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Sudanese author Amir Tag Elsir was shortlisted for the IPAF in 2011, longlisted twice in 2014 and 2017, and in 2015 was one of the winners of the Katara Prize. He has published 16 novels, with a growing number translated, 3 biographies and 3 poetry collections. Here he recounts his illuminating adventure with reading and writing.
First and foremost, I was a reader. Before trying to write even a single letter, my brothers and I were all readers. I think our generation all had a similar experience in this. Beside the poets and writers that emerged, even those who never entered the fray of writing themselves have nevertheless at least remained devoted and loyal to reading. It’s rare to find someone from my generation who doesn’t read and comment on books.
In the 1970s, we were living in Port Sudan on the coast of the Red Sea, where my father Tag Elsir Mohammed Nour worked in customs at the port. Despite his official duties and limited opportunities, he was an active reader of all kinds of material. He had a large library and took every chance he could to fill it with books and spend hours sitting and reading, especially on Fridays and in the evenings when there were no guests to interrupt his contemplation. Among the books in that library, I remember the complete works of Mahmoud al-Aqqad, Taha Hussein’s The Days, Tawfiq al-Hakim’s books and those of Colin Wilson, the Arabic epic Taghribat Bani Hilal, some poetry collections of Al-Mutanabbi, Al-Farazdaq, Imru’ al-Qais, and I remember from modern poetry Abdel Rahman el-Abnudi and others. We were four brothers at the time and, although we were only in primary school, we could read children’s books and had to go and discuss them with our father.
Mr Tag Elsir Mohammed Nour laid down his own special law, following the siren song of knowledge. The law stated that every week a suitable book would be brought to the house for us, which we would all read before another arrived the following week. He had an agreement with a bookshop owner he knew, called Rifat Dhiraar, to deliver the books. He would come on Mondays, as I recall, at an appointed time in the afternoon, riding a motorbike, whose sound we recognised. He wouldn’t knock on the door, but would throw the book over the wall, where we would all be waiting to fight over it, each wanting to be the first to read it.
At first it really was a law that we had to follow; we might even be punished or have our pocket money docked if we fell behind in our reading. With time, however, it was less of a rule and became more a part of the fabric of our individual personalities. The thrilling visits of Rifat, with his special children’s books and magazines, came to an end. But the same thirst for knowledge has remained ever since. At that time, we also discovered a very important teacher and teller of stories called Hamza. He was a very old man living with some of his relatives in one of the neighbourhood houses. He was a simple trader with a wooden cart outside the gates of the hospital, but every Friday evening he would gather as many of the neighbourhood children as he could in the courtyard of the house where he lived and read them wonderful stories from the books he owned and kept hidden under his bed. These only increased our appetite for reading. I remember the tales of Cinderella and Sindbad and many others that had some wisdom or moral to impart. In the years after that extraordinary reader-teacher died, when I was becoming more independent and was able to roam the market with a special allowance from my father, I became acquainted with all the book stores in the city: Okasha’s, Atta al-Manan’s, Al-Nahda, Al-Amudi’s. They were all filled with contemporary books, trying to amass everything coming out of Cairo, Beirut and anywhere else that was publishing. Mr Okasha owned a small book shop near my home, in front of the municipal park, and was the one who showed the most interest in my intellectual cravings; he would loan me books in exchange for a negligible fee, thereby allowing me to become familiar with most of what was being published at that time: everything by Al-Aqqad and Taha Hussein, Yahya Haqqi and Tawfiq al-Hakim, W. Somerset Maugham, Albert Camus, and hundreds more. This was in addition to poets like Ahmed Abdel Muti Hijazi, Salah Abdel Sabour, Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, Abdul Wahab al-Bayati, Amal Donqol and others. I had my own rule to read a book every three days, and kept that up until I was at university. Then life and its pressures, especially the burdens of family and work, as well as creative writing, started eating into more of my time. I was reading with the same passion but without the old routine. You’d often find me in some predicament, going over the many new writers I wanted to read and offer an opinion on, but not able to find the time to do so.
