For Radio Dabanga’s Inspirational Women series* we interviewed novelist and social activist Sara Hamza El Jak Abdallah. As one of the few successful Sudanese women novelists, she is also the founder of the Faal Cultural Centre that empowers young illiterate women through writing and literary education. We spoke with her about her career, her ideas on writing as a woman, and her feminist societal work.
“Her novels seem to have a plan and her writings are an integrated project with clear questions that examine issues of existence, society, politics, art, and thought. She is keen to examine questions of identity and womanhood. Her writings are distinguished by experimentation and serious innovation, with a unique style. The woman in her story is portrayed with all her different sides and the character and story paint a credible picture.”
This is how critics wrote about Sara El Jak, the winner of the 2012 El Tayeb Salih Prize for Written Creativity for the novel Your Once Upon a Betrayal. She was also nominated for the Short Story Competition of the Abdelkarim Mirghani Centre with her story El Mutaqa in 2005.
Sara’s origins and the beginnings of a literary career
Novelist Sara Hamza El Jak Abdallah was born in El Haj Yousef, Khartoum North, in the year 1980. Instead of literature, Sara was originally trained in architectural engineering.
As a child, she received her primary and intermediate education at El Emtadaad South School in El Haj Yousef, and her secondary school at El Shaimaa School. She later received a Diploma in Architectural Engineering from Khartoum Applied College in 2002.
She worked for several private companies in the engineering field until she settled in the Ministry of Urban Planning in 2012.
On the side, however, her writing career took shape. She ventured into the field of journalism and storytelling by writing weekly columns for the Eve's Agenda page of the El Ayam daily newspaper. In 2005, she joined the Story Club.
She contributed to several newspapers with her short stories, which were later published as her first short story collection ‘Secret Prayers’ in 2009.
Love for writing
Sara’s writing talent already emerged long before publishing her stories, in her childhood. At the age of nine, Sara's love for writing began with the encouragement and support of her mother, who was keen to buy books and to make reading a habit not only for Sara but also for her young friends in the neighbourhood.
This passion for literature was honed by the university and education institutes that organised activities in the neighbourhoods during the holiday season.
“During the holidays, we excelled in the fields of writing and drawing with a group of students in the neighbourhoods. My mother provided me with books and stories… With my friends in the neighbourhood, we built a library that we kept in my friend Nisreen's house. We sat in the library for two hours every Tuesday of every week to read. This helped us in expression class on Wednesday, in which I scored the highest marks. At that time, I also participated in a competition organised by the Association of Universities and the Red Crescent and won the second prize in writing and drawing!”
During her secondary education, Sara's fierce and fearless personality was formed as she was full of determination to reach her goals. She, for example, decided to shorten the middle stage into two years as she wanted to transform the educational ladder.
From short stories to novels
After graduating from university, she returned to her love of writing and her professional transformation began in 2005. She remembers: "By chance, Professor Awad Mohamed Saleh, professor of drama at El Nilein University, came across my writings and he encouraged me. I developed one of my texts into a short story and I participated in the Short Stories Competition of the Abdelkarim Mirghani Centre in 2005 and was shortlisted”.
Since then, she has been practising her creative writing mastered the techniques of writing and visualising novels.
Sara was used to writing short stories, but the issues and deep-rooted problems that are present in Sudanese society led her to write novels where the stories are more in-depth and detailed.
Starting with the novel Once Upon a Betrayal about the wrath of betrayal, racism, separation, false ego, and power dynamics, the writer was able to break the barrier of reservation regarding all these issues by raising many questions that she continued to work on in her novel Lies. In her new novel The Riddle, she says that she came closer to answering many of those questions.
This third novel by Sara El Jak is in the press and is expected to see the light at the Book Fair in October 2021. Her three novels are paralleled by three short story collections Secret Prayers, Kumba, and Propaganda.
'El Jak writes for the people of Sudan and Sudanese women first and foremost'
Women in the novel and the novelist herself
The women characters in Sara El Jak’s novels are always strong and capable, their role in the world is highlighted, their suffering is reflected upon, and their successes are cherished as worthy of appreciation. El Jak writes for the people of Sudan and Sudanese women first and foremost.
As for the Sudanese women novelists, despite early progress in the 1940s with the appearance of some novelists, they remain limited in number.
Sara explains that the 1960s and early 70s and the beginning of the seventies revived the Sudanese woman politically, and many emerged as political union activists. However, most of them were later alienated were forced to become exiles: Leila Aboulela, Buseina Khidir Mekki, Zeinab Belail, Malika El Fadil, Nafeesa El Shargawi. Women writers emerged at the political front again in the eighties when publishing became more accessible.
