Whenever she was afflicted by writer’s block, Sudanese novelist Leila Aboulela had a failsafe method of getting back on track: “One of the remedies I used was to read something really negative about Islam, and that would set me off, get me angry and get me going.”

Despite anti-Muslim feeling intensifying in the years she has lived in Scotland, where she arrived in 1990, she says she has grown “more immune” to such insults. Yet in her latest book, Elsewhere, Home, a collection of stories that spans her writing career, there is little overt anger. The tone is, rather, thoughtful, wry, funny and sad.

“There were things that would get me super angry,” she says, looking elegant in black turban and palazzo trousers in her airy Aberdeen home. “But you don’t want the fuel in the cooking. So you’re using it to cook the meal but it’s not an ingredient.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise that she draws on culinary metaphors. We meet four days after Ramadan, and as she prepares lunch she is still revelling in being able to eat and drink during daylight hours. The chocolate biscuits we take with our coffee are left over from the Eid celebrations, when fasting ended. As is obvious from her work and attire, Aboulela is a devout Muslim, as spiritual as Marilynne Robinson or – to use her examples of writers whose work is rich in religious meaning – Muriel Spark, Dostoevsky or Charlotte Bronte.

The deceptively quiet tales in Elsewhere, Home, are barbed with tension and conflict, and mirror some of her own story. There is the desperate homesickness of immigrants; the complications of love between believers and non-believers; and the claustrophobia of women shackled to their domestic duties. In one, a famous Muslim novelist disdains a hijab-wearing reader, refusing even to speak to her. “We had become mere fodder for her fiction.”

This hard-hitting but droll tale, Pages of Fruit, concludes the collection and, as Aboulela confesses, is not just the most recently written, but the most personal. She quickly adds that the novelist she describes is a composite of several writers, “otherwise I’d be in trouble”. It follows the emotional maturing of an immigrant to Scotland who, over time, realises this lauded writer is not all she might be. “I am accusing her of cultural appropriation!” Aboulela says, laughing merrily, no longer upset at what was initially a crushing rejection. Although the encounter was upsetting, it evidently provided “fuel” and eventually was transformed into something more meaningful than the original slight.

Aboulela, who was born in Khartoum in 1964, won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2000 for her short story The Museum – included in her new collection – and the Scottish Book Awards fiction prize in 2011 for her novel, Lyrics Alley. Her fifth novel, about Lady Evelyn Cobbold, the first Scottish woman to make the Haj pilgrimage, will be published early next year. She has three children, two sons and a daughter at the University of St Andrews who, when we meet, is upstairs studying for a chemistry exam.

Born into a highly educated, scientific family – her mother is a professor of demography – Aboulela seemed destined for academia. It was hard telling her mother, one of the first women “pioneers” in Sudan, who was celebrated for her achievements, that she was going to be a writer. “She was very disappointed.”

A few years earlier, even Aboulela herself had no inkling she would take this decision. After university in Khartoum, where she and her husband Nadir married after graduation, and started a family, she moved to London to take a PhD at the London School of Economics, intending to return to Sudan to teach.

When she first arrived in Aberdeen, where Nadir, an engineer, had found a job on the oil rigs, she landed at the airport “with a four-year-old son and a two-week-old baby”. They were crammed into a one-bedroomed flat. With her husband off-shore for long periods, instead of completing her PhD she opted instead to do an MPhil. At the time, she recalls, it felt as if all the doors were closing. “That’s when I started to do the writing … It was an extension of not knowing what was going to happen to me.”

It was while attending a writing workshop in Aberdeen Central Library, where she was tutored by Todd McEwen, that she heard William McIlvanney speak. Her faces brightens. “He was very, very inspiring. Even though he was from a very different background from myself, he also said he didn’t come from a writing family, so that made a big impression on me. It made me less intimidated.”

Encouraged by McEwen to tackle a novel, she wrote The Translator, which brought her to wide attention. But there was a time when it was touch and go. Aboulela began attending classes around the same time as Salman Rushdie went into hiding from the fatwa pronounced against him for The Satanic Verses. She shakes her head. “Every workshop I used to go to here in Aberdeen, when I liked writing but was not committed yet, I said, ‘If someone asks me about Salman Rushdie I’m going to quit writing, that’s a sign I should just pull out … I’m done, I’m finished, I’ll have nothing more to do with these people.’ And it never happened. Not a single time.”

So has it been easier being Muslim in Scotland than in London? “There’s a big difference. The numbers are smaller, you are still very much a minority, so people don’t feel they have to form an opinion.

You’re not impinging on their lives so much.” But, she continues matter of factly, “if there is a terrorist attack, the next day I used not to go out.” Things, however, are improving. For the past year, the media has been preoccupied with Donald Trump and Brexit, and therefore “it hasn’t been going for the Muslims as much”.

