Originally from Sudan but living in Aberdeen now for many years, Leila Aboulela has brought both cultures together in her fiction before. But in her latest novel, River Spirit, she focuses on the history of her homeland – although still with links to Scotland – using individual stories of everyday yet extraordinary people to examine wider themes and concerns.
SNACK spoke to Leila Aboulela to learn more about River Spirit.
Why did you want to tell the stories in River Spirit?
I moved from Sudan to Scotland in my midtwenties. This means that I have now lived almost equally in both countries and no longer see them as worlds apart. I want, through fiction, to bring them together and explore their shared history. A disproportionate number of Scots played a part in Britain’s colonial administration.
Those the Sudanese called ‘Ingleez’ and thought of as English – including myself, who studied history at school – were in fact Scottish! I have a huge plan of writing several historical novels linking Scotland to Sudan. River Spirit is the first. The original proposal for the novel was to be set in Sudan in the early 1900s.
Why did you decide to move to the late 1800s?
The 1880s and 1890s were dramatic times in Sudan, with the Mahdist wars, the siege of Khartoum, and finally the brutal British conquest of 1898. At first I wanted to skip all that war action and start off at a time of peace and rebuilding. But it would have been too much of a backstory for the reader to ingest and so I gathered my courage and faced the action head on.
One of the most important characters, although in the background, is the Madhi, who some claim is ‘not the true Madhi’.
For those of us unfamiliar, can you tell us a bit about this figure in Islamic theology?
He is depicted as having enough charisma for the reader to believe he could command such devotion. In the late nineteenth century, Sudan was part of the Ottoman Empire and the Sudanese were subjected to heavy taxes and harsh punishments. This oppression led to severe resentment and the belief that only a ‘messiah’ could save the situation. When Muhammad Ahmad claimed he was the Mahdi, many believed him. The figure of the Mahdi is not mentioned in the Qur’an.
He is, though, described in detail in many of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, the Hadith. He is described as the expected Redeemer, who would, close to the end of time, bring justice and prosperity after years of tyranny and oppression.
Although set against the background of war and occupation, the novel is defined by individuals and their relationships. How many of them were real characters, and how do you manage to balance fact and fiction?
The more I researched the more I realised how fascinating the history was. It was so wacky and thrilling that instead of taking liberties, I just wanted to share the reality with the reader and to present the history as accurately as possible. All the main characters are fictional except for Gordon.
The characters really stayed with me after finishing reading. When a novel is published, is it easy for you to move on, or are the people and events hard to let go?
It’s great to hear you say so!
No, it isn’t easy to move on and I did feel a sense of grief when I finished with the writing. The central character is Zamzam, who has to change, in some ways literally, to survive and move on.
Can you talk a bit about her and how you created her?
I found her name on a bill of sale in the Sudan Archive at Durham University. I knew that slavery existed in nineteenth-century Sudan, but to hold in my hand a bill, with an actual monetary figure and the names of the people involved, was still shocking.
I also found a petition detailing the case of an enslaved woman who had escaped with a stolen item of clothing from her mistress. She had gone back to her former master, and it was against him that the petition was raised. This told me something about the woman’s character and she began to seem real to me.
The best historic novels resonate in the present day, and River Spirit does so in a number of ways. One is with the destructive effects of a country being invaded by others; another is the examination of how women are treated and mistreated, and how they manage to fight back. Did you consider the contemporary while writing or researching River Spirit, or is that all in the reading?
One of the characters in the novel, Yaseen, studies jurisprudence and singles out justice as being more important than anything else. Even in his personal life, navigating relationships with two very different women, he strives to be fair. The destructive effects of greed and the extremes people adopt in their fight against injustice is what resonates to the present day. Invasions are always fuelled by greed and rebellion from injustice. Victims of injustice will always fight back in one way or the other. It is impossible to repress them.
There is a Scottish strand to the novel concerning the painter, Robert, which shows a more domestic and intimate version of the clash of cultures which are playing out in the politics, diplomacy, and battlefields in the background. Was this vital to the novel overall?
Robert was the first character I envisaged, inspired by the Scottish artist David Roberts, whose lithographs of Egypt were widely popular. As my writing progressed, the fictional Robert became more ruthlessly ambitious, enslaving Zamzam in order to paint her. Culture clash played out in the domestic sphere can have more impact than on the battlefield.