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from the December 2020 issue

Aperture: Sudanese Female Novelists Coming into Focus

Why is it so hard to find the work of Sudanese women in English translation? Yes, there is Leila Aboulela, who writes in English, but if asked about other female Sudanese writers, one would probably struggle to name them. Some might reason that there just aren’t many Sudanese women writing. This assumption has led to anthologies and online publications focused on Sudanese literature in which female-authored works make up less than thirty percent of their contents; more general anthologies include even fewer writers. This issue seeks to counter such assumptions.

The short story form has long been celebrated in Sudan, and yes, single stories by female authors, as well as a few entire collections, have made it into English. But where are the novels written by Sudanese women? Tayyeb Salih, Amir Tag Elsir, and Hammour Ziada are all feted authors of novels in their original Arabic and translated English versions. But when I spoke with journalists, academics, and friends, they were all hard pressed to find a novel by a Sudanese woman translated into English.

Zeinab Belail, one of Sudan’s preeminent writers, has been publishing literary works for over thirty years. Why have we never come across her work in English till today? Of the five writers featured in this issue, Rania Mamoun is the only one to have appeared in translation before. Is there some sort of double marginalization at play? Perhaps, for not only are they women, but also Sudanese, caught in a limbo at times of not being Arab nor African enough.

Rather than focusing primarily on who has made it into English, I felt it more pressing to investigate what is happening in the Sudanese publishing arena within the context of the greater Arab literary sphere. The conclusion? If one reads Arabic, yet can’t “see” the works of female Sudanese authors, can’t celebrate their works and engage with their powerful writing, it’s not because they aren’t there.

So what do we know about the world of Sudanese novels in Arabic? Nabil Ghali’s study ”A Bibliography of the Sudanese Novel” investigates the state of novels published in Arabic in Sudan from 1948 to 2015.  This study finds that in this period, 476 novels were published, 314 of them between 2000 and 2015. Of those 476 novels, only forty-nine, by thirty-five writers, were authored by women. Compare this to, say, Amir Tag Elsir, who has published nineteen novels and is still writing. Furthermore, the years of 2014 and 2015 saw eleven novels authored by women published, nearly equaling the output of female authors in the fifty years between 1948 and 2000, which saw no more than fifteen women’s novels making it to market in Sudan. Enough number crunching; here is the takeaway: from 1948 to 2015, only ten percent of the novels published in Sudan were written by women. Ten percent.

Not all hope is lost, though. A more recent study analyzing the Arabophone Sudanese novels published in Sudan and outside of it, carried out by Dr. Atef Al Haj Saeed, states despite the December uprising being at the forefront of the population’s concerns, 2019 was a record year for the novel in Sudan, with twenty-eight published.  An additional twenty novels were published outside Sudan (the lion’s share in Egypt), bringing the total to forty-eight. Of these, nine, or twenty percent, were written by women. And of these nine novels, over fifty percent were published outside of Sudan in countries such as Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Authors in this issue, some of whom still reside in Sudan, are among those who sought to publish their works outside of the country.

Amna al-Fadl, Ann El Safi, Rania Mamoun, Sara Al-Jack, and Zeinab Belail are all established writers with short story collections, poetry collections, and novels to their name. I interviewed them to hear the challenges they have faced getting published in Arabic, and the trickle-down effect this has on their work making it into translation. When Belail, lauded for her extensive body of work, showed an editor her first novel, Al-Aktiyar (The Choice, 1984), he responded, “This is too much . . . coming from a woman.” More than three decades into her career, Zeinab recounted, “writing about sex or religion is still forbidden for women. There are red lines that as a female writer you’re not even meant to approach. To do so brands you a heretic, a rogue, someone who has no appreciation for literature.” Compare this to Amir Tag Elsir’s novel Ebola ’76, which opens with a sexual encounter.

"There is a patriarchal mentality that prevails throughout Sudanese society, and an extremely high sensitivity toward what female authors are writing about, especially when it seemingly contradicts societal values,” shares Ann El Safi. Living outside of Sudan, El Safi recollects that, upon returning to Sudan to discuss her novel Falak al-Ghawaya  (Orbit of Temptation, 2014), she was met with heavy criticism and even threatened. Her novel portrays an empowered female character who takes her life into her own hands, having her own affair after suspecting her husband’s infidelity. One critic even went so far as to demand she rewrite the book. You may argue that women’s writing is censored to some degree in all Arab countries, but when comparing these cases to those of female writers publishing in Lebanon or even the UAE, for instance—where Libyan Najwa Bin Shatwan’s latest novel, The Horse’s Hair, retells the sacrosanct story of creation and pummels the patriarchal customs of her country—the brick wall that Sudanese women writers are facing is that much higher, thicker, seemingly impenetrable. Bin Shatwan shared that getting her novel published in the UAE did raise some eyebrows in the industry there but wasn’t impossible thanks to the stalwart support of her male editor.