She sounds frustrated. “People are just plasticine in the hands of the media. If there is a lot [of anti-Muslim feeling] in the media, then you feel it immediately on the street. Immediately, in how people are treating you, on the transport, in the schools.” Yet she does not sound aggrieved: “It’s expected. It’s a human thing.”

Unlike many contemporary Muslim novelists, Aboulela’s fiction does not touch on extremism or fanatics. Her interest is with ordinary people, with everyday ambitions and desires. As a result, the focus of her work is relationships, loss and the part that faith plays in her characters’ lives: “I guess it goes back to how I started as a writer,” she reflects. “It was more of a personal thing.” Similarly, she will not write on political subjects when asked, not liking to promote her books that way, nor to use her books as a platform for her opinions.

When asked if the bloody war for independence in Sudan has affected how she views the indyref, she does not hesitate: “I very much want Scotland to stay in the United Kingdom. I think splitting is not a good thing. So many people are mixed, their partners are English or Scottish. It’s almost like it’s too late to split. Why split now? I’m against Brexit too,” she adds, lest there be the slightest doubt.

After 10 years in Aberdeen, followed by a decade in the Middle East and Asia, she and Nadir returned in 2012. So is “elsewhere” now home? She nods.

“Yes. It’s taken a long time to get to that feeling, and it happened through my children, because it’s their home. I see it now through their eyes.” Meanwhile, her yearning for Sudan has faded. “I used to miss it in a very visceral way, like a bout of flu.” That is no longer the case. And although she returns often, “it’s changed a lot, so even when I’m there I’m missing it. It’s become a nostalgia thing for my childhood, and my past.”

Two more different countries than Scotland and Sudan are hard to imagine, yet Aboulela has found something they share. “I came up with this idea that they are both romantic places. I always think that the landscape has a powerful effect on the people. Sudan is like that. It’s all desert, and then there’s the Nile in the middle. The contrast is so startling.”

Elsewhere, Home is published by Telegram, priced £8.99. Leila Aboulela will be appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 15

An edited extract from Elsewhere, Home, by Leila Aboulelah

The first time I travelled to see you was a big deal for me. Would you believe it?

I was twenty-eight and I had never travelled alone.

He asked me, why do you really want to go? What are you going to do there?

What are you going to gain? I had to answer these questions in order to get the necessary green light. I bought a new outfit, I went on a crash diet, I splurged on a facial. The finances were an issue all to themselves. There was the return train ticket to Edinburgh, the ticket to your event, the cost of your new hardback which I would surely buy and stand proudly in the queue to get signed.

Why proudly? Because I had been your fan for years and because it would be my first ever time to speak to a writer.

At the station, seeing an ad for the Edinburgh International Book Festival with your name on it made my palms turn cold. I hadn’t prepared myself for missing the children … but it would have been intolerable to have you in Scotland and not be there to welcome you.

Charlotte Square was busy with sun, wind, tents and people of all ages. I was suddenly filled with a sense of urgency. I had to immediately find you. I walked into the Authors Tent. You were moving the first time I saw you. A buffet was laid out and you whisked through it, stabbing your choices, knowing exactly what you wanted, filling your plate with efficiency.

You were as beautiful as I had imagined except for that extra energy, a fire that didn’t show in photographs, almost a jerkiness.

I went up to you as you were twisting away from the table, greeted you like a friend.

You stopped as if I were blocking you, you stiffened at my familiarity, my presumption. “Are you a writer?” Before I could answer, your eyes scanned my face, flickered over my clothes. And all too soon you had already judged me. I said, “I am your fan from Aberdeen. I write to you …” You noted my accent, your novelist’s eyes picked up the signs of early marriage, abandoned university degree, rampant fertility.

“This is the Authors Tent,” you said moving away. I was shaken by only one thought – all the letters I had written to you over the years, all the emails, meant nothing to you. You’ve never read a single word I’d written.

During the event you made me proud, speaking with intelligence and a vulnerability I had not expected. I bought your new novel but I did not queue for the book signing.

I took the train back to Aberdeen. My pain was exaggerated but real. No heroine of yours would travel, as I did, back by train and into the arms of her husband and children, abashed and broken, regretful that she had ventured out.

The expectation was that I would resume my duties refreshed and in good spirits. Instead I moped around the house analysing the failure of our meeting.

I combed your novels and the answers were in your work. The digs at the women who wore hijab. Such women were never, God-forbid, the heroines or even friends or relatives of the heroines but only jolly servants or passers-by. I had never taken these digs seriously before. We have so much in common, I wailed to your receding back. Could you not look beyond the hijab?

The prize nomination, all those white people queuing to hear you speak, the four-star reviews must have all gone to your head.

It had given you delusions of grandeur and made you look down on your own kind. We had become mere fodder for your fiction, you would use our lives but not grant us your company.

Yes, I should laugh the whole thing off. Or, as a modern consumer deprive you of my custom because of your poor client treatment. There were other writers waiting to be read.