Bellagio Library/

River Spirit

by Leila Aboulela

Leila Aboulela participated in the Bellagio residency program in 2018. During this residency, she worked on River Spirit (Grove Press, 2023). Leila is an author who has written six novels; her work has been translated into 15 languages, and she has been nominated for the U.K.’s Women’s Prize for Fiction three times. She is also the first winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing.

A few words with Leila

“My initial idea was to write a novel set in the early 1900s when Khartoum was re-built following the British invasion of Sudan. Following conversations in Bellagio, I changed my focus, went further back in time, and started to work on what was to become River Spirit.

“Fellow David Lewis [a professor of international relations] was the one to suggest that I not only write about General Gordon, but also fictionalize his unknown assassin. I am also indebted to Urvashi Butalia [writer, publisher and activist] for urging me, rightly, to unearth the hidden histories of Sudanese women.”

Quote from River Spirit

“Justice, justice, justice. It is instilled in us every day. Without it the strong squash the weak, men tyrannize women, the rich steal from the poor, and corruption ravages the land. Daily I study Allah’s words so that I can expand, so that I can be alive and not only living, so that I can tell the real from the fake. I pore over books and imbibe the words of the learned so that I can weigh options and choose the path of least harm. So that I can distinguish science from superstition, vanity from initiative, so that I can understand that even scholars make mistakes, act on ego; so that I can be suspicious of anger, mindful of self-interest, and cautious of my instincts.”


River Spirit, set in the years leading up to the British conquest of Sudan in 1898, explores the tensions between Britain and Sudan, Christianity and Islam, colonizer and colonized. Through the voices of seven men and women whose fates grow inextricably linked, this novel illuminates a fraught and bloody reckoning with the history of a people caught in the crosshairs of imperialism. River Spirit is a powerful tale of corruption, coming of age, and unshakeable devotion – to a cause, to one’s faith, and to the people who become family.

Explore More

To find out more about Leila’s work, you can visit her website or read a review of River Spirit.

You can also listen to Leila discuss her experience at the Bellagio Center, including her conversations with David and Urvashi, on the BBC World Service program In the Studio.