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Based on a True Story

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“Writers want to be around writers,” said David Keplinger, director of AU’s MFA program in creative writing, as he introduced the latest Visiting Writers Series guest to a room packed with students on October 16. 

Sudanese author Leila Aboulela, inaugural winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing, joined literature professors Rachel Louise Snyder and Lindsay Green-Simms on October 16 for a conversation about her sixth and latest novel, River Spirit. Written from the perspective of characters living in Sudan in the 1880s, River Spirit chronicles the country’s history during the transition from Ottoman to British colonial rule.  

The hourlong discussion began with the impetus for River Spirit.

Aboulela, who grew up in Sudan and moved to Scotland in 2012, described stumbling across a statue in Aberdeen inscribed with “Khartoum”—Sudan’s capital city. It was a tribute to Major-General Charles Gordon, who “fell in his county’s service at Khartoum, January 1885.” The serendipitous moment inspired Aboulela to write Gordon into River Spirit as one of its characters. 

“He was very clear to me from the beginning,” said Aboulela, who earlier this year was elected to the Royal Society of Literature. Gordon’s character was also based on David Roberts, a Scottish Orientalist painter famous for his renderings of the Near East.

In River Spirit, another of the main characters, Akuany, becomes enslaved and is forced to pose for Gordon as he paints her. Akuany was based off a real girl whose slave name, Zum Zum, Aboulela discovered through a bill of sale in her archival research at England’s Durham University. 

"It had the man who sold, the man who bought, and the amount of money that was exchanged. I had known that slavery existed in Sudan, but just to come across it like that was startling. I started to think about her: She must have had a [real] name, a background, a village, a childhood.”

Aboulela continued researching the East African slave trade and decided to include elements of the enslaved girl’s story in her novel. 

 “I wanted to stay true to the history,” Aboulela said. She immersed herself in primary sources in Arabic with a feeling of excitement.

When asked why she decided to include the violence of the historical period in River Spirit’s narrative, Aboulela said she “didn’t want to pretend that it wasn’t there.” 

The placement of violence was purposeful, intended to emphasize the characters’ “resilience . . . not [portraying] them as victims of violence,” Aboulela said. She wanted readers to see what the characters actually saw in order to further connect them to a history that is largely unknown by many audiences. 

Snyder praised Aboulela’s commitment to engaging with the past. 

“Historical novels I don’t think should be compelled by their very nature to speak to our contemporary moment—and yet hers do.” Snyder said. “Leila seeks not to reclaim history, because such history was never lost—it was only ever untold.” 

The Visiting Writers Series continues on November 15 with poet Valzhyna Mort, CAS/MFA ’11, at  7 p.m. in the SIS Abramson Family Founder’s Room.