In the past decade, not many places have been as over-represented or as under-understood than Sudan and the newly formed South Sudan. From a barrage of news articles to a flurry of op-eds, from millions of dollars spent on advertising and brand-management for Darfur activism to insipid, shallow visits from Hollywood celebrities to troubled areas, not a stone has been left unturned in the media hype that is called Sudan. This is not to say that there is nothing going on, but simply to posit that rarely does one see a well-rounded, comprehensive or non-ideological approach to the crises that have been transpiring there since the late eighties. In the face of the one-note depiction of Sudan merely as a place of war and atrocities, then, I spent much time over the past months putting together a Warscapes retrospective, “Literary Sudans”. The online retrospective is intended to highlight the two Sudans as sites of literature and culture.
I began by seeking out Leila Aboulela, one of the best known Sudanese writers working today. She was on board from the get-go and provided invaluable contacts and suggestions, especially for writers based in South Sudan. Over the course of a few months, David L. Lukudu, who had been previously published on Warscapes, spread the word about this project and I was flooded with submissions from writers from all over South Sudan who were eager to tell their version of the story and of the conflict. The original retrospective included poets and artists but it became untenable and we narrowed it down to fiction where Sudan emerges as an energetic and complex place filled with people leading lives that range from the ordinary to unique. New fiction that is not anchored in its literary history can feel very rootless.
Though it would be tough to go as far back as I would wish, I was glad to include an excerpt from Francis Mading Deng’s 1987 novel Cry of the Owl. Deng is currently South Sudan’s Ambassador to the UN, but his now forgotten novel was one of the first to explore the fragile mythology of identity politics that has torn the North and South apart. Tarek Eltayeb’s 1992 novel Cities Without Palms, originally written in Arabic, has also been excerpted here. Eltayeb’s trajectory is particularly cosmopolitan and his hero Hamza’s journeys from a small village in Sudan to Vienna is unique and perhaps representative of many in the Sudanese diaspora.
This special Warscapes issue spans narratives of return home from exile in the West to migratory journeys within Sudan and war’s impact on women and children. Leila Aboulela, author of Lyrics Alley and Minaret, has a new short story, Souvenir. Yassir visits his family in Khartoum after five years abroad. It is a bittersweet return, one replete with the epiphany that neither he nor his Scottish wife and daughter could ever fit into the space he once called home. Also touching upon the themes of exile is trilogist extraordinaire Jamal Mahjoub (Navigation of a Rainmaker, Wings of Dust, In the Hour of Signs) and he offers a sampling from his moody 2006 novel, The Drift Latitudes which is, in his own words, “a position of uncertainty” and “a sense of belonging to more than one country.”
Two young new voices from South Sudan offer suspenseful and filmic short stories. Edward Eremugo Luka, a practicing doctor in Juba, gives us Casualty. In this deceptively simple tale, young kids stumble upon relics from an old civil war as they play in the field, with disastrous consequences. And in Seiko Five by David L. Lukudu, a spirited woman, Fatna, makes a living in an Omdurman slum by brewing and selling some of the best liquor in town. The tension becomes palpable as the corrupt and brutish cops turn her place upside down for evidence of illegal activity.
Mahmood Mamdani writes that, “History is important because it permeates memory and animates it, shaping the assumptions that we take for granted as we act in the present.” Though the two Sudans occupy a space that has been heavily politicized, their culture and arts have not had much breathing space precisely because of this politicization. Literature might help to arrive at a better understanding of the place. So let’s enjoy this rich outpouring of stories, characters and imaginations from the two Sudans.