Sudanese Author Omayma Abdullah on the Writer’s Heart

Sudanese writer Omayma Abdullah’s “The Route Through Purgatory” was featured in a recent Friday Finds. The startling desert story was translated by Nassir al-Sayed al-Nour and published by The Short Story Project:

Abdallah did her academic studies in civil engineering and has worked for a number of Sudanese newspapers and magazines, in addition to publishing three collections of stories and three novels. She spoke with translator Nassir Al-Sayeid Al-Nour for ArabLit.

Nassir Al-Sayeid Al-Nour: How and when did you start writing? When novels, short stories, other narratives?

Omayma Abdullah: For sure, it was a long time ago, such that I can hardly remember, and dates and times are criss-crossed with truth. Such crossings often turn my life upside-down, or drop some events from my memory, so it’s not easy to remember them — sometimes, it’s as if they never happened.

Writing is a realm of attractions. In writing, all dreams come true. It’s been said that in literature there’s room for anything; although this makes things difficult, especially for us as novelists, it has its fascinating times. The novel is like an octopus that surrounds us, so that it is impossible to escape. It leaves its traces on us for a long time, and its heroes become our secret friends.

What are the first books you remember reading (or having read to you) that you fell in love with? Did you have favorite books as a child? Where did you get them? (From your parents, from a bookshop, from school, from newspapers, somewhere else?)

OA: I started just like any dreamy girl in the realm of the moon! I had a subscription in a bookshop for a long time, where I read the “Abeer” series of romantic novels until suddenly I found Uncle Tom’s Cabin, after which my reading style radically changed, sending it into another direction.

Many books have lived in my memory as if they were a breath of life; as long as I remember them, I feel a desire to return to them, as they remain full of vigorous life. I enjoyed philosophical novels and was also attracted by magical realistic novels; people throughout history have many things in common despite their different histories. Lately, Saudi novelists have caught my attention, such as Abdo Khal’s لوعة الغاوية, which I have read many times, and Raja’a Alem’s The Ring, as well as Turkish-British novelist Elif Shafak’s Black Milk. I could hardly detach myself from their worlds.

Has your background and training as a civil engineer affected how you craft stories?

OA: I don’t think so, but studying engineering did open spaces to exercise rebellion, hike in the streets…and so on. At that time, I was suffering from a burning soul, conservative family rules, and my small community’s traditions. If I could choose now, in this time of awareness, I would probably choose to study law instead

I saw your post “وإذا الشعب سما“. If you could make a different future for writers and literature in Sudan, what would you include? What are your dreams for the writers of the country? 

OA: No writer can take the possession of his or her heart for granted; it seems be a writer’s fate that their heart is always at in the hands of others, and others’ hearts clustering around them. The writer is not only concerned with his or her own people, but he or she is committed to humanity at large, wherever oppression and injustice are occurring. Writers are always concerned and carrying his or her consciousness as an amulet till the grave!

How has social media (Facebook, Instagram, others) changed Sudanese literary publishing? When do you decide to publish on your Facebook page, and when do you wait for a newspaper or a book?

OA: Absolutely, those media platforms have enabled us, in remarkable ways, to contact another other and to follow each other’s writings instantaneously. They also cross distances between their users, encourage so many to write and to be in touch online. Sometimes, a short tweet consumes an enormous amount of energy by exhausting one’s entire heart; words have an effect on the writer, especially after clicking “post.” Social media is interesting; it’s made a parallel world and created a great opportunity for those who feel shy to post directly, but I still adhere to the smell of pen and paper. Narration and causation stop working any time I use those platforms, which is why I’m not good at continuous posting. Indeed, writing has its own severe conditions; I may be punished by an inspiration whenever I am distracted, and also my characters may get angry if they’re neglected—they’re sensitive creatures, especially when abandoned.

Two of the central themes in your stories are war and women’s sufferings, is that in some ways because of the war in Darfur, where you raised?   

OA: I don’t believe that; there’s no regional bias here. It is a writer’s advocacy to support humanity in general wherever human-rights violation may exist. As writers, we’re closer to the grassroots community than are politicians; we’re their heart and voice. This internal civil war broke my heart; it made my heart hover over those areas, and it does still. I don’t know when human rights will be restored and wounds healed, but we’ll continue our sit-in until all that happens. In one of my visits to the IDPs camp in Southern Darfur, I lost my voice for half a day–the deepest moan gushed out.

Your novel (A Paralyzed Memory) had been banned in Sudan; are taboos still a challenge that face Sudanese women writers?

OA: And so it will remain, as we’re writing without glossing over, as they want us to do. My novel was banned because it documented a massacre that took place at the end of 90s in a Military Training Camp in Alalafoon district, near Khartoum. It was the only witness of that incident. Twenty years later, people found nothing to recall that incident in the newspapers, but there was my novel.

Having written three novels and one short-story collection, how do you see your narrative journey?

OA: All the worlds I’ve made in the narrative realms probably qualify me for another one, which I’m feeling now more than at any time in the past. I passionately sense there’s a novel calmly waiting to be made.