Ahdaf Soueif – a wonderful inspiration pioneering a more modern, diverse and inclusive world of literature since 1983!

Ahdaf Soueif’s career

The incredible novelist Ahdaf Soueif was born in Cairo and educated in both Egypt and England, where she studied for a PhD in Linguistics at Lancaster University.

The Story of Ahdaf Soueif is a fascinating one where she published 2 short stories entitled ‘Aisha’ in 1983 and ‘Sandpiper’ in 1996. In 1992, Ahdaf published her debut novel ‘In the Eye of the Sun’, which is about a young Egyptian woman’s life in Egypt and England, where she goes to study as a postgraduate. The plot is set against the backdrop of key events in the history of modern Egypt.

Her second novel ‘The Map of Love’, published in 1999, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, has been translated into 21 languages,and sold over 1,000,000 copies. Soueif’s fiction work illustrates an early and ground-breaking contribution to describe interactions between British and Arab characters. Her most recent work is Cairo: My City, Our Revolution (2012), which is a personal account of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution.

Ahdaf Soueif also features as a cultural and political commentator for the Guardian newspaper and is the Founding Chair of the Palestine Festival of Literature which is the first and only to be held in Palestine’s occupied territories.

Ahdaf Soueif’s childhood and falling in love with literature

Ahdaf reflects on the early part of her childhood and what sparked her love for literature, saying:

“Stories have always mattered hugely to me. I think I retain information much better when it comes in the form of a story. I learned to read very early because my mother was doing a PhD, we were in England, so it was just my mother, my father, and me and for her to be able to use as much of her time as possible, it was really useful for her if I could learn to read”.

Aratrust shares the same sentiment as Ahdaf on the power of words and literature when she adds:

“And I think with fiction, for me, the crucial and the most exciting thing it did was that it was able to transport you from the confines of your own character and your own life and surroundings into something much bigger and much more varied. And that was miraculous and that was the essence of my love for it”. https://culturalfoundation.eu/stories/In-conversation-with-Ahdaf-Soueif

Although Ahdaf doesn’t directly mention young people, Aratrust supports her advice on writing on sensitive cultural items which remains very useful for budding writers:

“You can only write about stuff you feel strongly about, I would just say, there is a difference between writing and publishing. And that sometimes you have to write the stuff, so it clears the way for something else to come out. So, I would write whatever pushes at me to write it and then I would decide what to publish and what not to publish really. Having said that, I have actually published everything I’ve written”. https://dura-dundee.org.uk/2012/09/02/ahdaf-soueif/

Ahdaf Soueif’s influence and promotion of diversity

Although Ahdaf Soueif hasn’t openly spoken about diversity in UK literature, Aratrust applauds the contribution she has made to giving a voice and confidence of expression to younger writers of all Black and minority-ethnic origins in Britain, Europe and America, as well as those in the Arab world who now have the opportunity to forge their own voice through their words.

The powerful influence of pioneers in their field like Ahdaf Soueif has contributed to the creation of The Shubbak Literature Festival first launched in 2011 which takes place yearly at the British Library. The festival showcases some of the most exciting and upcoming voices in modern literature from the Arab world. The event aims to reflect the diversity of contemporary Arab literature as the festival features authors who write in English, French and Dutch as well as those who write in Arabic.

In times gone by, these communities had very little visibility in the UK let alone in London and with the success of such projects and much more Black and minority-ethnic talent in the pipeline, it is hoped that the next generation of authors and poets can make an impact in ways that mark their difference from previous generations of writers. https://www.shubbak.co.uk/shubbak-festival-the-first-ten-years/

Lack of diversity/representation in UK publishing

Aratrust is appalled at the shocking lack of representation of Black and minority-ethnic authors in UK literature across all genres, highlighted by a report by BookTrust in 2020 telling the story of an industry that heavily disadvantages Black and minority-ethnic authors. The report found:

  • In 2019, only 8.7% of children’s book creators were from Black and minority-ethnic backgrounds. This represents a 3.1 percentage point rise since 2017 (5.6%) and a 4.7 percentage point rise since 2007 (4%).
  • White children’s book creators each had around twice as many books published as children’s book creators from Black and minority-ethnic backgrounds, publishing on average approximately 4 books in comparison to approximately 2 books.
  • British creators from Black and minority-ethnic backgrounds were nearly four times more likely to self-publish than their white counterparts. https://cdn.booktrust.org.uk/globalassets/resources/research/booktrust_represents_2020_report.pdf

A report commissioned by Arts Council England also reinforced the glaring lack of diversity within UK literature and called for change. Their research predominantly focused on collecting the thoughts of those working in different parts of the sector (i.e. publishers, libraries, booksellers) and found:

Positive steps & pledges made by one of the largest UK publishers

While there is certainly of lot of work to be done to create a level playing field in the UK Literature and Publishing Industry, Aratrust welcomes the pledge and initiative taken by one of the largest book publishers in the UK, following the powerful global impact of the Black Lives Matter movement with Pan Macmillan outlining the following pledges:

  • Pan Macmillan previously committed to ensuring that Black and minority-ethnic people comprise 20% of the workforce. To achieve that goal, they will continue their work with Creative Access and Eric Festival, and pledge to strengthen their hiring practices to ensure equity and mitigate potential biases.
  • Over the next year, everyone who works at Pan Macmillan will receive unconscious bias training and training on how to be an effective ally.
  • Increase engagement with industry organisations to bring them together to effect change within the wider publishing community. https://www.panmacmillan.com/blogs/general/diversity-and-inclusion