Aboulela uses the lens of interracial relationships to depict nuances of race, religion and culture
September 15, 2018
Leila Aboulela’s second book of short stories follows the well-worn, but distinctly fresh trajectory of her novels The Translator and Minaret which focus on home, belonging and displacement.
Longlisted for the People’s Book Prize, Elsewhere, Home features 13 short stories that the Sudanese author has penned since 1999. Four were featured in her first short story collection Coloured Lights (2001), which might lead some fans to feel short-changed.
Despite the wide timespan over which the vignettes were produced, there is a surprising cohesion to them. They focus largely on how African immigrants are indelibly changed by their new homeland – almost in the same way that the ebb and flow of a tide gradually changes a shore.
For some protagonists, immigration makes them long for certain aspects of their faith or culture. In The Museum, for example, Sudanese graduate student Shadia explains to her Scottish classmate Brian that she is homesick for things she didn’t expect to miss, such as the Muslim call to prayer.
For others, their new home breeds self-loathing. In The Ostrich, PhD student Majdy develops internalised racism, seeing Sudan from a self-hating perspective which he inculcates in his wife Samra, telling her that strangers are “better” than her, including the man who collects the rubbish because “he is not ravaged by malaria, anaemia, bilharzia; he can read the newspaper, write a letter; he has a television in his house.”
Moreover, Aboulela uses the lens of interracial relationships to depict nuances of race, religion and culture. Religious practice collides in Majed, a story about a Sudanese Muslim immigrant married to a Scottish Muslim convert. PhD student Majed works in an Asda supermarket to support his wife Ruqiyyah and his children.
While Ruqiyyah eagerly learns Arabic, Majed secretly finds comfort from the strains of his daily life in the arms of whisky. He does not understand his wife’s religious devotion: “She wore hijab when she went out, she got up at dawn and prayed. This seriousness that he didn’t have, baffled him.” After he urinates in his baby’s cot, which he drunkenly mistakes for the toilet, his wife discovers his hidden stash. With the zeal of a convert, she pours his loot down the kitchen sink, much to his chagrin.
In at least three of the short stories, Aboulela shows that people who enter interracial relationships can still hold prejudiced views. In Souvenirs, a young Sudanese man returns home to Khartoum to visit his family. When he asks his Scottish wife Emma to come with him so she can meet his mother and see where he grew up, along with their 3-year-old child, she refuses, saying, “I’ve never heard anything good about that place.”
Instead, she asks him to bring back exotica – beads for a necklace or paintings for their house. When his sister Manaal asks him, why Emma didn’t come, he hesitates to tell her the truth: “Could he say that from that part of the world Emma wanted malleable pieces, not the random whole? She desired frankincense from The Body Shop, tahini safe in a supermarket container.”
Emma is happy to accept the sanitised parts of Yassir that are palatable to her, rather than those parts which seem unpleasant. She is balanced out with an English couple in Khartoum who have chosen to live among the locals and to embrace the local culture.
Outright racism is portrayed in Something Borrowed, Something New where a white Scottish Muslim convert visits Sudan in order to marry his girlfriend. Yet his adoption of the Islamic faith does nothing to dampen his orientalist views. The opening line, “Her country disturbed him,” descends quickly into stereotypes of threatening hordes from the Global South. “Any one of these passers-by could easily punch him through the window, yank off his watch, his sunglasses, snatch his wallet.”
The colonial origins of racism are given a nod in The Museum, which won the first Caine Prize for African Writing. In it, a Scottish museum about Africa showcases “looted treasures” colonialists brought home and depicts imperialist attitudes in a letter that says: “It was a great difficulty to make the natives understand my meaning, even by an interpreter, it being a thing so seldom asked of them.” On visiting the museum, Sudanese student Shadia laments: “Nothing was of her, nothing belonged to her life at home, what she missed. Here was Europe’s version, the clichés about Africa: old and cold.”
Aboulela also portrays intrareligious prejudices of Africans. In The Pages of Fruit, a homemaker – abandoned by her mother while a child – looks to an author from the same ethnic background for validation and friendship.
When the homemaker finds out that the author will attend a literary festival, she takes a great deal of trouble to attend but is rebuffed by the secular author, who looks down on her because of her headscarf.
The permutations of prejudice that Aboulela examines seem especially relevant in the context of a post-Brexit United Kingdom where she lives.