A taste of Sudanese literature in a London salon
London - Sudanese literature is flourishing and Sudanese writers have been crowding onto the Arab literary scene, winning prizes and acclaim with new voices and perspectives. However, this is happening against a backdrop of repressed publishing houses, tight government control on publications and censored internet access in Sudan, forcing many of the country’s authors to live in Europe to be able to freely express thoughts without fear of persecution.
Recently, Banipal Magazine of Modern Arab Literature, in coordination with Waterstones book retailers, dedicated an issue to the work of 15 Sudanese authors, while hosting writers Ahmad al-Malik and Tarek Eltayeb for an evening in a London bookshop. Malik read excerpts from Lovers Don’t Steal and Eltayeb read from Helmy Abu Ragileh.
Sudan boasts centuries of oral literary tradition, kaleidoscopic and rich as the population that composes it. Contemporary productions echo this diversity and this is what defines Sudanese literature today, Malik said.
Since Al Tayyeb Saleh’s work was recognised as pioneering in the 1960s, Sudan’s political and cultural landscape has changed noticeably and so has the readership. In recent years, people in the country have read more fiction, as opposed to news or commentary about political pieces, a genre most popular previously.
Thanks in part to the establishment of literary competitions that award money to authors and translators, the country has seen the emergence of a young generation of writers whose work has also been translated into French, German and Italian.
The developments of the literary scene do not go hand in hand with the Sudanese government’s agenda, which seems to be hampering and combating the circulation of literature, Malik said.
“To start with, a literary piece is subject to taxes and customs, whereas a religious book is not. This makes publishing creative pieces a failing business from its very inception,” he said.
Malik said that in the past few years, book fairs and cultural centres, such as the Sudanese Studies Centre and the Sudanese Writers Union, have been shut down.
“Imprisoning people in Sudan does not require laws. Banning or confiscating a book is… a lesser evil than imprisoning an author,” said Nur al-Huda, head of Sudan’s Azza Publishing House, in an interview released for Banipal.
Most of the work of Sudanese authors that sees the light of the day, Malik and Eltayeb said, is printed abroad, often in Egypt. A copy is then smuggled into Sudan and photocopied — with the tacit approval of the author — to reach the most Sudanese readers. Otherwise, the book would be too expensive for the average Sudanese to buy it.
Azza seems to be one of the few book publishing companies able to stay afloat, managing to distribute books in every city in Sudan and South Sudan.
According to Eltayeb, Sudanese authors have a moral responsibility to keep writing and talking about the truth, directly or indirectly, according to their circumstances.
“Politicians will always look for a political interpretation of a book, even if it’s a piece of scientific research. That should not stop writers from doing their job,” Eltayeb said.
Eltayeb encouraged young Sudanese writers to persist in their quest to publish and to not be discouraged by obstacles. He stressed the importance of the role of translation in the spread of Sudanese literature abroad.