive exploration of identity, migration and Islamic spirituality. Her novels have been translated into fifteen languages and include Bird Summons, Minaret, The Translator (a 2005 New York Times 100 Notable Books of the Year honoree), The Kindness of Enemies and Lyrics Alley (Fiction Winner of the Scottish Book Awards). Aboulela was the first winner of the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing in 2000 and her short story collection, Elsewhere, Home won the Saltire Society Fiction Book of the Year Award in 2018. Her plays The Insider and Mystic Life have been broadcast on BBC Radio, and her fiction has been published in Freeman’s, Granta and Harper’s Magazine, amongst others. Aboulela grew up in Sudan and moved to Scotland in her mid-twenties, where she now resides.

Saliha Haddad


This interview took place between Scotland and Algeria, via Zoom.

Saliha: Hello Leila.

Leila: Hello.

Saliha: Thank you so much for joining me in this conversation for Africa in Dialogue. It is a huge honour to speak to you about this incredibly gorgeous book, River Spirit. I loved it. It is out in March from Saqi Books. But first, how are you?

Leila: Fine. Alhamdulillah. Excited about the new book and waiting to see what people will say about it. (Laughs).

Saliha: I’m sure the reviews will be good. So River Spirit is your sixth novel, and you have already published short story collections too. I want to know your feelings as the date of publication approaches. Is it the same as the first one? Is it the same excitement or fear?

Leila: I think that now I feel like I am asking myself how many more books I am going to write. You know, I am fifty-eight years old. Not to be dramatic, but as time goes by, you think that maybe this is the last one. The one before the last. Something like that. So it is like I almost care more than I did at the beginning. (Laughs).

Saliha: Please no. I hope you will give us more stories. 

Leila: Inshallah, inshallah. I hope so too.

Saliha: Upon reading this book, and I know that this might be a cliché assessment of your novel since it is historical fiction, I wanted to know why you think it is important to write about the history of Sudan?

Leila: I think it is important because so many times this history was written by colonisers, and it was the same story told from the British point of view. We should reassess, at a time when people are more open-minded about the empire. They are reading and assessing the British Empire. They are more open-minded to understanding the concept of the empire better, so this is the time to tell these stories from the point of view of the people themselves, the people of Sudan, because the stories have been told from the point of view of outsiders. So, it is about changing the perspective and offering a different perspective. 

Saliha: I often see or read sometimes that some writers might not like it when the concentration or the focus of their novels is on the historical episodes that they portray. But they are indeed important because, personally, even though I’m Algerian, I did not know about the Mahdist Revolution depicted in River Spirit. Upon reading your novel, I was curious and I wanted to learn more about Sudan. I do think it is important, even though sometimes the focus might not be on the characters of the novel, or the prose and creative side of the work.

Education existed before schools. It doesn’t have to be a Western education for it to be an education.”

Leila: It’s true that we do not know about each other because the education system which was put down by the French and the British has put them in the centre. We know more about their history, or the history of our neighbours, and that has been going on since independence. All our intellectuals travel to Europe. They study in Europe. They get their PhDs in Europe. This has created a Eurocentric way of thinking and evaluating history. 

After all the time that has passed, we need to present our history in a fresh way. For example, many do not know about the extent of the Ottoman Empire and how much area it covered, including Algeria. I did not know Algeria was part of the Ottoman Empire until very recently but that is a very interesting subject also, to what extent the Ottoman Empire ruled? What were the advantages and disadvantages of this empire? There were lots of advantages, but we also have to be careful not to be sentimental about it. 

Something like the Mahdist Revolution shows us that there were parts of the Ottoman Empire where people were not happy with the Turkish rulers. And this was something used by the Europeans. The Europeans used this discontentment of the Arabs, especially the Arabs against the Ottomans, in order to take over from the Ottoman Empire. This is also how the loss of Palestine took place, because Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire and was protected from the Zionists by the Sultan not accepting the Zionists’ encroachment. Once the Ottoman empire crumbled and the British took over, they implemented the Sykes-Picot Agreement. So it’s all very interesting.

Saliha: It is very, very important for the upcoming generations to learn this, and if it is through such good, great stories, then even better.

Leila: The thing with fiction, and with historical fiction in particular, is that it is a pleasant way of learning history. You are following the characters, caught up in their love story and their family story, but then you are also learning about the history at the same time. So that’s nice. 

Saliha: Let’s talk about the characters. There are so many characters in River Spirit that I loved so much. They are so real even though they are all very different. No character resembles another character and somehow my preferred character was Gordon because I don’t know (both laugh), maybe because he is so proud and duty oriented. I think that is why I loved reading about such a different character from me. I also loved Salha. I think that when I was reading her at first, I thought, is she going to be a cliché nemesis to Zamzam? Then I continued reading and you really subverted my expectations of her. I wanted to know, which character did you love writing more, and which one was the most challenging for you?

