A taste of Sudanese literature in a London salon

Sunday 17/07/2016
Ahmad Al Malik (by Margot Rood)

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.