The BookBrowse Review

Published May 15, 2019

ISSN: 1930-0018

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In This Edition of
The BookBrowse Review

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  • Blog:
    The Caribbean: A Reading List for Book Clubs and Bookworms
  • Wordplay:
    I I T S Form O F
  • Book Giveaway:
    My husband asked me to lie. Not a big lie...
Elsewhere Home
Elsewhere Home
by Leila Aboulela

Paperback (12 Feb 2019), 224 pages.
Publisher: Black Cat
ISBN-13: 9780802129130
Genres
BookBrowse:
Critics:
  

A rich tableau of life as an immigrant abroad, and the challenges of navigating assimilation and difference. Elsewhere, Home draws us ineluctably into the lives of her characters as they forge new identities and reshape old ones.

A young woman's encounter with a former classmate elicits painful reminders of her former life in Khartoum. A wealthy Sudanese student studying in Aberdeen begins an unlikely friendship with a Scottish man. A woman experiences an evolving relationship to her favorite writer, whose portrait of their shared culture both reflects and conflicts with her own sense of identity.

Shuttling between the dusty, sunbaked streets of Khartoum and the university halls and cramped apartments of Aberdeen and London, Elsewhere, Home explores, with subtlety and restraint, the profound feelings of yearning, loss, and alienation that come with leaving one's homeland in pursuit of a different life.

The Circle Line

Cheese melts in London like nowhere else. Old mixes with new like nowhere else. The city is blessed. But a girl can sob her heart out in London's streets and no one will stop, no one will raise an eyebrow, no one will ask why. Oh, city of opportunities, career ladders and fame, you promised me I could start afresh, make my fortune. Rise and cruise up high. But I age and watch the chances fold in, the paths converge. I live the narrowing and the shutting down.

This shrinkage makes for a modest life, a failure. It opens the trapdoor on what I thought was beneath me: the cesspool of bitter and delirious crime. Last year my fiancé was arrested for money laundering. I had no inkling of it, not the vaguest idea. Lucky you didn't go down with him, people tell me. They can't be bothered with the state of my heart.

After I broke off with him, my mother took to sending me alternative suitors. It is easier to meet them here in London. In Abu Dhabi we would have to be chaperoned, or at least pretend to be. Here we can be alone. Here it's all quicker: from the awkward first meeting to seeing through the veneer of appearances, nurturing a spark, aborting a project before it becomes formal. Here we are allowed a more organic start.

I wake to the buzz of a message from her. We Skype while I eat my toast. She is three hours ahead of me and chirpy. 'After our last tragic experience, we need to stick to families that we know.'

It is nice of her to say 'our' to include herself in my disgrace. But it could also be a ploy to soften me. I know her tricks. She goes on, with confidence, 'Remember Hisham, the son of Dr Suad? You must remember him from that time we met up in Alexandria. How old were you then? Thirteen or fourteen? I gave him your number. He is only in London for a few days. You must meet up.'

I flick back two decades to a snapshot of Hisham, skinny in a navy swimsuit and poking at a patch of seaweed. He is saying, 'It's edible! It's edible!' No one else shares his excitement. At the age of fourteen, I already knew about crushes, I knew who I fancied and who I didn't. At the age of fourteen, I assessed Hisham and concluded that he was not my type.

'I'm busy,' I say to my mother.

'You are thirty-four.'

'Thirty-three.' My birthday is in November.

Her mood changes, 'In a few years' time, the situation will no longer be a joke.'

I have heard this lecture time and time again. Years flying, fertility falling; how I'm becoming more and more set in my ways, how no man is perfect. 'So what is the catch with this one?' I ask. These suitors always have a defect. The first one she sent was too short; the second only spoke to say that he hated London and the third should have been right – three is a good number, after all – but he confessed that his family had put pressure on him to meet me while he was actually in love with another girl, unsuitable no doubt. The fourth was too religious.

'You,' my mother sighs. 'You are the only obstacle.'

* * *

He phones me as I step into Hyde Park. Before I break into my after-work jog and start to breathe heavily. It's sunny today. Girls stretch out on the grass, their lipstick melting in the sun. I stride past ghetto blasters and smelly dogs, tepid ice cream handed down to children. Hisham tells me he's staying in a hotel in Bayswater. He's left the NGO with which he'd spent eighteen months in Darfur. In a few days' time, he will take the train to Edinburgh to visit his brother who is studying there.

