Leila Aboulela’s new collection of short fiction, “Elsewhere, Home”, is another superb selection of short stories. The narrator of each story is generally a woman from Africa, mainly from The Sudan (I assume the writer herself was born there), and who is living in either London or Aberdeen (Scotland), either temporarily or permanently. Highly educated, these women are from affluent families , where family predominates and cocoons its daughters: two conflicting goals are imposed upon these women: they are to be educated in England and they are to find husbands and to be married and have children. These goals are increasingly common, too, amongst Indian families who go abroad and those who remain in India’s big cities, and recent Indian literature often circles around these same issues.
Aboulela’s woman are proud and sometimes tough but they are all brutally lonely in countries that to them are cold both in temperature and climate and in the attitudes of the native born British. They enroll usually in some kind of technical and/or business schools, so that they can have a measure of independence in their married lives: what an international problem/solution/paradox such women are facing! Their mothers and brothers back in their home countries call them on the telephone often, pressuring them to meet young men from home, also living in England or Scotland (the latter offering employment on North Sea oil rigs). The women are also of a certain age, and the families at home fear that they won’t find husbands while also encouraging further/advanced education. Aboulela is particularly strong in describing these women’s loneliness; they miss the colors and smells and food and warmth of their home countries and find the English or Scots cold and distant. Some of the author’s most interesting characters are white men who date and fall in love with these women of color, who often assume that they are or must be racist; in one of the most compelling stories, “The Museum”, the narrator finds herself needing to borrow some class notes from a white young man in the class; she does so with arrogance and hauteur, assuming that he will be rude and racist, but finds him both kind, fascinated by Islam, and wanting to date her (their date will take place in a museum in Aberdeen, which celebrates the colonial past of The Scots in Africa, and the reader is privy to how both of these people on their date see the items in the museum: one of Aboulela’s great strengths is offering multiple perspectives on the same things, so that the objects in the museum interest the Scot because they’re part of his history, but the Sudanese woman is appalled because her ancestors were on the receiving end of the aggression of the whites. That Aboulela’s women see glimmers of humanity in the English “natives” is a great feat on her part.
In “The Boy from the Kebab Shop”, a white English woman living in bored, tiresome circumstances at home with a drunken mother begins a flirtation with a young man from Africa (he’s Muslim) because of incidental run-ins in an area of London. Both of them are products of their own backgrounds (white/African-Muslim), but the author, again, is able to probe underneath these externals into the very tender human elements and need for affection that both of these people have. Aboulela’s not proposing some kind of fictional “Family of Man”, wherein we are all human underneath all externals; she’s much wiser and tougher than that. But her characters, all flawed and lonely, are subject to the kinds of cultural misassumptions which are rampant in today’s world, and she keenly probes their emotions and their pride and their hopes to find (or not) some common threads. There are missed connections as well as those which are found, in this collection of stories that are always tender, compassionate, and very readable. Leila Aboulela is a strong and vibrant new voice in globalized literature, and the tenderness of these stories makes them very compelling reading.