Inspiration for creative writing came to me suddenly. Perhaps it wasn’t so sudden, but it took me a while to realise it was there. I’ve never forgotten that autumn day in Al-Abyad (White City), in western Sudan. We had moved there for my father’s work, which could take him, as an employee of the state, from one town to another at a moment’s notice. It was a gorgeous city and really flourished in the autumn; you could smell the sweet scent of rain even if it wasn’t the wet season. I was in middle school at the time and I was riding my bike through the streets of El-Qubbah, where we lived, which was one of the central districts. There was a huge dome there where Sheikh Ismail al-Wali was buried; he was a well-known authority on Sufism and his style of leadership is still followed by his descendants to this day. I started singing a song that was popular at the time, but then I forgot some of the words, so filled in the blanks with some phrases of my own. I kept singing, with my own bits, following the melody of the song whose words I’d forgotten, until I finished it in my mind as a complete poem. I felt intoxicated. I changed direction and returned home to take out a notebook I’d bought but not yet used. I wrote down the poem as it was in my head, then added to it and made it a finished piece complete with feeling and melancholy. My exhilaration soared. Early the next morning, I took it to my father’s secretary, her name was Nagat, to type up ten copies for me. I distributed these to the teachers at school and reaped a lot of praise. A few days later, one of my classmates told me that his uncle, a famous singer in the city, liked the song and would set it to music and perform it. That was the pinnacle of my excitement! When the song rang out through the city at night, no one could believe that the words were by a school boy.
We stayed in Al-Abyad for two years, during which time I wrote dozens of songs to the point that composition became a very normal thing for me. When we returned to Port Sudan and I started high school, my world expanded to include poets, singers, dramatists and writers. I would meet them on Thursday evenings at the Writers’ and Artists’ Union. There were many songs in circulation in Port Sudan’s night scene. I went myself to public and private concerts where I knew the organisers and would recite my poems confidently, without any apprehension. These encounters were fruitful and beneficial.
I then travelled to Egypt to study medicine. I can say that this was the most fertile period for me in terms of discovering more influences which broadened my own experience and positioned me in the ranks of modernist poets. I forged rich relationships with books that hadn’t been available to me in Sudan, and made friends with writers and poets who were stars, some of whom are still going. During that period, after studious reading of both poetry and criticism, following the cultural journals that were being published, I was able to write modern poetry in free verse, which was the most beautiful and animated style of the time and still has a wide audience today. I wrote dozens of poems, drawing inspiration from the crises of my country and my personal life, a little on politics, a little on love, a lot from society. By the last year of my studies, my poetry was famous and was being published by the biggest newspapers and magazines in the Arab world, including Ebda’, Al-Kahera, and Asharq al-Awsat and Majalla which are published in London, as well as others. But then suddenly I gave up poetry.
It was at the end of 1977, I had finished my studies in medicine and was ready to return to my country, when I felt that I had it in me to write a novel. I spent a whole month writing by night and sleeping by day. The result was that I produced a short text, a mix of poetry and prose. My elation with that text was on a par with how I felt when I wrote my first poem on that day in Al-Abyad.
That poetic novel was called Karmakul, after the village where I was born in North Sudan. Trying to get it published was exhausting. Although the Egyptian writers that I knew from the cafés read and enjoyed samples from it, the few publishing houses at that time firmly refused to look at it. Whenever I went and presented my book, the manager would say: “We only publish established authors.” Naturally it was disappointing but I didn’t give up. I had a token of wealth around my wrist in the form of a gold Rolex that my father had given me when I started university. I pawned it very easily and took the money to pay a small publisher called Al-Ghad (Tomorrow), owned by the late poet Kamal Abdul Haleem, to publish my book. I distributed it myself among students, carrying copies in a shoulder bag from city to city until I had earned enough to buy back my watch. I would need it years later for another important job; when I was first away in Doha, I had to sell it in order to live until I received my first pay cheque.
I worked for years in Sudan, where I gathered many stories, tales and even legends, but I stopped writing completely. I was swept up by my work. It gave me an understanding of people, of authentic characters, and the things I saw and heard in the sick wards, in the houses I visited – especially in the villages where I worked as a medical examiner – and in the clinic I founded on the outskirts of Port Sudan. No one knows the secrets of those slums except those who have delved in and uncovered them. I think doctors do more of this excavating than most, since it is they who carry people’s most intimate secrets.
