The Intrigue of the Image by Leila Aboulela

By Wasafiri Editor on March 30, 2023 in

In this exclusive piece, Leila Aboulela, Fiction judge for the 2023 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize, looks back to the beginning of her writing life – including her long relationship and publication history with Wasafiri – and considers the intrigue of the lingering image, offering writing advice to potential prize entrants.

The 2023 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open for submissions until 30 June 2023. Submit here.

In the 1990s, I was an unpublished, aspiring writing living in Scotland. When I went to writing workshops, everyone spoke about the latest Scottish novels. We were enthusiastic about Janice Galloway, Irvine Welsh, and A. L. Kennedy. It was an exciting time for Scottish literature — and I was inspired and encouraged by the mood around me. But there was another side to my reading: authors who were never mentioned at the writing workshops and only briefly reviewed in the newspapers. These were the writers I was discovering within the pages of Wasafiri: Abdulrazak Gurnah, Caryl Phillips, Imtiaz Dharkar, Kwame Dawes. They were my connection to Africa — and to the wider world. Reviews of the latest Sunetra Gupta novel, interviews with Shashi Deshpande and Anita Desai, critical studies of Jean Rhys and Buchi Emecheta … I felt a kinship to these writers, a welcome in the worlds of their books. It would be decades later before these writers were celebrated in the mainstream. Within the pages of Wasafiri, though, their worth was instinctively known.

The first magazine to publish my work was the Scottish magazine, Chapman. I also submitted some of my work to Wasafiri and I still have the letters I received in reply. To know that the ‘editorial board enjoyed reading’ my work was a deep affirmation. I visualised them sitting around a grand oak table in the hushed atmosphere of British academia, bestowing their approval upon me. Learned scholars who understood what I was saying, who recognised me. Publication and prizes are often viewed in terms of career progression and greater exposure, but there is also the comforting, nurturing encouragement that gives a steady warm glow in the silent solitary time of filling a blank page.

Wasafiri wanted me to send ‘The Houriyah’ ‘on a PC compatible disc in Word or Word Perfect if possible’, and, in the spring of 1999, my name appeared in the journal for the first time. ‘Thank you for your contribution to Wasafiri 29’, Richard Dyer, the Managing Editor, wrote on headed paper, with the swirl of the logo on top and another fainter larger shadow of it in the background — an email address displayed for the first time. ‘I hope you enjoy the issue. Please find enclosed a cheque for £30 and a complimentary copy of the magazine.’ The issue was entitled Taking the Cake: Black Writing in Britain, and the cover was a blue swirl of a stunner.

‘The Houriyah’ was a character sketch. At that time, I was writing a few of them under the general working title of ‘Four of my Friends’, the others being ‘Barbie’, ‘The Judge’, and ‘The Aromatherapist’. They were not destined to be published together. Apart from ‘The Houriyah’, which quickly saw the light of day in Wasafiri, I clung to the others for years, eventually developing them into full-length stories. ‘Barbie in the Mosque’ was published in a Scottish anthology, ‘The Aromatherapist’s Husband’ in my collection, Elsewhere, Home, and ‘A Very Young Judge’ in New Daughters of Africa, edited by Margaret Busby. I had, of course, been made exhilaratingly aware of the earlier seminal, sister anthology, Daughters of Africa, through Wasafiri too.

I wrote many short stories before I started my first novel. Short stories give the impression that they are easier to tackle, but in reality, a story requires a firmer grip from the writer. Flaws that can be overlooked in a novel are glaring in a short story. Tightness, control, and the urgent need to deliver a punch attracted me to the short story form. Stories also offered a quicker route to getting a response from a reader. In those stumbling, early days I did not have the patience to spend swathes of time in secret without the hint of encouragement. It was more motivating to write a few thousand words and hand them over to someone I trusted, then hold my breath as I waited to receive the praise I desperately needed. After my first stories were published and well received, I felt confident enough to embark on the longer, meandering journey of a novel.

In his description of the novel, and I believe his words can also apply to the short story, Albert Camus says that it is ‘…a philosophy put into images. And in a good novel the whole of the philosophy has passed into the images. But if once the philosophy overflows the characters and actions, and therefore looks like a label stuck on the work, the plot loses its authenticity and the novel its life.’ It has been almost a quarter of a century since ‘The Houriyah’ was published! From this distance, I look to see if it lives up to Camus’s definition and if it has stood the test of time.

The houriyah of Paradise lives in a council flat, carries the buggy, the baby twins, up the two flights of stairs. She and the four-year old step on cigarette ends, European dust, junk mail. They avoid the crushed beer can. Why the council don’t move us … only two bedroom here?

The houriyah of Paradise wears a long coat, dark, no prints, covers her hair, even her forehead is under that hood. Foreign, fanatic, oppressed by Horrible Arab Man… that is in the mind of the child’s nursery teacher, vaguely, not quite so defined. Why this teacher never speak sweetly with me?