For those ten percent of Sudanese women who manage to break through and get their novels published, what happens next? “Literary critics tend to be males who prefer to celebrate male authors,” Belail declares. “No matter how distinguished a woman’s writing may be, works by women are rarely reviewed. Male critics simply do not appreciate the courage it takes for women to write in our society.” Courage, and determination. It goes without saying that if women’s works are repeatedly neglected, pushed aside whether in print or on radio or television, then Sudanese readers—let alone other Arab ones—are less likely to know about these books and pick them up.

The ripple effect is that editors in the English-speaking world (and undoubtedly in other language ecosystems as well) want to see translated reviews, numbers of books sold, and other evidence to show how the book did in its home country. If a Sudanese female author is unsupported by her own literary ecosystem, it is unlikely that her work will make it into any other language. A case in point is that between 2015 and 2017 alone, there were at least five novels by male Sudanese authors translated into English whereas to date there appears to not have been a single female-authored Sudanese novel translated into English and published. By contrast, in 2020, to cite one Arabophone example, there have already been three novels by Palestinian women translated into English published by both American and British houses.

Aside from issues that affect both male and female Sudanese authors—lack of marketing support, poor distribution of books, weak editing standards in houses, nonexistent financial support from governmental bodies, a dearth of training for publishers—what many of these writers are hoping for, at the very least, is summarized by Sara Al-Jack: “Sudanese women writers need to be seen as separate entities from their female characters so that we aren’t prosecuted for our characters’ actions and decisions.”

What may not be seen by Western audiences as provocative or controversial can be deemed as such by Sudanese society. In Amna al-Fadl’s novel Some of What Happened Between Us (translated by Katherine Van de Vate) the protagonist, Basma, is a journalist and activist based in Sudan. Starved for love, the protagonist embarks upon a passionate extramarital affair with a psychologist she meets at a workshop in a prison. Far from a mere romance, though, al-Fadl’s work is an indictment of the treatment of women in Sudan in which early marriage, genital mutilation, and domestic abuse feature. (As you may have suspected, it was published outside of Sudan.) The novel juxtaposes the modern and the traditional, moving through different times and places to tell Basma’s story in a deeply evocative yet economical style. Al-Fadl is a poet, and writes in lyrical language of great beauty, particularly when she is portraying her characters’ thoughts and emotions, as seen in the excerpt here, “Basma’s Dream.”

In “The Birth of the Spirit,” from The Mites by Sara Al-Jack, the Nile is more than an element in the setting; it is a central character, perhaps the central character. The river plays a pivotal role in the story, as it does in the history of Sudan, which Al-Jack is intent on retelling through a different lens in her work. It is Al-Jack’s inspired and imaginative reconstruction of such stories, and how she positions the Nile in the heart of the narrative of creation, that drew the translator Yasmine Zohdi to the particular scene presented in this issue, which effectively conveys the essence of this ambitious work.

Ann El Safi’s novel Like Spirit resists easy categorization. Its twenty-two vignettes weave in and out of a number of narrative threads, which meet and part in ways evocative of the shape of the long braid that forms one of its recurring physical motifs. The novel plays with ideas of reincarnation and doppelgängers, and explores themes of war, injustice, wasted potential, unrequited love, and the complex, interchangeably nourishing and destructive, relationship between humans and nature. ”Freedom of Flight,” the excerpt featured here, translated by Nariman Youssef, introduces the perspective of an unexpected character.

“Al-Nar Street,” from Zeinab Belail’s The Cactus (translated by Nesrin Amin), opens in a slum on the outskirts of the “Illuminated City.” The residents of the slum are migrants who settled there when the city shut them out by means of physical boundaries. A failed uprising leads to their expulsion from their already squalid homes, and they embark on a fantastic journey with the determination to rebuild their lives, aided by nothing less than demons and genies. The fantastic and supernatural thus blend and contrast with the stark realism of the life of the marginalized people. Belail explained that the novel is an ode to the Sudanese people, whose harsh conditions, much like those of cactus plants, only increase their resilience and fortitude.

Also exploring a marginalized section of Sudanese society is Rania Mamoun’s Son of the Sun (translated by Nesrin Amin), which takes place in Mamoun’s hometown of Wad Madani. Set up as two parallel narrative lines that converge toward the end, it follows two protagonists: the melancholy morgue-worker Karam, who lives withdrawn from society, and the uninhibited, sanguine Jamal, one of the so-called “shammasa,” the homeless “sons of the sun.” The novel traces the repeated and futile attempts of the shammasa to emerge from their hopeless situation, only to be brutally pushed back by society. Their world is contrasted to that of Karam, himself living on the margins of society, who feels more at ease dealing with the corpses in the morgue. In the excerpt here, “At the Coffee Shop,” Jamal observes a mundane morning turn suddenly violent.

As you dive into these poignant excerpts, savor the literature for its creativity, experimentation, and musicality … but just as important, remember what it took for these voices to reach you.

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All interviews were conducted by email in Arabic and have been translated into English. Special thanks to Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin for providing contact details for some of the authors and to Hamid Al Nazir for guiding me to available data on publishing in Sudan.

© 2020 by Sawad Hussain. All rights reserved.

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