Writers Select: New and Inventive Voices in Sudanese Literature

As part of our special “In Focus: Sudan” section, three Sudanese writers put together a list of their highlights from recent Sudanese literature. We asked:

If you were to choose 4-7 titles that would represent, to you, the most interesting books (perhaps experimental, challenging, or influential in some way) written by Sudanese writers in the last 10 years, what would they be? And (perhaps more importantly) why?

Mansour El Souwaim

صقر الجديان (The Secretary Bird), by Muhammad Sulayman al-Faki al-Shadhili (2020, Dar al-Watad).

Mansour El Souwaim

In this novel, Muhammad Sulayman al-Faki presents a horrifying picture of the ugliness of war and its power to destroy the individual, the community, nations, and states. Through the story of a journalist who joins the northern forces fighting in southern Sudan in order to prepare press reports for the official newspaper of the armed forces, we are brought painfully close to the tragedies and atrocities of the worst war Africa has seen in the twentieth century.

In my opinion, what the author succeeds in most in this novel ­– condemnation – is his ability to transport pain from its imaginary, literary form to approach in its meaning the painful sensation to the point of nausea.

Reading this work is an agonizing and painful experience of the horrific physical and psychological pain resulting from torture, fear, terror, and the gradual loss of one’s mind, as well as of the pain that terrible wars can inflict on a person—soldier, citizen, or prisoner, and even on an animal wandering in the savage forest. This forest paradoxically resembles Paradise, in contrast to the savagery of man who, for the sake of nothing, proceeds to exterminate every trace of life.

The symbolism of the secretary bird (Sudan’s coat of arms), saqr al-jidyan, both the book’s title and the nickname of one of its main characters, carries poetic ambiguity and mystery that intertwines with savagery, intelligence, and even madness, which mark the novel from its beginning to its end. A wonderful work by a great writer.

حبال النور والظلمة.. مراتب العصوان فيوض اليابس (Threads of Light and Darkness), by Amir Sham’un (2019, Dar al-Musawwarat li-l-Nashr)

A new novel by a young writer, this is Sham’un’s first work in this narrative style. In my opinion, it is a book worth pausing at, for in it we find astonishing exploration of complex and overlapping issues, considered by many as among the reasons that led to Sudan’s paralysis, its underdevelopment, and its involvement in its present existential predicament. The writer addresses these issues with the same refined narrative and does not get carried away by rigid journalistic or ideological templates.

Sham’un has chosen one of the villages in the far north of Sudan, languishing on the banks of the eternal Nile, as the locale for the novel’s events. It’s a village that has been abandoned by its inhabitants due to the immense, violent transformations that have befallen the country in recent years — the Bashir years— and only those unable to emigrate remain, as well as those who have chosen “the land” and “the Nile,” bound until death.

The novel narrates the lives of its characters over the course of three decades. The story of each of these characters tells of and explains the nature of the place, people’s relationships, and the nature of their crises which can hardly be separated from the bigger problems facing the country. This novel presents a striking critical analysis of the “effendi identity, or the middle class, as well as the military, political Islam, racism, gender, poverty, language, music, and the land.”

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Mansour El Souwaim is a Sudanese writer and journalist. He has published five novels, most recently عربة الأموات (The Chariot of the Dead, 2016), as well as the short story collection كانت وكان وكانت الأخرى (She 1, He and the Other One, 2021). Several of his novels have been translated into English, French, and Swedish. Mansour has won the al-Tayeb Salih Prize for Literary Creativity for his novel ذاكرة شرير (Memory of a Villain). His next novel, طحلب أزرق (Blue Algae), is forthcoming.

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Ayman Bik

Ayman Bik

The novel مسيح دارفور (The Messiah of Darfur), by writer Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin (2012, Dar Awraq), had a very strong influence on many of our generation. It is tantamount to a great step forward, towards liberation from our historical ties with regards to the Darfur region, and regarding the systematic racism and the massacres committed in the region. The events of the novel revolve around a man who proclaims himself the messiah in Darfur and against whom the government sends a battalion of soldiers to get rid of him. Through this story, the author narrates several truths of great impact.

In his novel شوق الدرويش (The Longing of the Dervish, 2012, Dar al-Ayn), writer Hammour Ziada follows the traces of love and revenge through a balanced and absorbing narrative written in astonishingly beautiful language. The events of the novel take place during a very complex time, the Mahdist period, when the Mahdi proclaimed himself and incited his followers to fight the oppressors. Here, the writer brings to life for us a strange conflict that now takes on a religious character, then a political one, and is at other times a class struggle. It can be said that this novel was written as an international novel.

