Stories of the Muslim Immigrant Experience, From a Sudanese Writer Now Living in Scotland
By Leila Aboulela
If literary realism attempts to hold a mirror to the world, then Leila Aboulela’s “Elsewhere, Home” is an especially vivid reflection in a pond, as accurate as glass’s gaze but rippled to capture life as a thing shivering and fluid even when seemingly still.
Born in Cairo, Aboulela grew up in Sudan and is now living in Scotland. “Elsewhere, Home” encompasses some of her earliest work from the late ’90s through to her most recent, and 11 out of the 13 entries have been published before. And yet there is a freshness here, in part due to the scarcity of Muslim European voices in America.
But the force of Aboulela’s writing exceeds its representational significance: She animates so many well-rounded characters who not only honor, but also dare to challenge, the cultures they come from. There are no simple bad-good, European-Muslim dichotomies here. Each individual portrait — and the book operates best as a study in portraiture — is complex, but not gratuitously so. These intricacies of bicultural families and friendships carry a delicate strength that doesn’t just resemble life, it is life, for readers who believe more in the shifting pond reflection than in the static mirror image.
One marvels at a sort of uniformity in this quiet collection that transcends theme, setting, subject. Critics sometimes speak of writers as having “found their voices,” but this book is a testament to one who’s always had hers. Moving gracefully between scenes, that consistent voice familiarizes us with not just the characters, but the author herself.
Tales of immigrants are not scarce in the United States, but we Americans nevertheless maintain our shallow concept of their experiences — particularly those of Muslim immigrants in Europe. Khartoum, Cairo, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Abu Dhabi, London: This book’s diversity of places and perspectives collectively expands, without fanfare, on all the usual tropes of identity. Ask Jeeves and the Kindle, along with casual references to global and regional regime shifts, are its only markers of time. The collection’s final story achieves an almost absolute universality. In “Pages of Fruit,” the narrator traces her decades of admiration for a female writer: “This was the first time I recognized myself in fiction,” she imagines herself saying to the author. “In your work I saw my country, my values and the social circles I grew up in.” Despite the story’s specificities both comic and tragic, its themes of the uniting influence of literature will resonate with anyone, anywhere. What is Sudanese and what is Scottish become almost weirdly incidental in Aboulela’s consistent, confident directness. We believe everything.
Yet nothing is diluted or compromised in the coalescence; somehow Aboulela manages to create this tapestry devoid of clichés. Her characters are as real and conflicted as we are — critical and defensive of their faiths, trapped and liberated by their ethnicities, constantly longing for home even when resisting its complicated comforts.
It is in the handful of first-person stories that Aboulela’s prose shines brightest: “I’m floppy without him,” a newly pregnant woman says of her husband in “Expecting to Give.” In “Colored Lights,” a BBC employee mourns the untimely death of his brother Taha: “When he died, my mind bent a little and has never straightened since.” Her expressions are both novel and yet poignantly relatable.
It’s high time for Aboulela, who’s won Britain’s Caine Prize for African Writing and Scotland’s Saltire Literary Award, to gather her accolades in this country as well. The editor John Freeman has called her “one of the best short story writers alive,” and this is one blurb that’s no exaggeration. “Elsewhere, Home” is a perfect introduction to a writer whose fiction doesn’t stray too far from home — she has a lot in common with her Muslim, Cairo-born, Khartoum-raised, Aberdeen-transplant characters — while still embracing a multiplicity of merging, clashing worlds. Hers is the first collection I’ve read since James Joyce’s “Dubliners” that reminded me of the life-changing power of furiously honest realism.
The headline with an earlier version of this review misstated the author’s publishing history. Previous books by Leila Aboulela have appeared in the United States; “Elsewhere, Home” is not her American debut.
Porochista Khakpour is the author of two novels and, most recently, the memoir “Sick.”
By Leila Aboulela
217 pp. Black Cat. Paper, $16