Friday, May 06, 2016

Banipal 55 helps propel Sudanese literature onto international stage

Sudanese literature is in general less known internationally than the literatures of certain other Arab countries. But since the beginning of the 21st century Sudanese literature has been increasingly emerging on the global stage, a trend that can only be enhanced by the new issue, No. 55, of Banipal Magazine of Modern Arab Literature. The issue is largely devoted to works by Sudanese authors -  short stories, novel extracts, poetry, non-fiction, memoir, essays, reviews and an interview. They convey a picture of a vibrant, varied and distinctive Sudanese literature by authors living both inside and outside Sudan. 

In  her editorial in Banipal 55 the magazine's publisher Margaret Obank writes: "Like our earlier features on the little known literatures of Yemen [issue 36], Tunisia [issue 39] and Libya [issue 40], we look forward to Sudanese literature in translation finding new audiences around the world, particularly through the encouragement and promotion this issue gives."  Furthermore, the next issue of Banipal, 56, will contain additional works by Sudanese writers.

Banipal 55's special feature Sudanese Literature Today kicks off with novelist and storyteller Ahmad Al Maliks' essay "A Short Introduction to the Sudanese Literary Scene". This essay is complemented  further on in the issue by novelist and critic Emad Blake's comprehensive eight-page article "The New Novel in Sudan."

Emad Blake

The Sudan special feature includes short stories by Al Malik, Hammour Ziada, Leila Aboulela, Rania Mamoun, Tarek Eltayeb, Abdel Ghani Karamallah, and Rania Mamoun, as well as extracts from novels by Hamed El-Nazir (The Waterman's Prophecy); Emad Blake (Shawarma) and Mansour El-Sowaim (Dhakirat Shirrir). There is also poetry by Mohammad Jamil Ahmad and Najlaa Osman Eltom.

From Abdel Ghani Karamallah comes the children's story "The Jealous Star", illustrated by the author. And Egyptian writer Azza Rashad has conducted a frank interview in Cairo with the prominent Sudanese publisher Nur al-Huda Mohammad Nur al-Huda, head of Azza Publishing which he founded in 1991. 

Abdel Ghani Karamallah at a story-telling session

One of Azza Publishing's authors is Stella Gaitano, born in Khartoum in 1979 to a family from South Sudan. She was forced to relocate to South Sudan in 2012. She contributes to Banipal 55, in its first English translation (by Adil Babakir), her compelling "Testimony of a Sudanese Writer" which she presented in a speech at the Tayeb Salif Award. In her testimony she recalls her annoyance at always being introduced as "the southern writer who writes in Arabic." This gave her a feeling of exclusion: "Why couldn't I be introduced simply as a Sudanese writer just like all the others?" But ironically, following the secession of the South, she finds the "southern writer who writes in Arabic" description has become a reality. With English being the official language of the new state she is now trying to write also in English as a way of trying to reach out to everyone.

Jamal Mahjoub, who writes in English, is best known as a novelist and - under the penname Parker Bilal -  as a crime writer. But in Banipal 55 he is represented by an extract from a non-fiction work-in-progress on the modern history of Sudan. The extract, "The Ghost of John Garang", tells of the death in a helicopter crash of Garang, the first vice-president of the new interim Government of National Unity and President of the Government of South Sudan.

Stells Gaitano
In his essay "The New Novel in Sudan", Emad Blake traces the development of the Sudanese novel from the first half of the 20th century. Tayeb Salih - whose 1966 novel Season of Migration to the North, published in Denys Johnson-Davies's English translation in 1969, is regarded as a landmark of Arab, African and post-colonial literature - "confronted the crucial issues of his time, such as the clash of Eastern and Western civilizations, as well as boldly employing sex and a style of writing we might term the 'impossible easy'." Whereas Salih drew on his experiences as a young émigré in London, and balanced dialect with more neutral language, Ibrahim Ishaq's writing explores the cultural environment of Western Sudan, and exclusively uses the local tongue in dialogue. "Most critics would agree that it was these two writers who were the true driving force behind the transformation of the form and content of the Sudanese novel."

