The themes present in Leila Aboulela’s reading from her latest book, River Spirit, included colonization, religion and history. Professors and students gathered in Oden Auditorium on Monday to learn from the Sudanese writer, essayist and playwright.
Aboulela’s path to authorship was not a conventional one. She didn’t study writing in school, opting for statistics instead. She moved from Khartoum, Sudan, to Scotland, where she began writing, starting with short stories and progressing to full-length novels. Associate Professor of English Keija Parssinen introduced Aboulela, narrating her first encounter with Aboulela’s work and how captivating the novel Lyrics Alley was for her. Parssinen then shared the experience of interviewing Aboulela for World Literature Today and how Aboulela shared how writing had gradually taken over her life.
Aboulela prefaced her reading by detailing the huge undertaking of research involved in the writing of River Spirit. Aboulela summarized the various sources she’d used to gather information for the book, including articles, newspapers and even bills of sale. She described how she’d first encountered one of the protagonists of the novel, Zamzam, in a historical bill of sale for an enslaved person of the same name. This led Aboulela to think about the identity challenges that a Sudanese woman who had migrated through the country in such a turbulent time would have faced.
The tumultuous state of the country was due to intense political evolution during the 1800s because of the uprising of Muhammad Ahmad, a man who professed to be the Mahdi of Muslim belief. The Mahdi is a character believed to be the final leader in Islam before the end of the world. He was able to secure independence for Sudan from the British Empire for a short time. The book explores different characters on both sides of this struggle as the tension between the revolutionaries and the opposition on the side of the British reaches a climax.
Aboulela chose two excerpts for her reading. The first came from an early chapter following a character named Akuany, who loses her father and village to a slave raid and is rescued by a young merchant who traded with her father. The language was poignant, emotive and descriptive while still being accurate to the experience of the young girl whose world had fallen apart. There was an inverted sense of a traveler’s guide as Akuany, her brother Bol and the merchant, Yaseen, traveled through Sudan. Specific and insightful descriptions of their journey through Sudan established the setting in an effective way.
The second reading was from Yaseen’s perspective after he gave up being a merchant to become a jurist in the Muslim tradition, describing the awe that he and his fellow students experienced in their education at Al-Azhar in Cairo. It was a beautifully written scene about an intellectual character.
After she finished reading, Aboulela then opened the floor to a Q&A session where she discussed questions about her research process and the ways this book should be read. Aboulela answered a question asking whether she’d prefer for her book to be read anthropologically as someone who used the book to navigate Sudanese culture or as a work of art, and if she had a problem with the former. Aboulela said that she didn’t see any harm done by anthropological reading and explained how her own culture shaped the way she read books by authors such as Charlotte Brontë.
The reading and talk after were informative and interesting, reflecting the complexities present within River Spirit. You can learn more about Aboulela and her novels on her website.