Sudanese novelist Leila Aboulela looks at the multiple perspectives of Sudanese and Egyptian immigrants in UK in a collection of short stories called Elsewhere, Home.
Aboulela, 56, was born in Sudan grew up in Egypt, and moved to the UK in 1987. Her husband worked in an offshore oil rig, like some of the book’s characters, and there are other autobiographical elements from her life among the 13 narratives of this anthology.
The Museum, a story won the first Caine Prize for African Writing in 2000, is one of the most in-striking reviews of historical disparities. In Aberdeen, post-graduate student Shadia strikes an acquaintance with Bryan, a reticent Scottish classmate who has never visited Africa. They tour the local Museum of African works where Byron shows keen interest in the imperial era exhibits. But Shadia, who had a modern upbringing in Khartoum, finds the outdated clichés of Africa disconcerting as she reflects on the huge effort needed to turn Bryan’s mind away from colonial ideology.
In Something Old, Something New the relationship of a multiracial couple in Khartoum is put the test by a series unexpected setback just days before their wedding. Neither the Sudanese bride-to-be nor her Scottish fiancée is named in this story, but it does not take away from the examination of racial, cultural, religious and geographic differences.
Nadia, an Egyptian girl raised in the England, resists the efforts of her conservative mother to pair her up with a suitable Egyptian boy in Summer Maze. Marriage is also examined in The Boy from the Kebab Shop, featuring an overweight university student called Dina who lives with her alcoholic mother.
As the half Scottish half Egyptian child of parents in a loveless marriage, she has no interest in religious observances or getting married. But a series of interactions with a conservative restaurant owner brings her to a crossroad.
Is she willing to change her lifestyle in exchange for a stable alliance or continue living her own way in the “unfulfillment of her parent’s home?”
Self-identity is the dominant theme in Pages of Fruit where a Sudanese wife and mother is a lifelong fan of a renowned author from her birth country. Both are the daughters of prominent families, privileged childhoods and westernised lifestyles, which suggests a similarity of viewpoints. However, when they meet years later, the narrator realises that the “opaque and unyielding” writer bears no resemblance to herself.
Instead she must navigate her own insecurities stemming from abandonment as a child by her feminist, liberal-thinking mother.
Identity, integration, homesickness, culture shock, female liberation and navigating the Islamic faith in a largely secular foreign country are just some of the themes reviewed in Elsewhere, Home. “It seemed the fate of our generation is separation, from our country or our family,” writes Aboulela in Coloured Lights.
Because the narratives are driven by the individuals’ experiences we get a personal understanding the immigrant outlook instead of a theoretical discussion of subject. She also presents both female and male storytellers, which gives us a gender-balanced perspective.
Aboulela is adept at imagery and using words to lay out visual landscapes. She repeatedly takes us from the cold dreary climates of London and Aberdeen in Scotland to warm, sunny Khartoum by the blue waters of River Nile.
A few stories seem out of congruence with the topic immigration such as Farida’s Eyes where the future of a bright school girl in Sudan is put in jeopardy by failing eyesight. Her traditionalist father will not allow her get eye glasses and only the intervention of a European missionary teacher saves her education.
Quite a number of the book’s stories conclude with cliff-hangers or have incomplete endings, leaving the readers to make their own assumptions.
However, as much as possible, the stories are snapshots of real immigrants’ lives, and you can assume that the main characters are still in the process of exploring and understanding their ongoing experiences.