When the writer Muhammad al-Tayeb delves deeply into his symbolism, we are in for a great work: The novel بلاد السين (Land of Sin, 2020), which recently won the al-Tayeb Salih Prize for Literary Creativity, perhaps represents a new shift in the world of Sudanese novels. This novel made my mind work, and it was not content to just be the artistic director of the story’s atmosphere, but went beyond that in rapidly trying to decipher the story’s cyphers and metaphors. Bilad al-Sin is a large and diverse country over which the dictator has a firm grip. where he doesn’t leave anyone any opportunity to express their opinion. The idea of the story resembles many stories we have read before, but this particular version, with its strange characters and astonishing events, may constitute a new beginning in Sudanese literature.

عربة الأموات (The Chariot of the Dead, 2016, Dar Miskiliyani), is a masterpiece by writer Mansour Soyem. It depicts a world every Sudanese fears, the world of exile, through four main characters. Mansour leads us to penetrate deeply into our fear, and the changes that befall us when we leave the hell of our homeland to fall into another, even crueller hell. The novel’s language is beautiful and deals with a literary topic I see as most difficult.

منتجع الساحرات (The Witches’ Resort, 2015, Dar al-Saqi) is another one of the masterpieces of Amir Tag Elsir’s, the station man, as I call him, since you can’t approach Sudanese literature without reading him. The novel revolves around Abba Tesfaye, an Eritrean refugee who arrives to the region of the Witches’ Resort and settles there. We get to know her exciting story and the stories of her lovers, rich in beauty and wonder.

نبوءة السقا (The Waterman’s Prophecy, 2015, Dar al-Tanwir), by Hamed al-Nazir, is another novel I always recommend. It tells the story of the Awtad and the Ahfad in an old Eritrean town, in which the Ahfad seek liberation from slavery based on an ancient prophecy about their liberation from servitude to the Awtad. A more than wonderful novel that can easily be classified as Sudanese high literature transcending geographical borders.

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Ayman Bik, born in northern Sudan in 1989, is a writer, editor, designer, and electrical engineer. He has published three short story collections, most recently ما يكون لبقعة قهوة فعله (What a Coffee Stain Has Got to Do, 2021), for which he won the 2021 Elias Farkouh Short Story Prize. He has won several other awards and grants and has published articles in various Arabic newspapers and journals.

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Lemya Shammat

شهوات النعناع. حكايا الأغاني المهاجرة (The Desires of Mint: Stories of Migrant Songs), by Osama Al-Tayeb (2018, Dar Awraq)

Osama Al-Tayeb is a Sudanese poet and journalist residing in Belgium.

Lemya Shammat

In four chapters entitled “Songs of Nostalgia”, “Good News”, “Departure”, and “Daring”, and in subtle poetic language full of metaphors and references, the writer presents a prophetic novel that discusses the coming revolution as well as a great confrontational, but enlightening struggle that opens the way to new horizons and possibilities.

The revolutionary atmosphere prevails throughout the novel: the demonstrations, the streets crowded with security forces, their countless vehicles, and their heavily armed members who hunt, drag around, arrest, torture, and kill peaceful young demonstrators and strip them of their human dignity.

The novel also revolves around different themes and burdens, concentrating on the triad of memory, nostalgia, and songs. It immerses itself in history and proceeds to examine and contemplate the present, then lays out a horizon for the future. This is done through three generations represented by a grandfather, a father and a son. The novel is inspired by the poetry of a place, as well, where the place does not only figure as a mere stage for events, developments, and characters, but is instead put front and center, with its social, cultural, and environmental features through roaming the northern region of Sudan, the capital Khartoum, and then the coastal city of Port Sudan. The novel employs dialogue in colloquial vernacular that reflects the characters’ environment, social class, and maturity as humans.

Ithar Abdullah Yusef Muhammad, a plastic artist and short story writer who graduated the College of Fine and Applied Arts at Sudan University of Science and Technology, has published several short stories in local and Arab newspapers. She has won several awards for her short stories and is a cultural columnist for a number of local newspapers as well as working as a teacher in special needs education.

The young storyteller transforms her hearing impairment into unconfined perspectives of deep contemplation, foresight, and philosophical insight. In her short story collection قيامة الشجر (The Tree’s Resurrection), Ithar presents a dense narrative poetic in both soul and language, through frugal phrases, that yet drip and glow with poetic finesse, to paint her splendid literary painting rich in contemplative snapshots of humanity that try to dive into the landscape of reality and its questions.

With aesthetic elaboration and subtle, multi-layered language, Ithar talks about existence, incorporating poetic sensitivities with the philosophical horizon that transcends the surface. She lowers the buckets of contemplation, enlightenment, and exploration into the well of humanity, using a group of characters, situations, scenes, and dialogues that examine changes of destiny, paradoxes, and life situations that represent a space for exploration and to reveal the hidden, the absent, and the forgotten.

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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, and her work appears in ArabLit Quarterly.

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Find our Sudan focus page here, featuring women recommending Sudanese women writers, a list of Sudanese literature available in English, and lots of fantastic new poetry and fiction from Sudan.

Leonie Rau

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