The Unique Wordplay of Sudanese Writer Bushra Al-Fadil

Award-winning Sudanese author Bushra al-Fadil is a master of creating parallel universes through wordplay and sound:

By Lemya Shammat

The creative voice of Bushra al-Fadil is among the biggest influences on the Sudanese narrative scene — particularly on the short story. His narratives are full of novelty, diversity, and originality, and are characterized by experimentation and daring artistic adventures. It is not without reason that al-Fadil won the 2012 Al Tayeb Salih Prize and the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2017.

Bushra al-Fadil was born in 1952 in the village of Argee, in northern Sudan, and then moved with his family to Aljazeera, in central Sudan, where he received his education. He majored in Russian, and has a doctorate in Russian literature, later working as a university professor and a lecturer in the Russian department at the University of Khartoum. However, Al-Fadil’s personal and professional life was gravely affected by the political pressures in Sudan which coincided with a major deterioration in human rights after 1989. He was part of the unfortunate massive outflow of professionals who poured out of the country in the early 1990s. Al-Fadil moved to Jeddah, KSA, where he spent nearly two decades. He is currently based in Toronto, Canada.

A revolutionary style

Two of the major creative features of al-Fadil’s work are experimentation and a revolutionary style. His diverse linguistic structures collectively work to overcome the literary limits of being fixed, static or stable.

Perhaps it is his creative investment in the energies of puns, phonetics, and wordplay — through creative linguistic violations — that moves his language into vaster, more semantically productive fields. It is these features that collectively give these narratives their characteristic flavor. Al-Fadil’s lively linguistic games constitute one of the key techniques of his style, which requires a great deal of linguistic dexterity.

This, for example, can be found in the field of names of his stories characters, which play a significant role in Al-Fadil’s stories. He employs naming as a strategy to call special attention to characters’ traits and sometimes fates. Accordingly, names are carefully chosen to suit characters’ personalities and destinies.

Names provide a fertile field for indication and interpretation. A remarkable example is “Locusts Symphony”, where the names of the locust characters are derivatives of the word jarad (Arabic for locust), such as Jared, Jarira and Jaburah. Names also can reflect characters’ toils and their gloomy destiny, as in the story of the child slave Faraj, which means relief, where a small movement of the dot on the last letter of his name turns its meaning into enslaved. The story also depicts the struggle of his wretched mother “Alrajen Allah” (desperate for the Lord’s help). There is also Abdul Al-Gayoom, in a story titled “Abdul Al-Gayoom Reprisal Campaign,” who rises from his grave to wage a heinous campaign of revenge. Gam means rise, while geyamaa refers to the rise of creatures of Doomsday.

Likewise, his choice of place-names is based on the nature of the place and its significance. There is the implicit reference in the name Castle (Hah), where prisoners are driven with whips, or the village of Bousisstan (from bous, which means misery), where people are steeped in their failures and sorrows.

Through continuous artistic and esthetic experimentation, Al-Fadil has worked to build up a reservoir of new words. Without falling victim to affectation, artificiality, or modernist arbitrariness, he has been able to coin creative expressions that have moved beyond the pages of his short stories into daily use. Taffabie, for example, refers to harmful manslaying creatures, appeared in his collection Taffabies’ Physiology, and has become part of ordinary Sudanese vocabulary; it captures a range of negative traits such as being immoral, criminal, and felonious. Taffabie has been extensively used in literature to insinuate the corruption of politicians and the aggravating political dilemmas in Sudan.

Betting on language

In order to generate fresh and more complex stems that can gain additional shades of meaning, the writer has increasingly bet on the vitality and dynamism of language to generate derivatives that can both enrich his diction and widen its shades of meaning. The invention of new expressions produces such words as alkhotbakhana, which is assembled from the word khotba, or public oratory. Alkhotbakhana, with its interlocking wires, is a special space for emptying one’s mind of hollow and vacuous political speeches.

Vernacular is employed in al-Fadil’s short stories as a natural resource that lends credibility and cohesion to the internal structure of the texts. The dialogue in his short stories particularly employs the vernacular and draws extensively from the creativity and unconventionality of slang. The heated and dramatically charged conversations between Mahmoud and his wife Alawiya in a short story titled “Separation” — in the collection Azraq Alymama — stands out as an example of verisimilitude, which it creates by employing lively everyday dialogue. Al-Fadil uses slang in the anecdotes not as a rival to the standard classical Arabic, but rather as a complementary match. As a result, language appears as a creative body flexible enough to accommodate both classical and vernacular and allows them to efficiently team up to achieve his artistic and aesthetics storytelling goals.

The stories’ structures are full of undertones, symbols, legacies, rituals, examination of the public imagination, cross-references, and intertextuality, where the real and the imaginary are two sides of the same coin. They transition smoothly between daily life and the bizarre or supernatural, which offers the reader an alternative or parallel world. In his story “Immortality,” the writer introduces deathless characters, who are one thousand years ahead of human civilization. They look human, although more physically attractive, and are able to reproduce by an asexual cloning process.

Another feature is the writer’s keenness to invest in the interpretative and explicatory energies of sound. This is frequently done by employing every shade of meaning that a sound can bring. Al-Fadil’s storytelling is also keen to document pure sounds from nature, and works to render it phonetically accurate, such as the locusts’ rhythmical performance of their melancholic songs in “Locusts’ Symphony.” In “The Unhurriedly Moving Woman”, a senile old woman who “rises up unhurriedly, the way grass grows from the ground” has a cough that is bilabially produced by a round closure of her lips.

Parallel worlds

Al-Fadil takes an interesting approach to building his parallel worlds. In one of his short stories, he loops the reader around the wing of a locust to see reality through the eyes of a locust. He lends personification and anthropomorphism to his characters: birds, locusts, dogs, and camels. In “Locusts’ Symphony,” for instance, we meet many different types of locust: average and cultured, lean and chubby, and ones fed on genetically modified grass. There is also the overly burdened donkey who commits suicide to protest the unfairness of the world. The stories thematic concepts revolve around the harmful over-exploitative attitudes of humans the consequent dramatic changes in the world’s ecosystem. The narrative holds a mirror to society so we can see the disastrous scenarios that await as we continue to wipe out the lives and habitats of other species.

Essayist, short-story writer, and critic Lemya Shammat has a PhD in English Language and Linguistics from Khartoum University and is an Assistant Professor at King Saud Bin Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. A member of the Sudanese Writers Union, Shammat has published a book on literary criticism and discourse analysis as well as a collection of short-short stories. She also translates between English and Arabic.