Literatures of the Sudan: North and South

Tayeb Salih

Recently, I’ve been trying to educate myself about literature from the Sudan(s). After all, her historic vote is just one small piece of the Sudan’s rich cultural history.

I imagine there are multiple Sudanese literatures: the Arabic-based literature (its most well-known practitioner being Tayeb Salih), as well as literatures in English (Leila Aboulela, Jamal Mahjoub) and local languages, such as Beja (known for its poetic traditions) and Dinka (perhaps Makwei Mabioor Deng will help spark a written tradition).

Certainly, if one had to name a Sudanese author in fewer than ten seconds, most of us would land on the great Tayeb Salih, who was on Denys Johnson-Davies well-known “Arabic Nobel shortlist” of 1988. Salih, who died in 2009, is celebrated in large part for his Season of Migration to the North, which was declared “the most important Arabic novel of the 20th century” by the Arab Literary Academy in Damascus.

Salih was also a big proponent of Arabic literature. From a 2005 interview with the Sudan Tribune:

If you find a publisher who believes in Arab literature and takes a risk on it, not just publishing a few thousand books, you will find readers for it.

The Arab novel has reached a very high standard which is comparable to any standard, anywhere in the world. The fact that this is not recognised abroad is a matter either of criteria … or it is a lack of enthusiasm for foreign products.

Other notable Sudanese authors who write in Arabic include Tarek al-Tayyeb, who was born in Cairo to Sudanese parents, and whose Cities Without Palms was translated by Kareem James Palmer-Zeid and published by AUC Press. It was a visually strong, although flawed, first novel, followed by The Palm House (reviewed here).  Amir Tag el-Sir is another Sudanese author of note, on the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) shortlist for his novel The Hunter of the Chrysalises.

Raouf Mousaad Basta was born in 1937 in Sudan. He studied journalism in Cairo, where he co-wrote a book with Sonallah Ibrahim. His autobiographical novel The Ostrich Egg has been translated and published in French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, and Swedish—but not English.  Mohamed Abd-Alhai, one of the Sudan’s most celebrated poets, wrote both poetry and literary criticism. You can read two of his poems on African Writing Online, translated by Mustafa Adam.

Yousif Izzat AlMahri was born in 1974 in the Nomads’ plains of Darfur and attended university in Khartoum. His “Stirring Ashes” was translated, also by Mustafa Adam, for African Writing Online.

Beirut39 Sudanese author Mansour El Souwaim points to many more accomplished Sudanese authors who have joined the growing Sudanese literary community:

…with the start of the 21st century, Sudan has faced an unprecedented leap in the number of novels published and produced. In one year, the number of novels published exceeded those of the 40 years that preceded it.

He goes on to name names:

The new generation includes Abkur Adam Ismail (The master of marginal myths in the novel. The Route to Impossible Cities), others such as Baraka Saken in The Windmills, Al Hassan Al Bakri in The Case of The Veteran (Old Warrior). Mohammad Khair Abdullah in The Curse of Hamnyab, Jamal Mahjoub who writes in English, Rania Mamum in Green Flash, Tariq Tayeb in Cities Without Palm Trees. Mohammad Khalaf Suleiman, whose works focus on the worlds of Sufism and the supernatural heritage told by the Sudanese in Interpretations of the Shrine of Wird.

Of course, he notes, the Sudanese novel didn’t come from nowhere, but is the child of a rich legacy of stories, tales and riddles.

I’ve had a harder time finding writers from south Sudan. In the Sudan Tribune article “Lonely south Sudan bookshop awaits peace dividend,” bookshop manager Gabriel Dok says, “people don’t read any more [because of the conflict.] For decades the residents of Rumbek have been more preoccupied with the demands of fighting the northern Khartoum government for greater autonomy than leafing through classic novels or pursuing an education.”

But surely I am overlooking some accomplished south Sudanese authors.

Bloggers from the Sudan:

A list from Sudanese Thinker

More on Tayeb Salih:

From Arab World Books: Read a translation of his short story, “A Handful of Dates”

From WNYC: Why Tayeb Salih is underappreciated

More on Tarek Altayeb

An interview with Buzzle

More on Jamal Mahjoub:

From Banipal: A short story by Mahjoub, “In the Long Shadows”

The Guardian: A review of Mahjoub’s The Drift Latitudes

Glendora Books Supplement: A review of Mahjoub’s In the Hour of Signs

Yes, I see there is also Sudanese author Kola Boof:

But I feel a little exhausted by the need to sort the fiction from the fact, the self-creation from the self-aggrandizement. Maybe some other time. Meanwhile, you can read an excerpt from her memoir in Harper’s.