SHARJAH, United Arab Emirates — WHEN Leila Aboulela arrived at the international book fair here recently, the conference room was packed to capacity with dozens of eager listeners. After she finished reading a passage from her award-winning novel, “Lyrics Alley,” the torrent of questions — some in English, others in Arabic — began.
“Why do you write in English?” one person asked.
“Why not visit Sudan and write about contemporary issues rather than the Sudan of your childhood?” another wanted to know.
Born in Egypt to a Sudanese father and an Egyptian mother, Ms. Aboulela was raised in Sudan, where she attended the Khartoum American School and Sisters School, a Catholic girls’ school, as a child. She grew up reading many Western classics. “I was very much into the diary of Anne Frank, which was unusual for an Arab at that time,” she said in an interview at the book fair. But instead of studying literature, she pursued economics at the University of Khartoum.
Ms. Aboulela, 49, now lives in Britain and her background makes it difficult to categorize her fiction: does she write primarily as an African, Arab or British writer who is Muslim? The compound modifier that many readers and critics have settled on to describe Ms. Aboulela’s work is Sudanese-British, which leaves plenty of room for criticism in a world of relentless categorization. “Sudan is not Arab enough for Arabs and not African enough for Africans,” she said, laughing at the thought.
Tall and dignified with a wide, welcoming smile, Ms. Aboulela wore a colorful head scarf as she sipped a cappuccino and described the characters who populate her fiction. “My characters are not role-model Muslims,” Ms. Aboulela said, “but they struggle to make choices using ‘Muslim logic.’ ”
Most fictional depictions of Muslim characters “are either fundamentalists or completely liberal,” she said. “They never write about the people who are in the middle.”
A versatile prose stylist, Ms. Aboulela has written short stories, essays, radio plays and novels in English that explore issues of alienation, identity, spirituality, racism, sexism, and romance.
MS. ABOULELA moved to Britain with her husband, a petroleum engineer, in 1990 and taught statistics at a university in Aberdeen, Scotland. Living far from home, she acquainted herself with Arabic novels, such as those by the Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih and the works of many Asian and African post-colonial writers in English.
Around the same time, Ms. Aboulela began writing, but she found it difficult to balance teaching statistics, writing and looking after her three children. She quit teaching in 1996 and committed to writing full time.
“I had to choose between continuing as a statistician or becoming a writer,” she said. “I decided on the latter.”
Her lyrical style and incisive portrayal of Muslims living in the West received praise from the Nobel Prize winner J. M. Coetzee, and she won the inaugural Caine Prize for African writing in 2000 for her short story “The Museum.”
Her first novel, “The Translator,” published in 2006, tells the story of a young Sudanese widow, Samar, who works as a translator at a Scottish university. Samar’s husband died in an accident, but instead of returning to Sudan, she remained in Scotland, estranged from her family in Sudan, and meets Rai, a Scottish professor of Islamic studies. The two develop a relationship constricted by cultural and religious differences.
Ms. Aboulela’s writings are more popular internationally than in Sudan. Her works have been featured in cultural education programs sponsored by the British Council in Britain and the National Endowment for the Humanities in the United States.
She has lived in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Doha, Qatar; and Jakarta, Indonesia; as well as Scotland. Her travels have left Ms. Aboulela’s writing open to criticism from some in Sudan.
“When she writes about Sudan, I feel she is like a tourist,” said Safia Nureldin, who teaches African literature at the University of Khartoum. “It is not original, not authentic.”
Dr. Nureldin also described Ms. Aboulela’s writing as “preachy,” and said her characters are “mouthpieces for Islam.”
BUT Ms. Aboulela contends that the settings of her characters heighten their feelings about Islam. “Once you put the characters in the West, it highlights the issues,” she said.
Lilly Mabura, who teaches a course on Ms. Aboulela’s work at the American University here, said that it is Ms. Aboulela’s multiculturalism that she finds so compelling. “She is a writer who lives and embraces living in between,” she said. “That’s what makes her interesting.”
It is for this reason that “third-cultural kids,” the children of expatriates or immigrants who grow up influenced by several cultures, find Ms. Aboulela’s work so interesting.
“Lyrics Alley,” which won the Scottish Book Award for fiction in 2012, has sparked the most interest in her native Sudan. Set in the 1950s, as Sudan was poised to become independent from Britain and split from Egypt, the novel is based on the true story of Ms. Aboulela’s uncle, the poet Hassan Aboulela.
The novel was published just before South Sudan’s independence referendum.
“I felt like, here we go again,” she said about the 2011 vote for the south to break away from Sudan. “And this year I will be voting in the referendum in Scotland.”
Having become a voice for multiculturalism, Ms. Aboulela is concerned that the anti-imperial tone ahead of this year’s referendum on Scottish independence diminishes Scotland’s role in the former British Empire and undermines the importance of diversity.
“I am not particularly reassured about an independent Scotland’s commitment to an inclusive, multiracial, multicultural society,” she said cautiously.
Ms. Aboulela believes that the Scottish independence discourse somewhat belittles Scotland’s involvement in the British Empire. “Many of the colonial officials in Africa were Scottish.”
Whatever the result of the vote in Scotland, Ms. Aboulela said she hoped that her work “creates dialogue among peoples and generations.”