In Listen Layla, Sudan-born Australian writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied gives voice to a 14-year old, Sudan-born, Muslim 8th grader in Brisbane, Australia. Layla is a bomb of energy, super-ambitious, sometimes too impetuous, and completely unflappable, but also reflective and joyfully connected to her faith. It is Layla’s dream to become a famous inventor. As the novel opens, her inventors’ team at school has just won the opportunity to enter an invention into the international Grand Designs Tourismo (GDT) competition, while she alone has been chosen for the Special International Invention Tour (SIIT), which would take her to Paris, Addis Ababa, and Beijing.
However, just as the summer school vacation begins and the team must pick up its pace, Layla’s family unexpectedly whizzes her away to Khartoum, where her habooba (grandmother) is in hospital and where the Sudanese people’s revolution against the oppressive Bashir regime (of which Layla is not aware) is in full swing. Layla already knows Sudan but, even as she enjoys the warmth of family, the delicious food of her soon-recovered habooba, and the company of same-age close relatives, she is confronted with unfamiliar challenges. Not only do some people question her identity as a real “Sudaniyya” (Sudanese girl) but she herself is confronted with unexpected aspects of lived Sudanese culture, such as the revolutionary commitment of her relatives, young and old, and the fact that her cousin and age-mate Yusra secretly has several “jiks” or boyfriends, with whom she is constantly texting.
Layla also chafes at the gendered constraints put on her, even though her parents, aunts and uncles, and certainly also her habooba are overall quite progressive on this issue. It is completely in line with Layla’s personality as Abdel-Magied has created her for us that Layla ignores her father’s order to withdraw from the GDT competition, which leads to her being grounded when he finds out that she has not done so. She disobeys this decision too and, after the whole family except habooba has gone downtown for the “million person march,” she sneaks out. In the middle of the crowd, as the regime opens fire on the demonstrators, hitting her male cousin, the realities of political oppression and economic neglect that drive the Sudanese people collectively into the streets begin to dawn on Layla.
However, as soon as the airport reopens, before her cousin is back from the hospital and before Layla can digest her experience, she is again whizzed away, back to Brisbane. Having missed so many of her team’s GDT meetings, she is about to be expelled from the team. Drawing on her experience in Sudan, Layla makes a passionate appeal; putting her membership in the team over the individual opportunity to go on the international inventors tour, she sacrifices her place in the SIIT. Her impressed team members accept her back.
Listen Layla is a self-standing sequel to Abdel-Magied’s You Must be Layla (2019), which is also fun and inspiring but has much less Africa content. In Listen Layla, she brings Layla to life as a girl who is irrepressible, stubborn, and sometimes selfish, but also kind, loyal, funny, light-hearted, and always striving to be a better person. In this depiction, Layla’s Muslimness is an organic part of her being and does not dominate the portrayal, and the hijab and big skirts that are part of Layla’s outfit are a natural and occasional part of the story, such as when her skirt billows out when she twirls around or her hijab sometimes shifts when she runs at top speed. Moreover, the dynamic language the author uses in giving Layla voice; the delightful Sudanese linguistic expressions (explained in the Glossary); the descriptions of Sudanese cultural norms, and of the actual Sudanese environment of Khartoum will make this a delight both for readers already familiar with the Sudan and those new to it.
This reviewer was particularly taken with the novel’s opening in which Layla sings the beautiful “Tala`a al-badru `alayna,” (“The full moon rose over us”) known to every Muslim as the song with which the inhabitants of Medina welcomed Prophet Muhammad when he had to flee Mecca in 622 CE. With details such as these, Abdel Magied succeeds in evoking a community of knowledge into which all readers are warmly welcomed.
This book comes highly recommended.
Lidwien Kapteijns, Ph.D.
Published in Africa Access Review (January 21, 2022)
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