After her family left Sudan, Fatin Abbas later returned. ‘Ghost Season’ is the result.

After her family left Sudan, Fatin Abbas later returned. ‘Ghost Season’ is the result.

In “Ghost Season,” author Fatin Abbas melds a workplace and relationship drama with a war story to create a unique and powerful view of Sudan during the country’s seemingly never-ending civil war. 

The novel is set in 2002 in the dusty town of Saraaya, a border region between North and South. The book focuses on five characters sharing quarters in a compound: Alex, an American sent by a nongovernmental agency, or NGO, to create new maps of the region to help aid assistance; William, who is Alex’s translator and essentially in charge of the compound; Layla, the cook, with whom William is in love even though their different backgrounds (he’s Nilotic, she’s a nomad) are linked to the looming conflict; Mustafa, a precocious 12-year-old who William keeps an eye on; and Dena, a Sudanese-American filmmaker struggling with her identity. 

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The characters’ fully realized humanity gives the story a sense of hope, but the backdrop of strife and violence soon becomes the foreground and changes their lives forever. 

Abbas was born in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital. In 1989, after a military Islamist coup, her father – a university professor who had signed a statement against the regime — was detained for a year as a political prisoner. Once freed, he lost his job and university housing so the family moved to America in 1990 when Abbas was eight. Her mother worked for the United Nations and they ended up in New York. 

Abbas went on to earn a Ph.D. in comparative literature at Harvard and an MFA in creative writing at Hunter College, but before that, she returned to Sudan and worked for an NGO involved in a literacy program for internally displaced women. She spent some of her time in a border town that inspired Saraaya. 

“That was what gave me the idea for this novel because it was really my first time out of Khartoum and I became fascinated by these regions where everything is intersecting and overlapping, the geography and culture and religion,” says Abbas, who recently spoke by video about the novel.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. Why were you compelled to write a novel about Sudan’s civil war?

To make sense of it for myself. Journalism is descriptive and can be amazing and is important and necessary but what fiction gives you that journalism can’t is this emotional, visceral experience of living things through characters you care about. That can give you a different understanding. 

I have a Ph.D. in comparative literature which is a very theory-heavy discipline and part of me going into fiction was a reaction to all that. Theory and scholarly research have a place but again for me the most powerful way to reach someone, to communicate, is by telling these stories.

If you’re a writer from an African background, there’s a lot of journalistic writing done about Africa and a lot of NGOs speak about Africa about civil war and famine. But having more of these fictional voices giving another perspective – a more nuanced complicated one – is important.

Q. How did living in such different places, including Khartoum, New York, Cambridge and Berlin, shape you? 

It’s hard to say I belong categorically to any one place and I tend to resist it. I’m a Sudanese-American writer but I’ve been living in Berlin for the last few years and that changes my perspective. 

Whenever I tell the story of my origins as a writer, I think of my arrival in the U.S. and how between the age of 8 and 11 I became obsessed with writing stories. I think this had to do with the displacement and accommodating and adapting to different cultures. I used storytelling to create fictional worlds that I was in control of. 

Q. How did those moves shape the book?

My characters come from different places, experiences and backgrounds: economic, cultural, religious. I don’t belong to one particular nation-state so I was thinking about what communities exist outside of the nation-state and I was thinking about the bond of friendship and family. This mini community — the American aid worker, the Sudanese translator and the Sudanese-American filmmaker and the nomads. There’s a possibility of a community that transcends the nation-state. 

It’s easy to be in a bubble in the U.S. and hopefully, this novel will open up readers’ worlds a bit. These five characters that come together and create alliances across borders and geography and cultures is something I want readers to take away.

Q. These people have their lives forever altered by outside events in a way that White Westerners may never experience. Is that part of the bubble you hoped to pierce?

When you come from a background like mine, you’re very aware of how the forces of history shift and shape your entire fate. If you are White and raised in the West, that sense of control is one of your privileges. 

That said I’m aware that I have privilege, too. I did get out, got a great education and access to Western publishers. 

Q. Since Alex is there to map the region, the landscape is like another major character. As far as outside forces, how much does the climate crisis exacerbate the problems plaguing places like Sudan?

Sudan was on the frontier of extreme climate change way before it got to New York or Los Angeles. This region is where the changes were taking place first and climate is at the center of a lot of these conflicts going back to the 1980s. A lot of the conflict is about resources that are disappearing and it’s about survival. I wanted to make that point through Leyla’s family. They are nomads and in Sudan many have lost their livelihood because of drought. Climate change becomes a weapon that’s used or exploited to leverage power. 

Q. At the start of the book, the main characters seem relatively safe from the external turmoil but midway through that really shifts.

I was always thinking the book was too light. It’s about a civil war and it was absolutely awful there but I was focused on the lives of these characters. There’s a compound with a boundary and the characters feel rightly or wrongly that they’re safe inside.

But there’s a turning point when war comes into the compound and things get very violent. The moment when the compound is invaded is about that lack of control, even for Dena and Alex who are quite privileged in some ways — they suddenly have the same experience that the villagers outside the compound were having. It felt like the only way for the book to go.