To date I have published sixteen novels, three biographies, and other books of short pieces and poetry. I can say that my writing experience is built on a celebration of imagination and trying to create an atypical style; it may be influenced by older works but has its own particular form and flavour. Ever since I started, I’ve used poetic imagery and mythical characters. Even when I’m writing a contemporary novel about a real city and a real situation, the rhythm of a fable runs through the writing, so of course there are strange words and actions. This is a style that I like personally. In the beginning, I may have been influenced by Latin American writers, their magic and use of extreme imagination. I’m thinking especially of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whom I consider one of my early teachers. I first came across his novels while I was studying in Egypt and then read everything he had written, many times. I was overwhelmingly inspired by Love in the Time of Cholera. The important thing is that I found my way. I was interested in thorny human issues, and I made use of my imagination, which I had consistently honed and nurtured. The novels I write are inspired by history but do not depict real history. I borrow details from a given period to use them as a backdrop for a text that could be set in any epoch. I don’t like documentary style writing; I don’t think it allows enough artistic freedom. It restricts the writer to real events, which can never be developed according to his imagination; and if he were to alter them, they may end up doing a disservice to particular characters that have a different existence in memory from the one he wants to fashion for them. I wrote an epic novel called The Yelling Dowry, which is about the fantastical Sultanate of Ansaaba (an allegory for the old Sultanate of Darfur), in the time of a particular Sultan. It was a way of talking about current events in the context of something old, a way of safely explaining instruments of oppression. A young man loses his masculinity for the sake of a dream, his sister dies of a broken heart, and he lives trapped under tyranny. I wanted it to be a reading of reality and I think it has a profound and disruptive impact on the minds of those that read it. I also wrote Coptic Tensions; drawing on the events of an historical revolution, I was writing the future without realising it. The novel was published in 2009, before the time of Daesh and all the associated tragedies and atrocities – all of which is in my novel. I think the writer has a privilege no one else has, to interrogate the future, just like the past.
Similarly, I wrote Ebola ‘76 in 2012, which was inspired by a sad story I had been told in 1992 by a doctor from the South when he was working for a Red Crescent clinic in Port Sudan. I was going to visit him, to look for quinine supplies that were used to treat patients who didn’t respond to traditional treatments. His condition for giving up the doses I would take from him was that, in exchange, I hear his story. I learned that this doctor had been present during the first outbreak of the Ebola virus in the Congo and South Sudan in 1976. His story stayed with me until it emerged in 2012, completed and transformed by a fantasy running parallel to reality. This was also a reading of the future, since Ebola returned in 2014 with the same severity described in my novel.
Imagination is my primary guide. I try to tether it to reality, but I can’t always keep hold of it. Sometimes it breaks loose and engineers varied surprises. It is with imagination that I am able to prophesy, although I don’t quite know how I do it. When I go back to my novel Ra’ashaat al-Janoub, which was written years before the partition of Sudan, I find the history of partition there. The truth astounds me, but my astonishment soon dissipates when I remember that a novelist has a strange, and prognostic sensitivity.
A lot has been written about Port Sudan. It’s always the setting that comes to mind when I start writing an urban work. I was born in North Sudan but spent most of my childhood and early teens in Port Sudan. I also worked as a doctor in its old hospitals and opened my clinics in its outlying districts, including al-Mirghaniyah, Slalab, and al-Nour. When I’m writing, I see the old streets, the old neighbourhoods. I see the cinema that’s now closed, the clubs that have disappeared, the houses of clay, tin and wood whose appearance has evolved with the changing of the world. I even see the red light districts, which used to exist, where most of the girls were Ethiopians. All this comes to mind. It’s a city that still stands and it’s legitimate to write about it when I describe the seventies and eighties, the two periods of my novels 366 and Muntaja’ al-Sahiraat (The Witches’ Resort). It took a lot of courage to discuss all the recent changes – political, economic and social – in novels like The Grub Hunter, French Perfume, and Qalam Zeinab (Zeinab’s Pen) which told the story of one of my clinics in the poor al-Nour district.
