Sunday, February 24, 2019

Leila Aboulela's 'Elsewhere, Home' showcases the work of an exceptional short story writer

Elsewhere, Home
by Leila Aboulela
published by Telegram, an imprint of Saqi Books, London
ISBN: 978-1846592119
eISBN: 978 -1846592126
pbk, 224pp, £8.99
Kindle £5.99  / $7.97

review by Susannah Tarbush, London

In 2000 the Sudanese short-story writer, novelist and playwright Leila Aboulela became the first-ever winner of the newly-inaugurated Caine Prize for African Writing, for her short story The Museum.  In his speech at the award ceremony, the chair of the judges, Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri, described the story as moving, gentle, ironic, quietly angry and beautifully written".

As this new collection of Aboulela's short stories shows, the qualities that Okri identified have been sustained throughout the  substantial body of short fiction she has produced in the two decades since winning the Caine Prize. . 

In 2001 Aboulelas first collection of short stories, Coloured Lights, was published by Scottish publisher Polygon. It was shortlisted for the PEN/Macmillan Silver Pen Award.

Since then, her stories have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies, and publication of a second collection has been long overdue. The publication by Telegram of such a collection, Elsewhere, Home, is much to be welcomed.

Even before publication the collection was longlisted in the fiction category of the Peoples Book Prize. It subsequently won the Saltire Fiction Book of the Year Award, open to authors of Scottish descent or residing in Scotland," or whose writing  deals with "the work or life of a Scot or with a Scottish question, event or situation." 

Aboulela was among the first contemporary authors in the UK to write from a Muslim perspective. She grew up in Sudan and has had much experience of living in both Muslim and non-Muslim societies. She was living in the Scottish oil city of Aberdeen when she wrote Coloured Lights, and then lived in Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar before returning to Aberdeen where she now lives.

Leila Aboulela pictured by Simon Hollington at the 2005 Edinburgh International Book Festival 

The 13-stories in Elsewhere, Home span Aboulelas writing career. They include six stories from Coloured Lights, among them The Museum. These early stories have stood the test of time, and are more relevant than ever at a time when multiculturalism is being challenged, the extreme right is on the rise in the West, and Muslims feel under increasing pressure. 

One of the more recent stories, Faridas Eyes was first published in 2012 in Banipal issue 44, which focused on 12 Women Writers. Farida is a pupil at a school run by nuns. She realises her eyesight is deteriorating, and her teacher, Sister Carlotta, tells her that she must be fitted with glasses. While Faridas mother is in favour of this, her father is against, both on grounds of cost and because she will look ugly in glasses!

Several stories are linked to Sudan. In Something Old, Something New a Scottish convert to Islam travels to Khartoum to marry a divorced woman he had met in Edinburgh at the Sudanese restaurant at which she worked. The wedding arrangements are interrupted by the theft of his passport and camera, and a family bereavement. But after the low-key marriage ceremony he is suddenly bowled over by the sensual beauty of his wife. He wants to tell her so but the words, any words, wouldnt come. He was stilled, choked by a kind of brightness.

The stories often expose misunderstandings between cultures or generations. In Summer Maze Nadia and her mother Lateefa, Egyptian immigrants to the UK, are on their annual visit to Cairo. There is a gulf in understanding between them. Nadia, who has lost the ability to speak the Arabic she babbled as a baby, is embarrassed by her mothers continuing pronouncing of  the English p as b. Lateefa, on the other hand, has long hoped that her daughter would marry her cousin Khalid, and is devastated to find he is now engaged. It is his fiancée who introduces Nadia to literature by Egyptian authors translated into English, and through reading such books Nadia finds access to her mothers world. 

In The Aromatherapists Husband Elaine is a whimsical free spirit, who practises alternative therapies and consults fortune tellers. Her welder husband Adam is plodding and practical, and unable to keep up with a wife who believes in angels and dreams of working at Mother Theresas orphanage in Calcutta.

A recent story, Pages of Fruit, is addressed in the second person by the female narrator to the woman author she had for years put on a pedestal and with whom she longed to strike up a friendship. Like the narrator, the idolised author is an African from a highly educated family: Your story was a bridge to a world I had left behind after marriage and migration.  The narrator used to send letters to the writer, with no reply. Encountering the author years later in Abu Dhabi, where her husband’s work has taken him, the narrator sees her in a more realistic way and is somehow freed. The story may be met with a wry smile from certain readers who encounter a much-admired writer in real life, say at a literary event or festival. 

The central figure in “Expecting to Give” is a lonely and depressed expectant mother whose husband Saif is working on a platform in the North Sea. She suffers sickness, and cravings, especially for tomatoes, and longs for the return of her husband She had been a social worker back in her own country, but her job applications in her new city of residence have been rejected.  An incident in a kebab shop leads her to a confrontation with a mother pushing a toddler in a pushchair. 

 In the story “Majed” Hamid, "born and bred on the banks of the Blue Nile", is married to Scottish convert, Ruqqiyah. She had walked away from her marriage, her two children in tow, in order to be with him and they have had  a baby, Majed, together. In Hamid’s eyes she is “so good, so strong, because she is a convert. But he, he had been a Muslim all his life and was, it had to be said, relaxed about the whole thing. Wrong, yes it was wrong. But he wasn't going to argue about that. Not with Ruqqiyah”. He had married Ruqqiyah because he  needed a residence visa, while as a new convert she needed a Muslim. Hamid drinks whisky surreptitiously, and Ruqqiyah uncovers his secret alcohol habit in an appalling way.  

Despite her output of short fiction, Leila Aboulela is probably best known as an award-winning novelist. Her debut novel The Translator was published by Polygon in 1999. It was longlisted for the Orange Prize for Womens Fiction, as were the two novels that followed: Minaret (Bloomsbury, 2005) and Lyrics Alley (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2010). Her fourth  novel The Kindness of Enemies was published by W&N in 2015. Her fifth novel Bird Summons is due to be published by W&N on 7 March. 

Elsewhere, Home shows that in addition to being an outstanding novelist, Aboulela is an exceptional short story writer.  The collection is surely destined to widen her readership and reputation yet further. 

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