Aboulela’s short story collection Elsewhere, Home (Black Cat, Feb.) contains 13 stories that all grapple with cultural identities and homesickness.
How did you decide what stories to include in the collection?
My first collection of short stories, Coloured Lights, is now out of print. My London publisher chose half from that collection, and half are new, so it’s a real mix of stories.
Where do you consider home?
I spent a lot of time considering Sudan as home and feeling very homesick about it. But over time, I began to feel that where my husband and children are is where my home is, and that’s Scotland at the moment. Writing has also become a kind of home. When you’re writing, you start to feel that you belong to a community of other writers even if you don’t meet them on a regular basis.
The exploration of Islam and spirituality is often at the center of your protagonists’ identities. How do spirituality and faith create or influence one’s sense of home?
Spiritual fulfillment is just as important as career fulfillment, love, or family, so I like to show that with my characters. I think human beings always feel a vague sense that they don’t belong spiritually on Earth. So, homesickness and longing for home is almost an echo of the spirit longing for heaven.
Do you consider cultural homelessness to be a theme throughout the stories?
Yes, especially with the stories that speak about Sudan and give a sense of what the country is like and what I was personally homesick for. When I moved to Scotland in my mid-20s, I experienced a lot of homesickness, yet I wasn’t sure what exactly I was missing. I started to write to understand my feelings of homesickness, and circle exactly what it was that I was missing. So that’s why some of these stories capture little pieces of what I missed.
Your stories often consider authenticity surrounding Muslim women within the Western world. How do you feel Muslim female voices are represented in the literary world?
I think there are many voices that are available now that give a richer and more complex vision of Muslim women. But I do think there is a skew toward depictions of secular Muslims on the one hand or fanatical, fundamental Muslims on the other. So there’s more of the very liberal Muslim women who do exist, of course, and on the other hand, there’s a lot of portrayal of the very sort of oppressed Muslim woman who doesn’t have access to education or health services or things like that. There isn’t much portrayal of the majority, who are conventional Muslims. That’s where I’m coming from; I’m writing about the conventional Muslim woman, and I don’t feel she’s often depicted. That’s part of what encourages me to write.