When I remember that clinic, I laugh a lot. That was how I remembered it in 2010, when I wrote Zeinab’s Pen, the story of Idris Ali, a swindler who cast his net around me and weighed me down for a full year. I couldn’t quite grasp him and when I finally got hold of him, I found he had been an inmate for years in the town of Suakin near Port Sudan. I don’t know how he escaped, to torment me and then return to his prison. My experience at that clinic was highly significant; that was when I got to know characters like Ali Gargaar, whom I would use in my novel French Perfume, and the transgender Atif, who would come into another work, and so on.
No doubt, there now follow questions on my practices: how do you write a novel? Once questions of characters and style are settled, you’ve soaked up the environment and all the necessary influences, how do you bring them all together in a creative work?
The truth is that every writer is different and sometimes each book by the same author can be different. I’m the type that if I come across an idea, or a beginning I think is good, then I’ll sit down and write every day until I have a completed text. I don’t, and can’t bear to write for years and be distracted by other things. So long as I have a piece of work in mind, I’ll keep thinking about it and won’t be able to think much about other normal things.
I always start with a concept that I think is special, then I search for an appropriate beginning for it until one comes to me. Then I sit and write. I don’t plan and I never lay out the plot or design characters who will play a role in the work. All I do is write and write every day. Each day I read what I wrote the day before and then continue. New characters might arrive, old characters might depart. A character might die before playing a significant role, like Al-Nabawi who dies early on in French Perfume. A character might have all the traits of death but still live and go on, like Adam Nadhir in The Yelling Dowry, or Mikhael the Coptic in Coptic Tensions. I never think about the ending, it just comes by itself; when I reach it, I re-read my text and that’s when I work consciously to arrange it if I feel it is jumbled or needs a few additions or edits.
I write in the day, from 8am until midday. I write about a thousand words a day, never more, even if it’s flowing well. It gives me a strange sense of satisfaction, as well as exhaustion, probably because writing uses up so much mental energy. I usually sit in a public place in the corner of a mid-range hotel in Doha. I have written almost all of my works there. I’m consumed by my writing, despite the noise and being disturbed by the waitresses or the woman who plays the piano all day long. I might stop a little and exchange greetings if someone approaches me, but I must reach a thousands words every day until I’m content. I leave my corner at 12 noon and go to my other work as a doctor, which is always in the afternoons. The next day, I keep going until the text is finished. This could take a month or two, or longer depending on the length it reaches autonomously, without any intervention from me.
Smoking used to inspire me, or so I thought in the past. But I gave it up in recent years and nothing has changed. I have continued writing with the same perseverance and endurance, and don’t think about cigarettes. It was a huge lie and I was swept up in it, until the smoking stopped but the writing didn’t. Now I have tea or coffee, but nothing else.
Among the things both positive and negative that I feel at these times, is that I often suffer from depression while I’m writing. I don’t know why but I get anxious and dejected, and I’m quickly irritated by the slightly provocation. The writing is intense and focused when these symptoms are at their worst. But they all go away when I finish. It’s a period my family know well and they fear how agitated I can get during the periods when I’m writing. That’s why I really don’t like writing, but I just have to do it. As I always say, it’s a kind of affliction that strikes some people, and there’s no cure for it.
I’ll say a little about my relationship with my readers, since they have had a big impact on me. How often have I been furious with a reader who I felt hadn’t understood? And how often have I been delighted by the opinion of another whom I felt grasped what I wanted to say? The most important thing about my interaction with my readers is the letters they send me, in which they pose fascinating questions that can lead to new inspiration. This is what happened with my most recent novel, Zuhoor Takuluha an-Nar (Flowers eaten by Fire), which is about captives of the religious and sectarian wars in the Arab world, especially the captives of Daesh. These stories are well known but I wrote allegories for them. A female reader had come across Coptic Tensions and she wrote to me saying that in that book I had written about everything a man might suffer, but nothing about women. Her question stayed with me and inspired Flowers eaten by Fire, which is written from the perspective of Khamila the Coptic, Mikhael’s fiancée and a student of aesthetics who finds herself captive, and enslaved in a house with other women.
I’ve given here a brief summary of my experience, both good and bad, and the impact it has had in developing and determining things for me. I’m happy to say that many of the works that have been translated into other languages (like Ebola ‘76, The Grub Hunter and French Perfume) have done well overseas. This inspires me enormously to continue.
Translated by Julia Ihnatowicz
Published in Banipal 59 – The Longlist (Summer 2017)
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