Leila Aboulela turns tragedy into triumph in Lyrics Alley, her dazzling new novel inspired by the life of her uncle, the late Sudanese poet Hassan Awad Aboulela.
When did you discover your uncle's poetry?
I discovered it late in life even though I had always known that he was famous. Hassan was older than my father and my father had looked up to him. But my father's assessment of Hassan as a poet was in line with the family elders' interpretation: Hassan turned to poetry to comfort himself after an accident; he composed jingles that became popular largely due to his family's endorsement of musicians who turned Hassan's lyrics into songs. In addition, this conservative, proud family were upfront about the fact that if it wasn't for their son's disability, they wouldn't have supported his literary career. So I grew up aware of Hassan's fame but I did not know the songs.
Did you consider writing a biography rather than a novel?
No, I never did. Although the identity of Hassan's sweetheart and muse is not a secret among the wider family and their close circle, it would have offended her children to see their mother's name in a published book or in newspaper reviews. Besides, sticking to factual details would have stifled me. Hassan's story is the nucleus of Lyrics Alley. Around him revolve imaginary characters like his Egyptian stepmother Nabilah, the fashion-conscious outsider who reflects the prejudices of her times, and the tutor Badr, whose tribulations are different from those of the Abuzeid family but no less urgent.
While writing Lyrics Alley, you mentioned that you were challenging yourself by writing from multiple viewpoints.
Both my previous novels, The Translator and Minaret, were written from one viewpoint, that of a woman. When I set out to write from multiple viewpoints, I was initially wary of writing from a male point of view. Once I got going, though, I felt closer to the male characters than the women.
When you began writing in the early 1990s, you hoped to make Islam more accessible to noninformed readers. Do you sense that readers are more knowledgeable today?
Definitely, yes. The coverage of Islam in the media is becoming more sophisticated and there is more access to knowledge. Many Arabic/Islamic words have now entered the English dictionary such as haj, hijab, Eid, etc., and I no longer need to put them in italics or explain them. Still, though, there is a stereotype of Islam as a religion of violence and oppression of women. And this stereotype doesn't take into account regional and class variations as well as cultural factors that have nothing to do whatsoever with Islam.
Are you working on a new novel?
I am interested in going further back in time, to the 19th-century British campaigns in the Sudan. I'm still researching, and there is a lot of firsthand material and diaries to look at. I am not sure, but maybe this new novel will be a prequel to Lyrics Alley.