'Writing is an act of courage and defiance'
Sara praises the appearance of ‘new pens’ at the hand of women as a positive phenomenon: “The phenomenon of women writers is the result of a space provided by the communication platforms. Writing is an act of courage and defiance, bridging worlds between the self and others. The important thing is that they started writing…”
The Sudanese writer on the world stage
In her opinion, being able to carry a message across is the real success that makes the world seek the writer and not the other way around. Did our books fail to deliver messages? This is a question related to the lack of Sudanese novels presented to the world.
Sarah explains: “We Sudanese possess a wealth of knowledge, diversity, and difference… But we are not explored regionally or globally because we do not know the value of what we possess, either through asceticism or ignorance … There are no efforts to highlight our cultural wealth. Writers such as Baraka Sakin, Ziada Hamour, Leila Aboulela, and Ishraga Mustafa were astonishing and made the world ask: Where is Sudan?”
'The responsibility for the negligence of Sudanese literature lies not only with the writers but also with the state authorities. They show zero interest in culture and provide zero financial support'
“The responsibility for the negligence of Sudanese literature lies not only with the writers but also with the state authorities. They show zero interest in culture and provide zero financial support, so the support for women writers was zero. Those who made a name for themselves in the world did so thanks to their own efforts.”
Censorship, publishing, and 'belief in the project'
Over the past decades, much literature had to be smuggled into Sudan. The now-ousted Al Bashir regime banned many books and heavily censored the books published. During the revolution in 2019, before the June 3 Massacre took place, banned books were available at the protesters’ informal libraries, Marcia Lynx Qualey wrote for LitHub.
Especially the short story proved a useful format in times of censorship and repression and some were published in underground journals.
The number of books being published officially had dropped severely as many repressive measures were in place, including one that stipulated that all publishing houses should submit their publications to the Ministry of Culture for approval before being allowed to present them at the annual Book Fair.
Director of El Musawarat Printing and Publishing Osama El Reyeh told Radio Dabanga at the time that “apart from imposing censorship, the idea is ridiculous as everyone understands that there won’t be many new publications this year.”
What distinguishes Sara El Jak’s work is that it has found its way to publishers at a time when the majority of literary works face the problem of having no publisher as many of these problems still persist.
'Publishing is an issue that needs conviction and determination'
Sara explains: "When writers do not believe in the project or are reluctant with submissions, they may be ignored or rejected by publishers. Publishing is an issue that needs conviction and determination, it is easier through competitions that guarantee the publication of the winning work."
Her first novel Once Upon a Betrayal was published by the Abdelkarim Mirghani Centre in 2013 after it won the centre’s El Tayeb Saleh Award. The novel The Worms was printed and published in Cairo in 2017 and so was the first short story collection Secret Prayers. Her new novel The Riddle will be published through the German Embassy.
Writing for the theatre
“The last zaghrouda*”: a new experience for Sara El Jak is writing for the theatre. She says: “writing for the theatre is a new stage of development and of assimilating tools for narrative writing and employing these tools”
Sara’s writing has many meanings and associations. They also have a humanitarian and societal message, which translates into her humanitarian work. For example, her novel The Worms about the treatment of breast cancer patients is based on the idea that people and society are partners with her in her literary production, so any scene she witnesses or experiences may become part of a novel she writes.
Faal Cultural Centre
From her idea to carry across societal and community messages came the idea for Faal Cultural Centre, which Sara established in the year 2020. Faal, which means hope in Arabic, was established as a societal message to develop the form of writing from something personal to something societal and political.
'The aim is to help them gain an income that could prevent girls from a fate characterised by harassment, sexual exploitation, and early marriage'
Writing became a life project. The centre trains young women in reading and writing and gives them books for distribution. The aim is to help them gain an income that could prevent girls from a fate characterised by harassment, sexual exploitation, and early marriage.
Sara explains: “We have already developed their writing capabilities, but we faced financial problems when it comes to acquiring and distributing books, and wrote to find the funding to achieve our goal.”
An excerpt from her short story The Mites, translated by Yasmine Zohdi
I stepped off the bus, enthralled by the author’s language and his strange theory about the origins of the Nile. I didn’t go to the dorms as I had planned; my feet led me to the river.
As soon as Sareya arrived—with the cloud that surrounded her, whose colors changed with the time of day and the shade of the sun and its reflection on her legendary neck, guarded by the pendant with the blue bead—the Nile’s name changed, and it became the Spirit. The sounds of the river creatures began to fade as a strange language formed between her and the waves. She turned the book to face the water; the water held it in its memory. She placed her bookmark where she had stopped, closed the book, and placed it in her large handbag—“Aleppo’s Basket,” her mother had called it. Sareya remembered her coarse features, her delicate heart, and the corals of Port Sudan. She returned to the banks of the Spirit, she asked him about the author’s claim.
“Do you spring from the heavens?”
* A thrilling cry, produced by women for joy
* More from the Inspirational Women series: