Leila Aboulela’s latest novel River Spirit (Saqi Books, March 2023) takes place amid the backdrop of the Mahdist Revolution in the 1880s and the Sudanese struggle for independence.
The story, grounded in archival research and based on real characters and events, centers around Akuany, an orphan who later becomes enslaved, and her brother, who is taken in by a merchant family. The narrative shifts between several characters and perspectives as they navigate these turbulent years. Historian Marie Grace Brown, author of Khartoum at Night: Fashion and Body Politics in Imperial Sudan (Stanford University Press, 2017), spoke to Leila Aboulela about the process of bringing intimate and everyday histories to life. Their conversation took place on March 15, 2023 and has been edited for length and clarity.
Marie Grace Brown: The novel is set in the turbulent years of the Mahdist Revolution (1881-1898), which some scholars refer to as Sudan’s first nationalist movement. Why did you want to tell a story about this period?
Leila Aboulela: I grew up with this story. We studied it at school and again in university. My parents were fond of the book The White Nile by Alan Moorhead, which was a very racy, colonial take on the whole story. The Hollywood take in the 1960s was awful, with Charlton Heston as Charles Gordon (the British Governor-General of Sudan) and Laurence Olivier in blackface as The Mahdi. It was full of inaccuracies. It wasn’t even filmed in Khartoum. I wanted to write the story from the Sudanese point of view. At the same time, once I started researching, I also felt that what we were taught at school and university was too nationalistic, too patriotic. It was a bit sugar-coated. I wanted to give a balance or show it in a more realistic way.
Marie: I wanted to talk a little bit about genre because historical fiction is having this critical moment. There seems to be a lot of energy and excitement around the genre. Why do you think historical fiction is so compelling?
Leila: I think from an African point of view it’s exciting because these stories haven’t been told before. They’re not really in the mainstream. The mainstream story has always been Eurocentric. We’ve had the young man, the young African man going to Europe as in Season of Migration to the North. Then I came and did the woman in my book The Translator. Now we want to do something different. The history opens up incredible possibilities, rich possibilities of stories that haven’t been told before from this particular perspective. I find myself excited about reading African historical fiction more than other genres because it feels to me that this is actually new and exciting.
Marie: In reading your acknowledgments, you say that you found the enslaved woman, Zamzam (her name changes from Akuany when she’s enslaved), in the archive. Can you describe the moment of discovery? What do we know about this historical figure she’s based on?
Leila: I went to Durham, in the United Kingdom, to the Sudan archives, and I was looking through the archives. One of the items that came up was a bill of sale. The same bill of sale is mentioned in the wonderful thesis written by Heather Sharkey. She wrote about domestic slavery, and she also mentioned this particular bill of sale. It had the sum of money, the names of the people involved, and it was quite startling to see. I mean, I knew that slavery existed, but to see it like that was quite shocking. Then there was a petition: One man raising a petition against another man saying that this enslaved woman ran off with a piece of cloth that she stole from her mistress, and she went back to the former master. That intrigued me, because I thought, “why would she do that? Why doesn’t she just escape and go back to her people?” It inspired the story of the attachment of Zamzam to Yaseen. But, also, I have to be honest, I grew up in Sudan knowing people who had slave ancestry. I think it’s something people in Sudan don’t really want to talk about now. It’s considered a shameful subject that they don’t want to talk about. They don’t want to talk about grandmothers who were in these situations. But it does tell us something about how the society was shaped.
Marie: So, from what you’re saying, it also sounds like you believe that historical fiction or speculation is really critical when we want to honor the experiences of black and brown women in particular.
Marie: The perspectives in your chapters shift so that some characters’ chapters are written from the first person some are written in third person. Zamzam’s chapter is actually a third person perspective. I was just curious about your logic behind that.
Leila: I wanted to have the reading experience be a little bit different for each character. So that people are feeling that they are now with a different character—sometimes to have a first person and third person sometimes to have it in the past tense or in the present tense. Also, it had to do with my ability to flow, to generate the words. I tried with Zamzam (whose name before she became enslaved was Akuany). Her chapter starts off when she’s 11 years old. She’s standing in the river and she’s inside the water. I tried writing that as the first person, and the words kind of petered out after a paragraph. I just couldn’t sustain it. I couldn’t carry the voice. I’m going to carry it from an 11-year-old up until she’s a mature woman…It didn’t work. I switched to the third person and then it worked, so I kept going.
Marie: I think one of the most startling breaks in the reading experience is when you get to the Charles Gordon chapter. Just a bit of explanation for those reading the interview: Each of your chapters is headed by the name of a character, so Yaseen, Zamzam, Fatima, Musa. Then, the single chapter for Charles Gordon is also headed simply, “Charles,” which has this wonderful effect of reducing Gordon’s importance and equalizing his experience with that of so-called marginal characters or people that we don’t know. His chapter is also written in second person, so there was this real arresting presumption of the reader aligning with Charles Gordon, which made for a really interesting reading experience.
Leila: Yes, so Gordon was the opposite of the other characters. There is so much written about him and also his journals are available, which are so good. You can do so much with them, and of course people have. I just didn’t know what to do with him. Having him in the first person would just be an echo of the journals. I was like, “How am I going to pull this off?” Then, suddenly, the line came to my mind, “you like how the Sudanese say your name.” It just took off from then. I thought, oh, okay, that fit, I could do the second person. I just went on: you, you, you, you. I wasn’t sure whether it was me talking to him or whether it was him talking to himself, and I didn’t care.
Marie: We should probably mention for readers that you and I have met. We met in the Sudan Archive at Durham, each consulting the same collection but for different purposes: myself to produce an academic text and you to write a novel. What would you say is the value of fiction or speculation for historians?
Marie: I really like what you’ve said about how fiction or speculation gives us the chance to slow down. Something I’ve been playing with in my own work is thinking about time and chronology and the difference between calendar time and felt time or lived time. So certainly, crossing from Khartoum to Omdurman is different whether there’s a bridge or a boat, but also being in times of stress feels different as you are counting down the resources that you are losing. If there’s not oil for hair, then subsequently there isn’t oil for cooking. That kind of timekeeping is much different than marking days on a calendar.
Leila: It’s fascinating. I loved reading about the people from the west moving towards Omdurman. They had never seen the river before. So, they came and they saw this river, and they were just amazed. There are all these descriptions of them. As they were going along, they were seeing new things. It was really beautiful to live part of that journey.
Marie: I can imagine. Relatedly, I have always appreciated your attention to the body and physical sensations felt by your characters. This is how I’ve used your fiction in my historical work. There’s a moment in which Akuany, now Zamzam, is observing Yaseen’s wife, Salha, and says her feet are beautifully hennaed, she’s moisturized, her hair is beautifully braided. Zamzam says, this is a body that has never been struck, that has not been sexually assaulted. There’s this wonderful description of one woman looking at another and saying, there’s certainly beauty in this other body but also perhaps—ignorance isn’t the right word—but a body that has been completely sheltered and has not felt the experiences, has not felt the trauma and the pain that Zamzan’s body has absorbed.
Leila: Yes, she sees Salha as being protected, which she has been. I’m glad you mentioned that paragraph because it meant a lot to me and nobody has mentioned it. I think that makes what happens to Salha afterwards so significant. She does lose this protection. She does lose something. I actually based Salha on my father’s doctor. My father had a doctor when he was very ill. In his last days, he had dementia, and his doctor had specialized in the UK. She’d come back to Khartoum, and she had this lovely voice. My father was very happy with her voice. A lot of Salha to me is like a typical Sudanese woman of the north given that she’s got this kind of education and this confidence. I enjoyed writing her.
Marie: Also, maybe because of her education she seems to be a promise of the next generation, one who, in the right circumstances of an independent Sudan, might have had great opportunity. I think the novel in general really explores the vulnerability of Sudanese women across races and across classes. But you do a nice job of not turning them into victims so that they are vulnerable without being just victims. Can you talk a little bit about what you believe made their lives so precarious at the end of the 19th century?
Leila: It’s the wars and the instability. As soon as they lose their father figure or their brother figure then they are vulnerable. If you’re reading about slavery in Africa even before the Europeans, it was about people. It was about the raids and the prisoners of war. But it was also about somebody who is lost in the desert, or orphans. It’s vulnerable people without the support of a tribe, without the support of a family figure, they were then vulnerable to exploitation. Women were very vulnerable in that way.
Marie: Right. We see this so much with Akuany, this slippage from orphan to not quite enslaved. She’s in this very liminal space. The dark skin is setting her apart, but, notably, it’s not just her skin color. It is precisely because she is without family. This distinguishes her experience from that of her brother, who is also orphaned and then taken into the same household, but he is then fully adopted into the family. It is being without the familial protections that really seem to place women’s lives in danger or make them precarious.
Leila: That’s very true. What happens to her brother we could then see it as a positive way that the society dealt with orphans at the time. He was fully integrated into the family. He was fully accepted. He was even given the daughter in marriage when he grew up. They looked after him all the way through. There was a full love and full acceptance.
Marie: One of the characters in River Spirit that may surprise readers is Robert, a struggling Scottish painter. He’s this unexpected addition. I confess, I wasn’t always quite sure what to make of him or what to do with him. Why was it important to you to include his perspective or character in this story?
Leila: He was one of the first characters I thought of. I initially had this idea of a novel of an artist going to Sudan and linking the two countries together, Scotland and Sudan. That he would go and make a sketch or paint a woman and then get into trouble for it. As I went into the research, the woman became more important than him, so he kind of shrunk. The same as Charles Gordon, he also kind of shrunk. I think one of the reviews felt that he was disconnected from the novel. They didn’t get the point about the Orientalist paintings. I was inspired to write about that because I saw lots of photos—maybe the photos were taken a little bit later when the British came in—a lot of photos where a lot of the women don’t look comfortable. They look unhappy. You can tell from their physical expressions on their face that they’re not happy with being photographed. I thought, yeah, I get that. This camera pointed at you, you feel something uncomfortable, suspicious. Part of what historical research is showing is that these orientalist portraits depicted women in North Africa in kind of middle/upper class, luxurious surroundings. They’re the women of the harem, and they’d be lying down and they’d be with their hookah pipes and all that stuff. But for painters to paint these women they were likely either enslaved or they were sex workers. These beautiful, Orientalist nudes, well, they’re not really as lovely as we thought they were. I wanted to make that point. Also, in wanting to go over the history, the way the baton was passed on from one character to the other, Robert was helpful. He gave the Khartoum perspective, he did one of the battles and he was with the army at some point. He gave us another perspective on Gordon. So it was that. Then this idea of making use of and exploiting the colonies. People like Robert, they got something out of it. It’s not just a matter of him working on the boats that were carrying the ivory and the gum, and it was all going out of Sudan. He was also using the landscape to further his painting career. At the end, he ends up being a very successful artist.
Marie: When I say I wasn’t quite sure what to make of him, it was because I wasn’t sure how sympathetic he was supposed to be. Because he’s certainly complicit in the beginnings of this imperial system, but he enters it unintentionally.
Leila: Exactly. He’s complicit in the system. Maybe I should, but I don’t worry about whether the character is sympathetic or not. I just want them to be real. I just want people to say to me, these are real characters. Then I’m happy. It doesn’t matter whether it’s sympathetic or not.
Marie: There’s really a significant amount of mobility in River Spirit, as characters move across the territory, as they move in and out of households and families. Again, this may surprise some readers who are familiar with the strict north-south binary or histories that seem to just take place in one spot. What should we be taking away from this fluidity, mobility and intimacy that your characters are experiencing?
Marie: On the individual level, again, thinking about women and orphans and the enslaved, as they are brought into households they moved with the households. And again, the ease with which Akuany’s brother was adopted into the family and taken care of also plays with our expectations about racial boundaries. Who’s in and who’s out and who’s an other and who’s not. This is a real strength of the novel because when we tell these stories from a colonial perspective, it is only characters like Robert and Charles Gordon who move anywhere. They just encounter people stuck in place. You’ve created a full cast of characters across different classes who are moving in all sorts of different ways on multiple levels.
Leila: Yes, and the women moved with the army. That was also very interesting to me, that the women moved with the Mahdi’s army. Every time the army camps somewhere, the women are setting up stalls, they’re selling eggs and they’re doing all sorts of things. It was families moving. It wasn’t really this stereotype we’ve got of the women at home and then the men going out to war. It didn’t happen like that. That was one of the details that I didn’t know and that was interesting. The women were actually part of these movements.