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“I like to write in lively public places – the noisiness fuels my creativity”
55-year- old Sudanese novelist Amir Taj Al-Sir is one of the most prominent writers of contemporary Arab fiction. He has written a number of famous novels, including The Dowry of Cries, The Copt’s Worries, The French Perfume, and The Hunter of the Chrysalises, which was shortlisted for the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and was translated into Italian. His novel 366 was also on the long list for the 2014 Arabic Booker Prize.
In an interview with Nasher, he takes us on a journey through his world of writing, sharing the secrets behind his interest in the Arab and African people, his opinion about literary prizes and his relationship with publishers.
Many people probably do not know that Amir Taj Al-Sir is a physician. What attracted you to writing?
Actually, my passion for literature can be traced back to my years of primary education. Back then, I started by writing crime stories, imitating the style of books I was reading. During preparatory school, I remember immersing myself in books that my father used to bring, and the ones I would borrow from kiosks and libraries near my home. We were living in Al Ubayyid City, Western Sudan, my father’s place of work, when I composed my first poem in colloquial Arabic. On the way to my father’s office, I kept reciting the poem fearing I would forget it. Upon reaching the office, I wrote it on a piece of paper and gave it to my father’s secretary to type out. I distributed some copies of the poem to my colleagues.
Over a whole year, I wrote a number of poems, which turned into lyrics for a number of Al Ubayyid artists. When we returned to my birthplace in Port Sudan, I continued writing colloquial poems in secondary school. Through my poems, I became increasingly known to singers and their audience.
When I travelled to Egypt to study medicine, I began writing in classical Arabic, and my works saw the light of day on several newspapers and magazines. While studying medicine, I remained a voracious reader of literature and did not stop writing poems. I completed writing my first novel right before graduation in 1988 – a story named after the village I was born and raised in: Karmakul. After about seven years, in 1996, came a turning point in my life when I wrote my second novel while I was in Qatar.
With this work, I could clearly see a change in my relationship with the narrative form. My closeness to the world of literature did not, however, affect my career as a physician. They balanced each other out and played out as two independent activities moving in their designated directions, very smoothly.
Will it be safe to say that your writings serve as bibliotherapy?
Not quite. Reading a book is purely a matter of personal choice. Some readers may like the works of a certain writer and not so much the works of another. If my writings appeal to some people, it does because they find in my words something they care about or something that gives them immense pleasure. As far as curing an illness is concerned, it can only be done by visiting a doctor and taking the prescribed medication. Sometimes, patients who are also enthusiasts of my literary works visit me; they are the only people who may benefit from what you call ‘bibliotherapy’. At the end of the day, it should be clear that writing or creativity can be practiced alongside one’s profession. There are several musicians, artists, writers and poets who practice their professions as a source of livelihood alongside their creative activities.
Being a busy physician, when do you find time to write?
I like the light of day to fall upon me when I am writing. Therefore, I prefer to write during daytime; I never write at night. Also, when I am so passionate about my art it does not take much to find time for it. When I have an idea for a novel and find the appropriate beginning, I start writing usually between 8:00 am and 12:00 pm, changing my morning shifts to night shifts.
I usually write about 1,000 words in one shift, and in rare cases, a bit more. Sometimes, it is exhausting given the tight timelines, but there is hardly a choice when one is so obsessed!
When I begin writing, I try not to have the process interrupted too much, as when that happens I lose steam and find it difficult to regain my enthusiasm. Also, when I finish reviewing what I have written, I send the text immediately to the publisher, not giving myself the opportunity to make a million modifications. As you see, writing and all related activities like travelling and participating in different events are tiring but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Fiction writing is quicker too, requiring a few months instead of a year or more.
Do writers really need a special setup to practice their hobby?
Certainly. Each writer observes his/her own writing rituals, which would include the place and time of their preference. Some writers like to write in closed rooms, others prefer to write in coffee shops. Some novelists love to write at night, and some others need a lot of cigarettes to let their creativity flow. As for me, I practice simple rituals – I like to write in lively public places, and if some wonder why, it is because the ‘noisiness’ only fuels my creativity.
Your works mainly focus on African peoples’ concerns. Is there a reason why they are mostly your muse?
Arab and African citizens suffer greatly during their daily lives. We, the writers of the region, embody such sufferings. Here in Sudan, we have a unique environment combining the Arab and African social fabrics, and that is a situation close to my heart. After my novel Ebola 76 was translated into English, I was classified as an African writer. The classification is very apt as the novel is set in Congo and southern Sudan, which characterises a completely African environment. Some of my other novels combine mostly African concerns, such as The Thrills of the South and The Dowry of Cries. Some others talk about Arab concerns, such as The French Perfume and The Hunter of the Chrysalises. However, the daily and chronic sufferings of the African people are present in all works.
Your collaboration with different publishers – what has given rise to it?
I have collaborated with a plethora of publishing houses who have published my works. This is because while most publishers respect me as a writer and honour my rights, some others do not pay attention that much attention. Several publishers like to acquire my works, and in general, distribution rates are good. Presently, I have cooperated with Dar Al Saqi, which is a giant publisher in the region interested in my works. I also publish my works with the publishers Egyptian Dar Al Uloom, Lebanese Dhifaf, and UAE-based Medad, which is a successfully emerging publishing house.
Is good writing based on instinct or can it be developed through training?
Writing is a talent that can be developed and polished through reading and training. Once an individual discovers that they have talent, irrespective of their age, their pursuit should be to draw on the experiences of great writers by reading as much as they can. Writers, once they become writers or even aspiring writers tend to break away from their roots – the ones that are formed by reading plentifully. I personally kept reading novels for a long time before I dared to write fiction. Also, until recently I thought that writing was a gift, an inborn talent, but I have now learnt that even those who have just the slightest creative bent of mind can be molded beautifully through writing workshops and other activities. I have supervised workshops in Abu Dhabi that have produced great writers. I have just finished a wonderful workshop held in Qatar in collaboration with Katara, which produced 12 fantastic texts that will be collected in a book to be published soon in both Arabic and English.
How do you assess the current state of the Arabic novel?
The state of the Arabic novel is very similar to the state of many other things in the Arab world – a state of flux, characterised by several ups and downs. There are good writers making their way into national and international success, and some others who still need to learn the ropes. Today, we have a tremendous number of novels written by thousands of novelists who emerge in the Arab literary arena every day, which get published without any hassle. This trend makes me wonder: Have all other creative genres, except that of novel writing, closed its doors on the Arab creative thinkers? Is that the reason why people have increasingly made it their profession?
Is it a prize that makes a good novelist or the other way around? Your take on literary prizes…
Prizes are a big gain for Arab writers – the bigger number of prizes, the more recognition for the region in its entirety. The Arabic Booker, Katara, Sheikh Zayed, prizes in Egypt, prizes in Jordan, prizes in Algeria, and others, are all in the interest of writers, who are otherwise not recognised for, or benefit from, their creative works. In that sense, prizes are important in their celebration of creative talent, but they certainly do not make a good writer.
Several novelists make up the Arab fiction arena, but only a few enjoy popularity on the Arab and international levels. What is the reason for this?
There are several novelists who are well-known among the local Arab audience, and some newcomers who have created a niche for themselves. As far as reaching an international audience is concerned, that can only happen when the novelist’s works are translated into English and other foreign languages. Fortunately, my works have been translated into several languages and that is how readers outside Sudan know me. Even when your works transcend borders, one needs to wait and see if that work clicks with a foreign audience. For instance, my works The Copt’s Worries, The French Perfume and Ebola 76 were major international hits, while some others were not.