Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—Sudanese novelist Amir Tag El-Sir is one of the most respected writers publishing in Arabic today.
The author of 16 books—a body of work that include prose, poetry, and biography—Sir trained as a physician in Egypt, publishing his first novel while still in medical school, then returned to practice medicine in his native Sudan before settling in Qatar in the mid-1990s.
His most recent novel, 366, described as a “love letter of one man to a woman who doesn’t even know he exists,” was published this year to great critical acclaim and made the long list for the 2014 International Prize for Arab Fiction. A previous work, The Grub Hunter, was shortlisted in 2011.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What is the secret relationship between literature and medicine? Many Arab writers are also medical doctors.
Amir Tag El-Sir: Of course there is no direct relationship between the two professions. I always answer this question in the same way: many writers practice other professions, such as engineering, law and teaching. But only doctors are asked this question. Doctors have much more contact with people. In general the medical profession, despite its difficulties, is good for writers. It provides them with daily experiences that they can use as material for potential stories. It also teaches patience, which is highly necessary for anyone plagued with having to write. On a personal level, I have benefited from my profession in being able to invent the worlds of my writing. Some characters I met in in the real world have inspired my novels’ characters. Moving from one place to another as a medical doctor has rendered my narrative environments diverse.
Q: You were a poet before you studied medicine and eventually became a novelist. What is the reason behind these shifts? Is fiction the last stop in your career?
I began writing vernacular poetry when I was a child. I wrote lyrics for Sudanese singers during my preparatory and secondary school years. Then I took to writing poetry in classical Arabic in the mid-1980s while I was studying in Egypt. In 1988, during my senior year in medical school, I wrote Karmakul, my first novel which was published by the late poet Kamal Abdel Halim, the manager of Al-Ghad, a small but distinguished publishing house.
The novel quickly became popular and had a good impact on readers. I reckon it provided me with an incentive to try writing after the long hiatus in which I returned to Sudan and became busy with medicine. I wrote my second novel, Sama’a Bilawn Al-Yakout, in 1996 after I settled in Doha and it was published by Azmina, a Jordanian publishing house.
As for whether fiction is my last stop, it definitely is; I do not think I will embark on a new creative adventure. I have worked in fiction and developed my own voice. I have a lot of readers in many languages. But I still write poetry in my novels when necessary.
Q: Do you think the settings of your novels has brought them to the attention of the public?
Do you mean the geographical location? Yes, definitely! Despite having moved through several countries and spent long years in the Arab Gulf, where I matured in terms of knowledge and age, I still write about the Sudanese environment, the place where I was born, raised and know well. I believe the diverse ethnicities and dialects of Sudan and the fact it is both an Arab and African country, provides me with good writing material. The geographical environment provides the writer with a huge reservoir of material which does not run out quickly. I can definitely write about Egypt and the environment of the Gulf. But the time for that has not come yet. Or perhaps I lack the ideas that drive me to write. I really want to write about these places.
Q: How has Sudan’s political problems impacted on your writing?
Politics is no big concern to me. I write about mankind in all its conditions. Suffering, whether social or economic, is part of these conditions. I do not include direct and biting political criticism in my writing. Rather, I allude to it. Sudan has been in crisis since we knew it as a [independent] country and we have grown accustomed to its crises. We interact with agonies that we deem serious, such as the issue of its separation into two countries among others. My novels carry the concerns of individuals and the environment they inhabit. Indeed, I am extremely biased in my writings towards marginalized people who are on the fringes. That is why you always notice that my novels are set in the backstreet slums. And my characters mostly have aborted dreams and aspirations, such as in The Grub Hunter, and The French Perfume, among others.
Q: To what extend did the Arab Spring inspire writers? Do you think there are literary works available today that express the momentous nature of its events?
Without doubt, the Arab Spring, given the shifts in political balance it created, was one of the major events or transformations that will definitely bring forth innovators who will make more capable writers than the generations that have lived in the shadow of dictatorships. This, however, will take a long time, but the outcome will definitely be [a reflection of this].
The Arab Spring will definitely cast its shadows on creativity and innovation. But I think some sort of hastiness has happened, particularly because the outcome of the revolution is unclear. Therefore, I believe that writing about the Arab Spring in an unhurried way is better. On the other hand, the belief that anyone who took part in the protests or helped to topple the dictatorial regimes is capable of writing is a big mistake. This conviction may lead to texts that do not live up to [the creative possibilities]. In fact, I have read a few works from the post-Arab spring literary scene, particularly poetry, and they are mostly good. But regarding the novel, it has not been that good—perhaps because poetry is more adept at capturing fleeting moments.
Q: How does The Grub Hunter differ from your other novels? Why has it been the most fortunate among your novels in terms of translation?
The Grub Hunter does not differ from the other works in terms of style, as they all have one author. But the idea is different; every work has its own idea. It was fortunate to have been selected for a popular prize. Indeed, many of my works are more important, such as The Yelling Dowry, The Copt’s Worries, and 366, among others. Readers like works that are in the spotlight. In general, The Grub Hunter’s idea is good and its style I find satisfactory. I also remember I enjoyed writing it. As for translation, it depends on the opinion of the translator and the publisher. Not all translated books are important. And there are always back-channels for having books translated into other languages.
Q: What’s your view of literary prizes, in the Arab world at least?
Prizes are positive phenomena. If the people in charge show dedication and integrity and grant the prize to those who deserve it, writing will absolutely develop and Arabic literature will become as respected as that of other cultures. I encourage the multiplication of these prizes, providing they are honest. I also served on the judging panel of some and it was a good experience. As for the difference in the creative climate in the Arab world and the West, this is normal because the West exceeds us in everything.
Q: Does your penchant for writing poetry in your novels stem from a nostalgia for your days as a poet?
Not at all! But the text requires it. For example, I cannot write about a singer such as Ahmad Dhahab in Ant Invasion [without poetry].
Q: As a resident in the Gulf, what is your assessment of the literary output of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries?
The production of literature in the Gulf is advanced and in no way less than that in other Arab countries. Today, there are well known and distinguished writers from the Gulf.
Q: Are you happy to describe your oeuvre as magical realism?
I do not know. My writings are realistic. They borrow from myth and create a parallel reality. That is why critics describe me as a magical realist. But [my magical realism] is definitely different from the Latin American one because I have my own way of writing.