The Book of Khartoum: A City in Short Fiction is a great introduction to Sudanese literature.
Generations of complex and contradictory authors have come out of Khartoum, influenced by the different power struggles that have taken place in this ancient city.
The anthology has 10 short stories written by award-winning Sudanese poets and writers from the early 20th century up to modern times. The stories have been translated into English from Arabic, and compiled by Arabic researchers Raph Cormack and Max Schmookler.
One writer, Arthur Gabriel Yak, is from the predominantly Christian region of South Sudan.
The contrasting tales take place in Khartoum, which is built on the confluence of the Blue and White Nile Rivers.
Immediately noticeable in the book are the different styles and themes of Sudanese short story composition compared with Western literature. They do not always follow the typical narrative arc.
Sometimes the stories seem to start in the middle of an incident so you feel like you are struggling to catch up with a well-known episode. Others end abruptly, just as you are getting into the storyline.
The insertion of verse and songs into the narratives is not unusual, a technique that probably taps into the tradition of oral story telling where audience participation was expected.
Others tales cover broader themes. The Void is historical fiction set in the aftermath of the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, between Sudanese soldiers and combined British and Egyptian forces. This painful account, which focuses on two characters, an injured fighter and his despondent sister, felt like it should be expanded into a full-length novel. It also prompts an interest in learning about the Mahdi’s War of colonial times.
Intimate life experiences are reviewed in stories such as Passing, where a daughter is watching over a dearly loved father who is on his deathbed. A sweet love story emerges in The Story of the Girl Whose Birds Flew Away. It reveals the reality of gender violence and the second class status of women.
The Passageway is allegorical fiction, taking us through the dark side of city life from the perspective of an alleyway journey. But in its abstraction one can interpret other stories not intended by the author.
The Tank is a straightforward narrative of a man who purchases a military vehicle that leads to comical exchanges with his neighbours and customers.
One of my favourite stories is The Boy Playing with Dolls, which straddles reality and illusion. It is cleverly narrated by an imaginative boy whose father is “a skilled crafter of children’s toys” and at times I could not tell whether we had shifted from the story to real life.
Alternative definitions of masculinity arise in Next Eid, in which a university student struggles to get an education in Khartoum while secretly working at night to help support his family in the countryside.
Another Khartoum student from a conservative village is drawn into the excitement and liberal life of Khartoum in In the City. And a mistrustful meat-seller takes matters into his own hands after hearing rumours that his unmarried daughter may have a lover in The Butcher’s Daughter.
Coming to modern times, we see the grim plight of refugees trying to get legal status in It’s Not Important, You’re From There.
The Book of Sudan is a rich assembly of stories that gives insight into the complex history of Khartoum and the country in general. You become immersed in the city and exposed to the local culture such as unofficial “urfi’ marriages and the world of magical rituals.
The book whets your appetite for more Sudanese literature.