What the Caine Prize Did to my Writing – Leila Aboulela

Leila Aboulela


Leila Aboulela, a Sudanese writer and first winner of the Caine Prize for African writing in 2000, has won many awards. The awards she has won include the Scottish Book Awards and the Saltire Fiction Book of the Year Award in 2018.     Her Novel, The Translator, was one of 100 New York Times Notable Book of the Year. In this interview with NEHRU ODEH, she speaks about her writing, her winning the Caine Prize, her mixed parentage and her country, Sudan.


You have won many prizes. How has growing up in Sudan affected your writing?

Well, of course I grew up reading Tayeb Salih, Sudanese eminent writer and also other Arabic authors like Naguib Mahfouz from Egypt, for example. So Arabic is my first language. But then when I went to school I studied English. And that was when I started to read English language authors. And then when I went to Scotland I started to write in my late twenties. I was very much writing about my country, Sudan. SO I wrote a lot about Sudan

How has the politics in Sudan affected you as a person?

I grew up in the city of Khartoum. So I am very much affected by the city. And Khartoum was characterized by the meeting of the blue and white  Niles – that is, where they meet in Khartoum. And also the landscape of the desert and the dependence on the waters of the Nile was very much part of the hood I grew up in. It’s a country with its Europe and Arab mix.

You were born to a Sudanese father and an Egyptian mother, while your husband was born to a Sudanese father and an English mother. You have spent some time in Dubai. But now you are both in Aberdeen. How has this cultural mix- I mean the mélange of cultures – affected you?


I grew up In Khartoum. A lot of people have Sudanese fathers and Egyptian mothers. So it was not unusual. And both o them are rom North Africa. They are both Muslims and Arabic. So they have a lot in common more than the supposed differences in the cultures. But  we used to travel to Egypt regularly. So there was a strong influence on my life I mean both the Egyptian culture and the Sudanese culture.  And then I got married. My husband’s father is Sudanese but his mother is English. This is how we then moved to the UK. But still we have connections there.

When you first arrived in the UK, did you experience culture shock?

Of course , when I left Khartoum and then went to the UK I was very homesick. And I found everything very different   the weather, the people. The cultures were very different, and also because I wasn’t sure whether we were going to go back or not.  It was an uneasy sort of situation

Your novel, The Translator is one of the New York Times 100 Notable Book of the Year and has made a huge impact on the literary scene. What inspired that book?

The movement from Sudan to Scotland.  And it talks about the homesickness and the character of this widow who is finding it difficult to live in the UK, after the death of her husband.

Is the novel semi-autobiographical?

Not really. But a lot of the feelings were what I have experienced. Still, the plot is not autobiographical.

How do you feel being the first winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing? And how has that impacted your writing?

Well, it was very nice to have got this recognition of course. But the prize was very small at the beginning. And now it’s growing. So in a way it’s good that it has grown over the years and I am pleased that people are interested in my work. So hat has been a good thing. The Chair of judges when I won in  2000 was Ben Okri. That was very special for me.

When you think about your country, Sudan, how do you feel?

Well, I feel a lot of hope now, a lot of optimism that Sudan now, after this revolution, has found its place. It was sort of isolated. But now I am elated that it would join the international community and have better relations with other African countries. Nigeria is one of the countries that Sudan looks up to because Sudan is a much less successful country.




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