Cairo, Egypt: 1964
Leila Aboulela was born. The daughter of an Egyptian mother and a Sudanese father.
In a few decades, she would break the myth that you cannot do your best on your first try; as a writer or in any other industry.
Her very first short story, ‘The Museum’ would go on to win the first Caine Prize for African Writing in 2000, and her first novel , ‘The Translator’ was longlisted for the Orange Prize for fiction in 2006. Her career in writing certainly got off to a great start.
Her pedigree might have had a hand in it; her Grandmother studied Medicine, and her Mother was a University Professor.
Leila Aboulela grew up in Khartoum, Sudan, where she attended the Khartoum American School and Sister School. She graduated from Khartoum University in 1985 with a degree in Economics and was awarded an MSc and an MPhil degree in Statistics from the London School of Economics.
Why did she turn to writing after earning so many degrees in Economics?
“I needed to express myself.” She explained in an interview with the Guardian.” I was 24 years old and stuck in a strange place, with two boisterous little boys, and my husband was working offshore on the oilrigs. It was a life for which I wasn’t prepared.”
“I was always very aware of the differences between people. When I came to Britain, I was interested in life around me. A lot of Sudanese people just keep themselves to themselves. And now, with satellite dishes, it’s even worse because they only watch their own television stations. They’re going to get stuck in a time warp, and even if they go back to their own countries, they’re in for a shock because their countries will have moved on.”
In 1990, Leila moved to Aberdeen, where she started to write while looking after her children. Between 2000 and 2012, she lived in Jakarta, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Doha. She now lives again in Aberdeen.
Her second novel Minaret was nominated for the Orange Prize and the IMPAC Dublin Award. Her third novel Lyrics Alley is set in the Sudan of the 1950s and was long-listed for the Orange Prize 2011. Lyrics Alley was the Fiction Winner of the Scottish Book Awards and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize -Europe and South East Asia.
She has recently published a new novel, ‘The Kindness of Enemies’, encompassing the Russian war, the jihad and present day Scotland.
Her literary influences include Arab authors Tayeb Salih and Naguib Mahfouz as well as Ahdaf Soueif, Jean Rhys, Anita Desai and Doris Lessing. The Scottish literary landscape and writers such as Alan Spence and Robin Jenkins have also been influential. Her personal faith and the move, in her mid-twenties, from Sudan to Scotland are also a major influence on her work.
Leila Aboulela’s works have been included in cultural educational programs supported by the British Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities in the United States and has received praise from Nobel Prize winner J.M Coetzee, Ben Okri and Ali Smith.
One moral of this story for writers and everyone else is;
‘Write who you are, don’t struggle to write like someone else or fit into a particular, ‘universally accepted mode. ‘Be yourself, because an original is always worth more than a copy, and nobody else is better qualified to write like you do.’
If you have to struggle to ‘sound’ original, chances are you are not actually being original.
And it’s never too late to re-invent yourself.
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