OSE Literature Seminar: Ahdaf Soueif in conversation with Jamal Mahjoub

Jamal Mahjoub is an award winning writer of mixed British/Sudanese heritage. Born in London, he was raised in Khartoum where the family remained until 1990. He was awarded a scholarship to study in England and attended university in Sheffield. He has lived in a number of places, including the UK, Denmark and currently, Spain. He writes in English. In a conversation with Ahdaf Soueif, Mahjoub talks about his knowledge of languages, the difference between writing a short story and a novel, and how he came to write fiction after studying geology.

Ahdaf Soueif. Photo by Stephan Röhl.

Ahdaf Soueif starts the conversation with a question about language: “You say ‘I don’t speak any language properly’, how true is that?”
“I’m moderate in  seven languages” says Mahjoub, “it hasn’t been planned but rather improvised. As a child I grew in Khartoum, after the 1989 coup, my parents moved to Cairo and I was in England at the time. I ended up in Denmark, I learned Danish,and then I ended up in Spain and now also speak Spanish”.

The first three novels Mahjoub wrote were an investigation about Sudan.
“But you studied geology” asks Soueif,  “how come?”
“The father of a friend was geologist” explains Mahjoub, “and would take us out and would stop out of the city and describe each stone and where they came from – ‘the mountains and that this used to be a sea, and so on’ it transformed the whole way you look at things and I thought it was geology, so I went to university and studied it”, he smiles “it wasn’t geology, it was fiction!” Mahjoub goes on explaining he was probably the worst geologist in the  world but that he still graduated. After looking for work and not finding any, he realised more and more the need to define what Sudan meant to him and what it was, “So I started doing it through fiction.”

Jamal Mahjoub. Photo by Stephan Röhl.

“Do you think novels are born of character and short stories of situations?” asks Soueif.
“A short story is a moment where everything comes together. I suppose, because I don’t want to go deep into a character, I write a short story. I get ideas for novels a lot and then they sit, if they last, then become novels. It can take years before you can start really doing what you want in a novel” says Mahjoub. Then he adds, “You can have a collection of short stories and even that wouldn’t become a novel.” Soueif adds,  ” Would you say that the impulse for the short story comes from outside and the novel from within?” “Both can come from inside” says Mahjoub, “but the short story is reflected outside.

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Posted on 15/11/2010, in Creative & Knowledge Economy, Cultural Relations, Intercultural Dialogue and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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