Place Is Personal, says Leila Aboulela
Article written by Leila Aboulela
Until I was nineteen, my family and I lived in a villa on Street 7, in the New Extension of Khartoum not far from the airport. For a long, steady time, I walked on the same tiles, slept out on a balcony that overlooked the Jordanian Embassy, was nervous of the badly lit greasy kitchen, which no matter how many times the light bulbs were changed, remained gloomy. I heard airplanes taking off and watched them become bigger and clearer as they landed. The mud of the flower beds, the pattern on the front door were things I knew intimately, they became me, and even though they were layered over with fresher images, my childhood home remained the original foundation, the standard by which I measured every other place. Years afterwards in Scotland, in Jakarta, in Dubai, I would dream of that house, sometimes night after night, vivid dreams as if I had not left it, as if I still had a right to be there. Black speckled floor, the steps down to the garden which in mid-day could scorch my bare feet, a small patch of white on the dusty pillar of the porch- I had drawn a cartoon on it in ink and to conceal it from my father’s wrath covered it with a paste of Vim mixed with water. When we eventually moved to a newly- built house near the Blue Nile, our old house in Street 7 was renovated beyond recognition by its new owner, but in my mind, it remained the same down to the smallest detail. Physically in terms of sensations, in term of aesthetics I am rooted in Khartoum and to that particular house. I return to it in my fiction, it is my base; synonymous with a private idea of Sudan.
In my first novel The Translator, it is not the protagonist but her aunt who lives in this house. Sammar returns to live with her Aunt Mahasin after years of being away in Aberdeen. She returns to my childhood house in Street 7 – something that I was unable to do. Writing is yearning and when that yearning is for a place, the place can become as important as the theme or the characters. In the process of writing, the place feels real but out of reach and little by little the descriptions must draw it closer, bring it more into focus, sharpening the image, adding colour to what was monochrome, adding movement to what was static.
Unlike film to some extent, fiction can make use of the same house or location time and time again without confusing the reader. In fact the writer’s personal and aesthetic attachment to a place can be mined almost indefinitely. We often associate writers with places: Dickens with Victorian London, Mahfouz with the alleys of Old Cairo. They take us to these places not only because they knew them well but because, in the process of writing, they were reaching out to them; they were seeking access.
I am reminded of a writing exercise aimed at evoking a sense of place. Go to a place you have never been to before, it could be large or contained, outdoors or indoors, even a room would suffice. Describe the very first thing you notice. Is it an object, a smell, the light, the dimensions? Does this place remind you of somewhere else? Be honest. What is the first thing that caught your eye? That is the starting point. What you first notice is the pivot, the focus and then you can pan out to the other details. Place is personal. No two writers would describe the same place in exactly the same way. Cosy or claustrophobic, shady or soothing, dark or depressing? The more personal the reaction of the writer the more vivid and honest the writing would be. It is not distance that the reader needs, it is the feeling of ‘being there’.
Some of my favourite scenes in Lyrics Alley take place in the tutor’s house. Badr is the private tutor to the Abuzeid family whose life changes when their promising son is injured in a swimming accident. In Badr’s own words he lives in “wretched” accommodation, sharing one room and a small courtyard with his pregnant wife, his four sons and his elderly father. The situation is exacerbated when his cousin moves in with them. The character of Badr was inspired by a succession of Arabic tutors that my brother and I had. They were all Egyptian men, on secondments to Sudan that lasted several years. Many had left their families back home but the tutor I had when I was fifteen, like Badr, lived with his wife, sons and elderly father in the outskirts of Khartoum. I visited his house only once with my mother. Most likely a school vacation was coming to an end and because my tutor didn’t have a telephone, my mother decided to drop by and remind him to start my lessons again. Our visit could not have lasted more that twenty minutes but it left a lasting impression. The cramped courtyard, the elderly father oblivious to my presence and staring into space, the little boys running around in their underwear. And in stark contrast to this misery, was my tutor’s wife. She was much larger than him and despite her shabby clothes, incredibly beautiful. Smiling and welcoming, she looked like she was loved to the point of fulfillment. Twenty minutes in which nothing out of the ordinary happened and nothing particularly interesting was said. Twenty minutes in which I absorbed this small house, its smells, its dimensions, the outdoor kitchen in the corner and the beds made of rope.
I could have forgotten my tutor’s house but somehow I didn’t. It stayed with me and got mixed up with other things – similar houses in Khartoum, a neighboring courtyard casually glimpsed, a visit to a school-mate whose friendship didn’t flourish, photographs and fictional homes in novels and television soaps. When it came to writing Lyrics Alley, Badr’s house was just there, associated with him. I did not have to strain to remember it, I did not even have to actively imagine it. I just ‘knew’ it and I wanted through the process of writing, to be there again.
Leila Aboulela’s latest novel Lyrics Alley, set in 1950s Sudan, was the Fiction Winner of the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust Book Awards. It was long-listed for the Orange Prize and short-listed for the S. Asia and Europe Region in the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. Both her previous novels The Translator (a New York Times Notable Book of the Year) and Minaret were long listed for the Orange Prize and the IMPAC Dublin Award.
Leila was awarded the Caine Prize for African Writing for “The Museum” included in her story collection Coloured Lights which went on to be short-listed for the Macmillan/Silver PEN Award. BBC Radio has adapted her work extensively and broadcast a number of her plays including The Mystic Life and the historical drama The Lion of Chechnya. Leila’s work has appeared in publications such as Granta, the Virginia Quarterly Review and the Washington Post. It has also been translated into 13 languages.