Writing has been and continues to be the one consistent thing in my life, and has evolved with me over the years…
By Joy Chukwujindu
Despite the ongoing crisis in Sudan, it was refreshing to see Reem Gaafar, a Sudanese physician-writer, make a laudatory headline as the winner of the 2023 Island Prize for the manuscript of her debut novel, A Mouth Full of Salt. Having lived across several continents, from Asia to Oceania to North America, Reem‘s writing and filmmaking impressively still addresses the imminent issues bedeviling Sudan, as well as highlighting the country’s abundant culture, people, and history. She does these with her short stories, such as Light of the Desert featured on I Know Two Sudans: An Anthology of Creative Writing from the Sudans, and Finding Descartes in Relations: An Anthology of African and Diaspora Voices; The Coral City, a documentary film edited and directed by her; and the UNDP’s film, IMAN: When Faith is at a Crossroads, where she contributed as a writer and filmmaker.
Although physicians are notorious for both their indecipherable handwritten prescriptions and busy schedules, Afrocritik was thrilled to find one who crisscrosses doctoring and creative writing. Here, Reem Gaafar, the literary-minded doctor, discusses her writing journey, juggling medicine and writing, her upcoming writing projects, and many more.
For our brimming readers wanting to know about Reem Gaafar, please tell us about yourself.
I am a Sudanese doctor, researcher, writer, and mother of three. I grew up between New Zealand, Oman, and Sudan, and lived and worked in the UAE and Canada. I started off as an ER physician then transitioned into public health and health policy. Aside from ‘doctoring’ and writing, I also made a few documentary films. I write for different platforms and my work has appeared in Teakisi Magazine, BMJ Blogs, Andariya, African Feminist, African Arguments, International Health Policies and my own personal blog since 2007.
How was your journey to winning the Island Prize Award 2023 for the manuscript of your debut novel, A Mouth Full of Salt, and who was important to the process?
I saw the announcement several months ago and liked the idea of a contest where the prize is getting editorial support on your work as well as putting you on the road towards getting published. I had never seen a contest that offered that before, and so I decided to give it a go with two main goals: first, finish a novel (I had several unfinished works lying around) and second, make it at least to the longlist to get some feedback on the manuscript. I never imagined I would actually win!
My husband was important on this journey because I often had to ‘talk out’ what I was writing, so I kept telling him the story or any parts that I was having trouble with, and he would give me feedback. He also helped me with his memories and knowledge of the area having grown up in the north of Sudan where my story takes place. My family also advised on an early version of the novel and some problems I was facing.
What inspired A Mouth Full of Salt, and how long did it take to write the novel?
A long time ago, a friend of mine told me about her cousin who had gone somewhere and left her 3-year-old son with her in-laws, and while he was playing on the street outside their house he was hit by a car and died. At the funeral, her mother-in-law was crying and asking her for her forgiveness for not keeping him safe for her. This was the inspiration behind what first began as a short story and then kept on getting longer.
I wrote the novel in 3 or 4 sittings: first, the short story which was sitting in my laptop for over a year, then the first version of the novel which I wrote over winter break. I re-wrote the second version (around 60% of the story) in 5 days.
Not only do you write literature, but you also do a lot of medical writing. How do you decide what to write about? Do you write about what interests you, or what you think your readers would like?
My fiction writing is about things that I see and hear about, which create an image in my head which I then put down on paper. It can be a very intense process with very little structure. There are two types of writers: people who outline and structure their work and people who ‘write by the seat of their pants.’ I’m the second type, I sit down and start writing and it just comes out, so I don’t really think about what my reader would like to read or think of what I’m writing. However, later on when I’m editing or filling in gaps, I do look at it from the readers’ point of view and wonder if they would find it interesting. The answer is usually no, which is why the vast majority of my writing is either discarded or kept tucked away.
You are a medical doctor. How and why did you start writing?
I was a writer before becoming a medical doctor. I started writing when I was 13 and kept on writing throughout the different phases of my life: as a high-school student, a medical student, an ER physician, a public health physician, a wife and mother and now as a graduate student. Writing has been and continues to be the one consistent thing in my life, and has evolved with me over the years. It’s always been about translating the ideas in my head and expressing the feelings attached to those ideas about what I see around me on a daily basis, about the injustices in the world and how ordinary people are doing extraordinary things.
How do you combine being a graduate research assistant and a physician with writing?
It’s a difficult process and one where the writing unfortunately comes last. I am currently defending my PhD proposal and work on a consultancy basis in the areas of health policy and communication. While I would like to write all the time, my family and classwork come first and take up most/all of my time and energy, and so I’m usually writing in the middle of the night when everyone is asleep. If I had better time management skills, I would probably be able to find a better balance, but I’m terrible at managing my time, and having young children doesn’t really help.