The houriyah of Paradise dreams of a beautiful house on earth, with a garden. Nags her husband for not earning enough. The babies cry when they quarrel. The television blares. She burns for Sarajevo, Palestine. If only I have, I would give …

The houriyah of Paradise cooks the Ramadan Iftar for eighty women. For the love of Allah and His Prophet, she doles out curry and rice, pours ASDA Cola in plastic cups. Afterwards she tidies up, stuffs the used paper plates and cups in black plastic bags. Stains on her clothes, reeking of spices, rice stuck on to her socks, she looks radiant.

The first paragraph sets the scene, and the image is strong. I like the crushed beer can. Here is a mother trying to instil an aversion to alcohol in her children from the very start. It is naive but also authentic and poignant in a way, pointing towards the challenge many devout Muslim immigrants feel in bringing up their children in a society which does not share their values.    

There is more of an edge in the second paragraph, and a switch in perspective. We are now looking at the mother from the outside. We are in the nursery teacher’s head. And yet there is no direct confrontation between the two women. A specific incident would have been stronger. Or at least the teacher could have voiced her thoughts out loud. ‘Even her forehead’, changed to ‘Even your forehead is under that hood!’ …

The maiden of paradise is dreaming of a house on earth. We are now back to the reality of the opening paragraph. The ‘nags her husband for not earning enough’ comes across as old fashioned. Nowadays, women in her situation are finding jobs as nurses and school assistants. In many ways, they have more employment opportunities than their husbands. I am conflicted about her reaction to the news. It shows us that she is politically engaged and concerned about world events but there is also a remoteness here, her response somewhat impersonal. A more direct engagement or connection is needed. Perhaps her own family are in Palestine, or what she is seeing on the screen, are familiar places.

In the last paragraph, the ‘rice stuck on to her socks’ floods me with sudden vivid memories. It is sharper than the generalisation, ‘she looks radiant’, although it is true, I did witness her looking radiant. Perhaps ‘she is radiant’ would have been stronger. But the rice wins. It is the strongest image in the piece. It would, I believe, comply with Camus’s definition — the whole of the philosophy has disappeared into an image.

When ‘The Houriyah’  was published in Wasafiri, the word Islamophobia had still not been invented and the word Ramadan had not entered the English dictionary. I chose to use ‘Iftar’, but I explained the title in a footnote. I would not need to do that today. Put in Google, over ten thousand entries for ‘houriyah’ come up, as well as alternative spellings.

The immigrant women I wrote about in the 1990s came from Iraq, Lebanon and, like me, from Sudan. Decades later they would come from Syria and Afghanistan. I was writing about the life around me, my community, my present. I was offering an insider’s knowledge of the Muslim community in Britain, a particular angle that centred the average adherent, rather than the rebels or the elites. A decade later, September 11 and the War on Terror turned the focus of the media on ‘Muslims in the West’ or what was often described as the ‘Muslim Problem’. But in the 1990s, I was writing about a world that was unknown to many. I was capturing the movement of my own cohort of immigrants and their wider interconnections to the former British colonies. I wrote without looking over my shoulder, bearing witness rather than feeding a demand.

Without being aware of it, I was also doing what Alice Walker said about writing, ‘Your caring is actually part of what you are offering: I care, and therefore I offer this.’ As time went by, and with one novel after the other, my confidence in my abilities increased.  As did my patience. I researched and wrote historical novels. I wrote longer short stories. The initial idea usually came to me as an image. An image that roused my curiosity. A girl wading into the river. What is she wearing or not wearing? What is she smelling? What can she see when she looks down at the water? When she looks over her shoulder at the shore? Why is this moment important to her? I would then start to piece together the ‘evidence’, my suppositions, but I would never doubt the image itself. I would be confident of it, treat it as a gift, an inspiration. If it intrigued me enough, I would go on mulling over it. If I forgot all about it, then that meant that it was a passing phantom, not worthy of pursuing. If an image haunted me for days, weeks, months, then that was a good sign. It was time to write.

Leila Aboulela is the first-ever winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing. Nominated three times for the Orange Prize (now the Women’s Prize for Fiction), her novels include Bird Summons, The Kindness of Enemies, The Translator, a New York Times 100 Notable Books of the Year,Minaret and Lyrics Alley, which was Fiction Winner of the Scottish Book Awards. Her short story collection Elsewhere, Home won the Saltire Fiction Book of the Year. Leila’s work has been translated into fifteen languages. Her sixth novel, River Spirit, set in Sudan in the lead up to the British invasion of 1898, was published in March 2023. Leila grew up in Khartoum, Sudan and now lives in Aberdeen, Scotland. 

Image credit: Rania Rustom

The 2023 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open for submissions until 30 June 2023. Submit here