Leila: I liked Yaseen the best. Yaseen is my favourite character. I have heard that when women write about men they are writing about themselves as if they were men and I think maybe that’s why I liked writing about him so much. I also like Salha as you mentioned. I liked how she took over. She is just the character that takes over and she took over the novel at the end. She was just like that’s it, that’s it, I’m gonna take over. So I think maybe the most challenging character I found was Musa because he is the one who has this blind belief in the Mahdi and is very devoted and heis also violent so I think that was a challenge for me to write. Although I understood him, I understood where he was coming from but he was the most challenging person to write about.

Saliha: Yes I can see that; it was also hard to read about him. I don’t want to spoil the novel for our readers so I will not say too much. The novel Lyrics Alley was inspired by your uncle, and I wanted to know the inspiration behind River Spirit. Did you have a specific inspiration or was it an idea you had had for a long time?

Leila: When I started to do the research, I wanted to write about the history and then I went and did the research and I found this bill of sale of a slave girl. So they were just saying so-and-so bought this slave. I was shocked. I knew there was slavery but it still shocked me and then there was also another thing I read about and it was a petition. It was somebody complaining that this woman that was enslaved had run away from him and gone back to her old master, the previous master and so this was interesting for me. If she runs away, why doesn’t she run away to freedom? Why does she go back to the original man? This made me think. There’s a story. There’s a romance. That was the inspiration for the novel.

Saliha: So beautiful to hear. There is so much history to learn. Recently, I learned that my maternal grandmother’s father was a descendant of slaves. There is a lot of history here too but it is challenging when there are no resources or materials to learn about the history of slavery here.

Leila: Yes, it was, it was all over North Africa.

Saliha: I wanted to ask about Salha again. I see that education is very important in your writings, especially for women like Salha. Can you tell me why it is such an important theme for you?

'River Spirit' by Leila Aboulela. Published by Saqi Books.
'River Spirit' by Leila Aboulela. Published by Saqi Books.

Leila: I think it changes a person’s life, it changes a person’s perspective, whether you are educated or you are not educated. And it opens the mind, it sharpens the idea of critical thinking. Education existed before schools. It doesn’t have to be a Western education for it to be an education. All the children will go to the Koran school and they are learning, even memorising; this is an education. So, we had education in Africa long before the Europeans arrived. We had this kind of education and actually one of the interesting things I read also was that part of the ways Islam spread in Africa was through the schools and that seeing the script of the Koran being written was one of the things that amazed the Africans. And this is how Islam spread in West Africa, through the schools, through the Khalwas where usually the boys sit and learn to read the Koran, and they would write the Koran on these wooden boards. 

This is an important part of our culture, our history, this kind of an education. And it’s very important that women understand that if they are educated and they can read the Koran, then they will know their rights. No one can then come and say, God says that and that, which is not true and if they do not know, then they accept things. They need to know their rights in divorce, they need to know their rights in inheritance, their rights in getting an equal salary and in getting an equal pay. All of these things, if women don’t know about them, then they can easily be manipulated by men saying to them, this is what society wants, because they are susceptible to people stronger than them. Education gives them the empowerment to argue back for their own rights. 

Saliha: This is a wonderful explanation. Yes, education does change so many things. It does. I think here in Algeria we call the Koranic schools in Arabic Mahethera.

Leila: That’s interesting. 

Saliha: Recently an article came to my attention. It was by the translator Sawad Hussain in Words Without Borders about Sudanese women novelists writing in Arabic. In the article, the writers spoke out about censorship concerning the themes they can write about. I know that you write in English but I wanted to ask, did you face such censorship? And why do you think Sudanese novelists still cannot write about what they want?

Leila: I didn’t face censorship, because I was writing in the West and I was writing in English, so I did not have this problem. I think that the problem of censorship comes from having a military government that is oppressing the people and therefore imposing these censorships and some people’s books were banned; Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin is one of them. 

With the women novelists, sometimes it is social censorship. Perhaps it is not government censorship. It could be just social censorship. It could be that your family is not comfortable with what you are writing and this puts a lot of women off. They do not want to upset their fathers. They do not want to cause problems. So this can make a woman commit self-censorship. She is not ready to face the disapproval of society around her, or even her family. A lot of support is needed. It is important that writers have the necessary support in order to write about what they want to write.

Saliha: Before we go, I wanted to know what you are reading right now.

Leila: I am reading Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah because I have read all his books except this one. This is the most famous book and I actually haven’t read it yet, so I’m reading it for the first time now. 

Saliha: Thank you so much again and congratulations on this amazing novel.

Leila: Thank you so much. 


This dialogue was edited by our Senior Editor, Wambua Paul Muindi.

Saliha Haddad

Saliha Haddad is an Algerian Associate editor at the South African-based publishers Botsotso and a fiction editor of the literary journal Hotazel Review. She has worked as a literary interviewer at Africa in Dialogue and her reviews of books have appeared in the other side of hope, The New Arab, and Transnational Literature. Haddad’s creative work has been published or forthcoming in Agbowó, Isele Magazine and New Lines Magazine. In 2021, she was shortlisted for the African Writers Awards and won first place in the inaugural ANTOA Writing Contest.



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