Throughout history, writers have used their works to confront political norms, promote peace and cause social change. In your opinion, is the Sudanese literary community spurring conversations on the current issues plaguing the country? And do you see yourself positioned to be part of this?
Sudanese writers have been confronting social and political issues for ages and continue to do so, and some have been targeted for their writing. For myself, these same issues have always been at the center of my writing – both fiction and non-fiction. For example, A Mouth Full of Salt discusses racism, gender-based violence and the oppressive traditions of communities that fight against progress.
How would you describe your writing style?
Simple and to the point. Big fancy words and unnecessarily long sentences irritate me, and writing as a scientist for several years trains you to write efficiently about complicated matters in a limited space.
During your earliest years of reading several literary works, what books had the biggest impact on your writing style? Why?
I have never been very adventurous with my reading, and so once I find an author whose book I like I then read everything they’ve written and then move on to the next one. I also look for familiar titles: award-winning books/authors, books on which films have been based, and books recommended by people whose taste I trust. This has become even more crucial now that I have so little time for reading, and so can’t afford to waste time. I grew up reading what most kids at that time were reading: Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew, Roald Dahl, The Hobbit, Charles Dickens, and other classics. I then moved on to Stephen King and Toni Morrison and re-read all the original and unabridged editions of the classics – particularly Charles Dickens – and these three authors probably had the biggest effect on the way I write. They’re quite different but also quite similar in a way. But it all changed when I discovered African and Sudanese literature.
Who are your biggest African influences, and why?
My biggest influence would be Leila Aboulela. I discovered her at a relatively old age and it was the first time I saw myself on the page, both as the subject and the writer. It was a very strange feeling for someone who had grown up reading predominantly white literature about teenagers in America and lords and duchesses in Great Britain. For most of my life I thought I was the only Sudanese person writing in English, and it was a very lonely and alienating feeling, until I read Minaret and could relate to everything in the book for the first time. I then found Jamal Mahgoub, and through both of these authors I heard about the Caine Prize for African literature. This introduced me to African writing in general. But finding books by African writers was a great challenge in the Middle East, so I was limited to single titles and authors, e.g. Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe), Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi, Haji Jabir, and short stories in collections and in the Kenyan Airlines magazine my mother brought back from her travels. I also read political non-fiction by and about Sudanese influential individuals. I recently finished reading several books by Abdulrazak Gurnah, and Fatin Abbas.
What challenges have you faced as an African female writer? How did you overcome these challenges?
The challenge is mainly being ‘relevant,’ especially as a Sudanese writer, since no one seems to know or care much about Sudan. Particularly in the English-writing world, Sudan has very limited presence, and the past three decades of isolation has kept us out of the light. When non-Africans read my writing, I’m told that my style is admirable and the stories are interesting but unrelatable. To overcome this, I have learned to look at my writing from an outsider point of view, to try and make it more readable without losing its local touch. It’s a difficult balance.
Writers are known to enjoy writing at a particular time of day or setup. How would you describe your ideal physical writing space?
Nothing fancy. In the perfect world I would have a bright, distraction-free office with a comfortable chair, and I would get up at daybreak with a hot cup of Nesquick and start writing. I actually used to have this exact setup a long time ago, but it is now a distant and unattainable dream, at least in the foreseeable future.
Are you working on future writing project(s)? Do you mind sharing tidbits on them?
I am working on a two-book series that follows the December 2018 revolution in Sudan. The characters are ordinary people from all walks of life who find themselves caught up in the popular movement and who cross paths with each other in different ways. I’m also working on an autobiography of a relative and currently transcribing the interviews.
For first-time African authors seeking to win prizes or get their works published, what important advice would you give?
The most important advice is to keep writing. Experiment with different styles until you find your own, then stick to it. It’s very tempting to copy other styles or topics – don’t. Seek out competitions that offer feedback on your writing, advise or help with publication, and networking opportunities. Submit your work to literary magazines and anthologies as these provide exposure and a chance for your work to be seen and edited. Read as much as you can, whenever you can. Seek out workshops and writing classes particularly if, like me, you have no formal training in creative writing. And most importantly: don’t be discouraged by rejection or criticism. Use it to make your writing better.
Joy Chukwujindu is an art and entertainment lawyer. She is also an environmentalist with a keen interest in history, art and sustainable development.
When she’s not lawyering, she’s designing spaces and planning events. You can connect with her on Instagram @joyjindu and Twitter @joy_jinduu. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.