'I'm giving private Arabic lessons in the evenings,' I say. 'It's amazing how many people now want to learn. And they're willing to pay well for it!'

He laughs and says that sounds good, that sounds interesting. I stand still and look at the playground. An overweight Arab boy is panting over the sand pit. His Filipino nanny stands over him, her skinny arms on her hips. This job has taken her from her lush homeland, through Doha or Bahrain. For a few months she will walk London's tired grass. In holiday photos and video clips, she will be an exotic flower in the background.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Elsewhere Home copyright © 2018 by Leila Aboulela. "The Circle Line" originally appeared in Gulf Coast Magazine in 2017. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Black Cat, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

A moving short story collection focusing on relationships among Sudanese expatriates.

Print Article

From the title on, Leila Aboulela's sixth book asks readers to consider what it means to have a home, to leave a home behind, and to make a new one. Here, "home" refers not only to a particular place—many of the stories in the collection explore the culture shock between Aboulela's native Sudan and current city of Aberdeen Scotland—but also to the challenge of finding one's way within a culture, within relationships, and even within oneself.

Evoking the idea of a walking meditation, a number of the stories take place during travel, whether it be an international flight, or a bus trip around London. In these stories, literal journeys progress towards a finite endpoint as characters grapple with complex issues. The unnamed narrator of "Expecting to Give" is a woman in the early stages of pregnancy traveling around the city while her husband is away working on an oil rig. There is a sensory refrain revolving around her insatiable craving for tomatoes, with elaborate descriptions of putting ketchup on stale bread, and tomatoes themselves. The main character of "Coloured Lights" cries on a London city bus out of homesickness for Sudan before taking comfort in the fact that there is no word for "homesickness" in Arabic. "Something Old, Something New" centers around a palpably anxious British man who converted to Islam while visiting Khartoum to marry his Sudanese fiancée. In addition to the tension about their relationship, he imagines strangers punching him through the car window, and he can't even look at the Nile without wondering about the crocodiles at the bottom. The general chaos of travel amplifies the chaos of a major life change, and vice versa.

The tug of past and present cultures manifests in stirring, specific moments. In "Souvenirs," Yassir travels back to his native Sudan, though his British wife won't accompany him, only asking him to bring back paintings. Even as he's in his hometown among family, he becomes aware of how long it's been since he spoke English, and he misses his wife. The narrator of "The Ostrich" imagines that everything about her life in Khartoum was real and everything in London was a hallucination. This story details an expatriate's complicated feelings about a past love interest she sees on a plane and her more traditional husband. Her past acquaintance—known only as "the Ostrich" is rendered in perfect detail, including how he picked his nose while on a poetry-based game show. These colorful memories conflict with the woman's life with her husband, who wants to live by traditional Muslim gender roles, while also not appearing too exotic for London, giving new dimension to fractures that occur even within those of the same background.

These stories travel in space, but also in time. "The Ostrich" relies on the bittersweet reminiscence that only comes with the passage of years. The nameless male protagonist of "Something Old, Something New" meets his fiancée after a chance encounter with a former teacher inspires soul-searching and a visit to the mosque. Yassir's journey in "Souvenirs" is not merely a return to his homeland but also to his family life.

Aboulela excels at giving equal weight not only to the high-stakes drama of cultural differences, but also more focused concepts, like a schoolgirl's nearsightedness in "Farida's Eyes," or a restaurant worker's inability to cook rice, symbols of their cultural displacement. These stories are quiet in ways that highlight tensions of daily life rather than large-scale cataclysm. In the details, we see that these themes aren't about being Sudanese or British specifically, but the simultaneous sense of belonging and alienation familiar to us all.

Reviewed by Erin Lyndal Martin

The Guardian (UK)
A yearning for home tugs at the souls of Aboulela's characters in this beautiful and desolate collection…There is so much quiet brilliance [here].

Good Housekeeping (UK)
A lovely collection of short stories about love, loneliness and spirituality.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Each story is earnest, engrossing, holding surprising depth for tales so compact. Aboulela confronts and dissects Western and African stereotypes of Islam, Muslims, and immigrants, and beautifully renders the more universal challenge of cultural homelessness.

