A City Waking Up
In Conversation with Sue Wallace-Shaddad
Above, a Sudanese town in the early morning light; photo, Dreamstime.com, reproduced here under contract.
A City Waking Up
This week’s blogpost is dedicated to A City Waking Up, a remarkable short collection of poems on Sudan by Suffolk-based British poet, Sue Wallace-Shaddad. I am very grateful to Sue for allowing me to reference and quote her work here. Sue, pictured below, was kind enough to talk with me about her experiences of Sudan and her creative life. I am delighted to be able to reproduce our conversation below.
Sue Wallace Shaddad
Sue Wallace-Shaddad has a MA in Writing Poetry from Newcastle University / Poetry School London. Her short collection A City Waking Up was published by Dempsey and Windle in October 2020. Sue was highly commended in the Plough Prize, 2021 and has many poems published online and in anthologies. Sue writes poetry reviews and is secretary of Suffolk Poetry Society. Read more in her blog, from which this profile is taken, in Sue Wallace-Shaddad
Sue is the great-granddaughter of the distinguished Scottish painter and Glasgow Boy, James Paterson. And a painterly economy of detail and clarity of gaze informs Sue’s work. It is this family artistic heritage that has perhaps also led her to draw on ekphrasis / ecphrasis, the use of detailed description of a work of visual art as a literary device, in her poetry. As in Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts, with its boy “falling out of the sky”, Sue’s ekphrasis unsettles with its juxtaposition of beauty and tragedy. In The Power of Red, writing on cinnabar, she says,”The Romans knew its vermilion / power; Titian clothed / his figures in its deep red ” but now ” a modern master / deepens the storm flood / he creates…”
Read The Power of Red in the link below
Above, a Khartoum collage, including photos of the Anglo-Egyptian gunboat, Melik, Blue Nile Sailing Club, Khartoum. You are welcome to reproduce any photos appearing in this blog, except those credited to Dreamstime.com.
See more of Khartoum in
Below, Sudanese donuts or ligaamaat.
Read excerpts from Sue’s poems in:
A City Waking Up
If you have ever lived in Sudan, A City Waking Up is a homecoming; a stepping back into the myriad worlds of Sudanese daily life, distilled in spare and limpid verse. Translucent worlds in miniature, reflected in the roads “still puddled with storm water” of a city “tethered in age-old mud” and in the ripening dates,”necklaces of pale amber”, of its roadside stalls.
From the morning ritual of herdsmen gathering “for black tea in chequered shade “to the young boys racing their donkeys” in the dust-filled plain”, Sue’s poetry captures both the timeless stillness and energy of Sudan’s capital. This is a collection informed by quiet recollection; “We sit in the cooling air / under the neem trees / and remember”, and deep fondness for a Sudan that greeted her “with open hands and heart”. The henna party, where feet are “festooned / with embroidery”, the wedding rituals, the feast day sweetmeats and all the evocative power of food are here, as well as the heavy, pouting air of Sudan’s sand storms and the violence of its downpours from a “split-open sky”.
If you haven’t lived in Sudan, this collection will seduce but not sugarcoat. Sue’s gaze rests equally intensely on the plastic pollution so ubiquitous in the capital; “a field of white / an unexpected inland sea”, the “modern detritus” laid down as sediment and hauled up by the fishermen on the banks of Gebel Awlia and the bleakness of a zoo where the animals are worn out “like old shoe leather, / their coats flea-bitten, / eyes glazed”. Her unblinking, compassionate gaze rests too on the recent suffering and turmoil endured by many Sudanese.
Above, delicately hennaed feet, photo Dreamstime.com used under contract.
Read more on Sue’s work in:
Above, Khartoum scenes, 2018.
In Conversation with Sue Wallace-Shaddad
Imogen Thurbon (Imogen): Sue, thank you so much for your time today and for so kindly agreeing to talk with me. I guess the first thing I’d like to ask is how long this work has been in gestation. It is so clearly a crystalline honing down of so many memories and moments. Could you also talk a little about the creation process behind it and why you selected the themes you focused on? Is there another collection in the making? If so, can you give us an idea of what it might take?
