PEN Author Visits, Writing Awards Announced

By Emily Blackner
Elm Staff Writer

Author Leila Aboulela’s reading provided students with a chance to learn more about her life and work and the importance of literature. Following the event, Rose O’Neill Literary House Director Mark Nowak announced the winners of two writing awards.

Aboulela came to Washington College’s Literary House on April 25 as part of the annual PEN World Voices festival held in New York City. The festival’s website says that it is designed “to celebrate the power of the writer’s voice as a bold and vital element of public discourse.”

Aboulela personally believes in the festival’s aims. “Literature is very valuable, and it is even more so now because we are very much hostage to what the media tells us about each other,” she said. “Fiction goes deeper. We can actually share the lives of people we’ve only brushed against. We get to know them more in fiction.

The reading ended with the much-anticipated announcement of the 2011 Veryan Beacham and William W. Warne writing prizes. This year, senior Caroline Knuth won the Warner Prize and $500 for her piece on the environment, poetry, and spirituality. Junior Kristine Sloane won the Beacham award and $1,000 for her creative entry about civic issues.

After the reading and announcement, Aboulela signed copies of her book and chatted with interested readers.

Aboulela has many interesting stories to tell about her community because she has an interesting background.

“I’m from North Sudan,” she said. “There was a lot of political instability—we were ruled by one dictatorship after another.”

In Khartoum, Aboulela earned a degree in economics, and before 1992 hadn’t really written any fiction.

“I like math because I thought it was cool, in the sense that it didn’t excite any emotions,” she said. “In statistics, it stopped being math. We did a lot of modeling, which was interesting because a novel is like a model in a way. You have the structure, the curve of the novel, and simulations [of life].”
“I left my home in Sudan and I moved to Scotland,” she said. “There was a kind of brain drain. The college graduates feel that they can’t find the job they want to find. “When in the UK, I realized that people didn’t know about the two things that made up my identity: Sudan and Islam. I wanted to share with them these things, especially because I was homesick for the city I grew up in.”

Yet she “found [her] voice in fiction” rather than autobiography or creative nonfiction. Many of her early works were short stories set in Britain.

She eventually returned to Sudan to reconnect with her roots. Many of the people she met there asked her to write about their stories.

“They saw it as me writing about them to the West, telling their story because they can’t. But I write to everyone; I don’t see the West as being this big monolithic thing,” she said.

Her latest novel, “Lyrics Alley,” which came out in March, is one that is based on one of those stories. Although most of the members of the family are fictionalized, Aboulela “remained faithful” to the story of her cousin, a bright young man who became paralyzed and confined to bed after an accident. He was still able to find success, however, as a poet.

“Popular songs are made in a way that poets writes lyrics and the singer puts it to music,” she said.

“‘Lyrics Alley’ is a departure for me,” Aboulela said. “It was my first time writing from a man’s point of view” and also the first time she used multiple narrators for her novel. “The conflict is usually with one character moving. But here, everyone is in the same place, but they are very different from each other.”

“I write about the economic immigrant,” she said. “Whether it was the right choice or not; what you gain and lose.”

In addition to conveying those themes, Aboulela hopes that her fiction will make people more tolerant.

“Nowadays, there’s a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. and the West,” she said.“It’s important to find out more about Islam. Christianity and Islam have a lot in common; that’s not well-known. And reading fiction is a gentle, non-threatening way to find out about cultures.”

Aboulela offered the traditional advice of “read a lot” to aspiring authors. She said, “be patient to allow ideas to mature before putting them to paper. Also, you need to be open to changing your work, open to the idea of feedback. Above all, stay true to your own vision and how you look at life and see the connections between things.”

April 29, 2011
Volume LXXXI Issue 24

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