Between the early 1970s and late 1990s, poetry and the short story rather than the novel were at the forefront of the Sudanese cultural scene, observes Blake. But since the turn of the millennium there has been a flourishing of the Sudanese novel, "in a spirit of openness and true revolution. Pushing poetry and short stories to the margins, it was now time for the novel to take centre stage amongst the  new wave of young writers. Most wrote from abroad, where they could read and immerse themselves in the culture of the 'Other' - with fewer concerns over problems of publishing."

Blake's essay is rich in information on contemporary Sudanese novelists, and he gives the flavour of themes in their work including the wars in the south and in Darfur.  

Hammour Ziada

As Ahkmad Al Malik notes in his introductory essay, one way in which the profile of Sudanese authors has been rising is through various literary prizes that have sprung up in recent years. In 2002 the Abdel Karim Mirghani Cultural Center organised a Tayeb Salih tribute event, at which it decided to establish an annual award in Tayeb Salih's name, for an outstanding work of fiction from Sudan. Al Malik says the award has created significant momentum in the Sudanese cultural scene although like all community-driven activities it has met with considerable obstances from the authorities. A major telecommunications company launched another award in Tayeb Salih's name, but Al Malik explains that this second award, which has unprecedented government support, is "widely believed to have some hidden agenda."

Hammour Ziada won the 19th edition of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature for his novel The Longing of the Dervish, which was also shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) 2015.  Jonathan Wright's translation of the novel is forthcoming from the American University in Cairo Press's new imprint Hoopoe Fiction.

Banipal 55 features Ziada's short story "The Wad Azrag District", which shows the author's excellent storytelling skills. The story depicts the fragile boundary between the nomadic and the settled, and the prejudice that arises after a Bedouin, Ahmed Wad Azrag, arrives in the village of Hajar Narti with his family. It takes a long time for the distrcit of Wad Azrag to be accepted as part of the village; Ziada's story is epic in scope and has a  timeless, archetypal quality.

Hamed el-Nazir's novel Nubuat al-Saqqa made the longlist of IPAF 2016. In the Banipal 55 extract from the novel the title is translated as The Waterman's Prophecy, though IPAF translated the title as The Prophecy of Saqqa.

Amir Tag Elsir
The prolific novelist Amir Tag Elsir, by profession a medical doctor based in Qatar, was shortlisted for IPAF 2011 for The Grub Hunter. The novel was published, in William M Hutchins' English translation, in Heinemann's African Writers Series in 2012. Last year Tag Elsir's novel 366 won the Katara Prize for Arabic Literature, after in 2014 being  longlisted for IPAF.

In Banipal Clare Roberts reviews Tag Elsir's novels Ebola '76 , (Darf Publishers, 2015) translated by Charis Bredin and Emily Danby and French Perfume (ANTIBOOKCLUB, 2015) translated by William M Hutchins. These reviews follow her review in Banipal 53 of Tag Elsir's novel Telepathy translated by Hutchins (Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, 2015). The English version of French Perfume is a finalist in the Best Translated Book Awards 2016.

Volker Kaminski reviews Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin's fifth novel Der Messias von Darfur, translated by Günther Orth, and Olivia Snaije reviews Nouvelles du Soudan (Magellan & CIE, Paris, 2009) a collection of short stories from Sudan translated into French by Xavier Laffin. "In a mere 95 pages, the selection of short stories in this collection reflect powerful and engaging story-telling recounted in an astonishing variety of styles," writes Snaije. 

Leila Aboulela

The best-known Sudanese author currently writing in English is the multiple prizewinning novelist, short story writer and radio dramatist Leila Aboulela, who lives in Scotland. She is author of four novels, most recently The Kindness of Enemies, a short story collection and a number of radio plays. Banipal 55 contains her short story "Amulet and Feathers" in which a young girl dresses up in her brother's clothes and, armed with a dagger, sets off to avenge her father's death. She masquerades as a  child fortune-teller, hoping thereby to track the woman she holds responsible for her father's stabbling.The story is rendered in a graceful poetic style blurring dreams and reality.
report by Susannah Tarbush, London


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