Sue Wallace-Shaddad (Sue): I had been visiting Sudan regularly for over 40 years to see family. During that time, I was focused on career and bringing up my children. After retiring from the British Council in 2014,I devoted myself to poetry and during a summer visit to Khartoum in 2016, decided it was about time to write about Sudan. I found it very easy to write as there were so many memories. I was able to discuss what I was writing with family while there so I could get details right, for example, the correct Arabic names for different foods. It was really a matter of what surfaced in my mind, I did not consciously seek themes. Certain places had been important, for example, the University, the Blue Nile Sailing Club, Gebel Awlia Dam. I wrote about family activities during that visit e.g. children playing but also memories about my own children from years ago e.g. my daughter being bitten by a monkey. Weddings are a constant highlight during visits so those featured. Since 2016 I edited and improved the poems I had written and started the selection process of what might form a short collection. I wrote some new poems too in 2019 which formed the end of the collection bringing it up to date. I have written some more poems about Sudan since publication in 2020 by Dempsey and Windle, but not enough to form a new collection as yet. I am currently creating a collection of poems about portraits of women artists and portraits by women artists, including several in my Scottish family background.
Imogen: Your poems are sparse, pared down, evocative in what you leave unsaid. Some are nostalgic but never sentimental. They are clearly written by a non-Sudanese. How does that play into your creative process? And the pitfalls/obstacles of being a non-Sudanese writing on Sudan? What would you like the Sudanese and non-Sudanese reader to take away from these poems?
Sue: I am very conscious that I have experienced Sudan through a particular lens, as a visitor looking in. This is both a privilege and a responsibility. There are certainly some pitfalls in how one presents another culture, but I try to do this based on my own experience and observation; clearly I am not Sudanese myself. I could be criticized for showing a one-sided view which does not encompass the complexities of life that women in Sudan deal with, but I hope that my affection for the people, culture and country comes across in the poems. I do hint at some of the challenges of everyday life, whether by describing household tasks, dust or environmental degradation. I would like Sudanese readers to share and enjoy my memories and non-Sudanese readers to see a side of Sudan that is not shown in the media, the richness of family life, hospitality and customs.
Imogen: Could you expand a little on your early exposure to Sudanese life and culture? What struck you – shocked you even, then and how has your understanding of Sudan changed overtime? What do you hold dear, apart from personal relationships, family and so on, about having visited Sudan and shared in Sudanese culture?
Sue: I first visited Sudan in the 1970s. I suppose what first struck me was how people had to live with day-to-day difficulties, such as constant struggles to beat the dust, the frequency of power cuts (although I had experienced a few growing up in a rural part of the UK). I found it hard to understand how people could work and fast through days of intense heat. I was also struck by the sense of close community. The social round for weddings, births and deaths was deeply embedded in everyday Sudanese life and visitors would be included. As Khartoum has grown in size, this has changed to some degree but is still very important. I have only lived in Sudan for short visits, but this has had a cumulative effect over the years. I always feel that I am stepping into another world, where time has a different meaning. Everything moves more slowly in Sudan. Stepping off a plane in Khartoum, I am hit by the warm evening breeze, an easy introduction to what will be the heat of the next day. The colours of bougainvillea, the flowing Nile, the sunsets, the carpet of stars in a desert night sky are all visual memories I hold dear, the way wonderful meals and gatherings are created, the stoicism and patience of people and the way they help each other.
Imogen: Education is prized in Sudan. Can you tell us a little about any memorable experiences working in the field of education with The British Council and visiting Sudan?
Sue: I was very aware of the importance of education in Sudan, as several family members taught and still teach at the University of Khartoum. Parents set high expectations for their children as education is seen as key to a successful life. I have not worked in Sudan but was involved in promoting educational and cultural links with the UK throughout my career. I always visited the British Council office when visiting Khartoum, to get an update on their work. As my role in later years was at a strategy level in London, my understanding of the pressures and opportunities in the field of education in a country like Sudan, was very helpful. Providing access to learning the English language was an important part of what the British Council did in Sudan over many years and a tool to unlock further education opportunities.
Imogen: And finally, Sue, in these times of great turbulence throughout the world, what wishes and hopes do you cherish for Sudan?
Sue: I would wish the Sudanese people stable and peaceful lives where everyone has the opportunity to develop themselves to the full. I would like others to be able to experience the warm and welcoming nature of the people and be able to enjoy their culture and language.
Photos above; inside the hulk of the Melik gunboat, morning coffee and newspapers off Zubier Pasha Street, Khartoum, mint and lemons in Omdurman market (Imogen Thurbon); roadside scene, Dreamtime.com, used under contract.
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Below, scenes from our literacy circles, taken before the pandemic.