Booklist (starred review)
Connected by a consistent authenticity, these stories display a virtuosity in building on the most relatable emotional hooks: pre-wedding nerves, pregnancy stress, or economic anxiety. Aboulela's remarkable collection offers a strong and sympathetic illumination of the social and spiritual price that migration demands even when it does deliver on an economic promise.

Author Blurb A.L. Kennedy
Elsewhere, Home is a rich and poignant reflection of a Britain built as ever from multiple perspectives and starting points…These beautifully focused tales of Khartoum, Edinburgh, London, Cairo and beyond are a delight.

Author Blurb John Freeman
[Aboulela] is one of the best short story writers alive. Publishing her at Granta Magazine and Freeman's has been one of the highlights of my life as an editor.

Author Blurb Fadia Faqir
Exquisite fiction. There are gems here, elegantly cut, polished and framed. Luminous.

Author Blurb Roma Tearne
Full of elegance, tenderness and the small vulnerabilities that make up our lives.

Print Article

Literary Resistance in Sudan

Khartoum residents browse books at the Mafroush book fairLeila Aboulela's books, including the story collection Elsewhere Home, illuminate modern life in Sudan, sharing bits of culture and geography alongside the experiences of faith and human relationships. The author joins in the tradition of Tayib Saleh and other fiction writers who've brought the Sudanese diaspora experience into Western view. In recent decades, though, an oppressive political regime has limited the ability of writers in Sudan to share honest narratives of their lives.

In 1989, Omar al-Bashir staged a successful military coup in Sudan, beginning a presidency that lasted until a new coup forced him out in April 2019. Under Bashir, Sudan became an autocratic, single-party Islamic state. One of the many areas this impacted was the literary culture of the country, which had been steadily burgeoning with publishing and reading opportunities. At one time, Sudan's capital city of Khartoum contained over 400 bookstores, including Al-Dar Al-Sudaniya, the largest one in the Arab region. Under Bashir, libraries and many bookstores were ordered to close, their contents destroyed. Those that stayed open reported massive losses in revenue.

In addition to censorship, Sudanese citizens have also faced incredible economic hardship, worrying more about buying groceries than about reading books. The once-prestigious education system declined sharply under Bashir. All this strife seemed insurmountable, but it only provided more inspiration for the writers of Sudan's literary resistance.

Used bookstores gained new importance, whether in traditional form or in private citizens selling paperbacks they'd cached beneath the floorboards in their homes. Khartoum writers banded together to make an easily accessible public literary event, launching Mafroush (which means "displayed") in Arabic. Held the first Tuesday of every month, booksellers and book buyers gathered in Etinay Square with flattened cardboard boxes displaying used books or underground publications. Many of the 30 (on average) vendors reported selling more on that day than on the rest of the month in their shops combined. At the monthly event, local publications like women's magazines debuted, bringing a grass-roots spirit to publishing as well as reselling books.

Mamoun EltlibMamoun Eltlib, a young writer and cultural activist, was one of the driving forces behind Mafroush. For him, creating a literary community was just as important as redistributing books. At the first meeting, he asked writers to bring copies of their favorite books to display and discuss, but not to sell. Eltlib's drive to revive the literary scene in Khartoum comes in direct response to a childhood spent attending school in a country that no longer had school libraries. In addition to writing his own fiction and starting the open-air event, Eltlib began an English language newspaper in Sudan, re-started the Sudanese Writers Union (which was later banned by Bashir), formed an arts collective, founded a publishing house for young writers and contributed political commentary to worldwide outlets. Mafroush was operating in 2015, but it is unclear if the event is still being held at the time of writing. We are also unable to find current information on Eltilib, who was detained in January 2018 along with about 50 others following a protest over the price of bread, and his Twitter account, which was at twitter.com/mamouneltilib, no longer exists.

As of May 2019, after the ousting of al-Bashir, Sudan is under the governance of a military council, but a coalition of activists known as the Declaration of Freedom and Change Forces (DFCF) is working hard to pressure the council into establishing a democracy.

Mafroush book fair, courtesy of The New York Times

Mamoun Eltlib, courtesy of The Guardian

By Erin Lyndal Martin

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