I was at home when I got the call telling me that Lyrics Alley had won the Fiction Award. I had just walked back from the gym and was going through my emails. The news was completely unexpected and a great honour. I was deeply touched that the description “Scottish Writer” turned out to be elastic enough to include me.
My first novel The Translator was set in Aberdeen and Khartoum. In it I dwelt on the differences between the two cities, the contrast in weather, colours, customs and daily challenges. Slowly and with difficulty, my main character was settling into her new Scottish home, finding a niche, buying a new coat that she would never have a need for back in Sudan.
Lyrics Alley was in many ways a departure for me. For the first time I was writing from the point of view of multiple characters and instead of the immigrant experience, I was inspired by the life of my uncle the poet Hassan Awad Aboulela. He was a quadriplegic, whose lyrics were set to music and became hugely popular songs.
In terms of background reading, most of the research I undertook for the novel was to capture the political scene of 1950s Sudan and the living conditions in my father’s birth place, Umdurman. I travelled back to Sudan and in informal family interviews with Hassan’s sister and other members of the family I was given many domestic details. One of the ladies I interviewed was a child when Hassan was at the height of his fame. She was the one who remembered, fondly, climbing onto his bed to slot a cigarette into his mouth. But it was my father telling his version of adjusting to Hassan’s quadriplegia that made it all vivid. My father, who was Hassan’s adoring younger cousin, spoke often and candidly about Hassan’s condition, appalled by the realistic details. As portrayed in the novel, Umdurman family life was very open, hardly anything was kept secret. And this was why my father knew so much that was intimate.
My father’s way of life –outdoors and family centered – was coming to end as the country became more populated and modern. In many ways Lyrics Alley is a tribute to his youth, that era of optimism before the disappointments that came after independence.
Today as I write this I am in between novels, a restless time when ideas are incubating and I am waiting for that very first sentence, the one that will be the key and the foundation. My novel-in-progress is in my head and still not on paper. It is set in two time periods and two places. The past is 19th century Daghestan and the present is a north-eastern university town which looks in my dreams very much like St. Andrews.