Abdulrazak Gurnah: ‘I write about what I know’

While unsparing about the horrors of colonialism, the Nobel laureate seeks to restore agency to the lives of the traumatised

Zanzibar-born author Abdulrazak Gurnah will be taking part in the International Literature Festival Dublin on May 20th. Photograph:  Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

Zanzibar-born author Abdulrazak Gurnah will be taking part in the International Literature Festival Dublin on May 20th. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

 

On December 7th, 2021, when Abdulrazak Gurnah accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature at the Swedish embassy in London, he was the first Black writer to win the prize since Toni Morrison received it in 1993. Gurnah was only the sixth African writer to receive the prize in the 120 years of its existence.

With Gurnah best known for novels such as Paradise (1994), By the Sea (2001), Desertion (2005) and Afterlives (2020), the Nobel citation mentioned “his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents”.

Now emeritus, Gurnah spent many years as professor of English and postcolonial literatures at the University of Kent, and so it is perhaps not surprising that he is thoughtful and deliberate in speech, using words with economy and care.

As a young man who fled to England in 1968 to escape the ravages of the Zanzibar Revolution (the Sultanate of Zanzibar would later become part of present-day Tanzania), Gurnah had an intimate knowledge of the fracture and pain of exile. He resents, however, the presentation of the condition of the exile as always being one of confusion. There is an “idea of the non-European who encounters Europe, who becomes divided; the notion is that the result of this is a kind of confusion, that the non-European person loses something as a result of being immersed somehow in European society or culture or education”.

‘Hubristic notion’

He goes on to explain: “This is a kind of hubristic notion, it seems to me, that European culture or knowledge is so complex that it can only overwhelm the person encountering it who then doesn’t know where he is. Is he really who he was or is he now someone else? I think it’s a load of rubbish, really. It may be overwhelming but not, probably, forever.”

Abdulrazak Gurnah after receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images
Abdulrazak Gurnah after receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images

What Gurnah wants to emphasise is the capacity that refugees or migrants bring to bear on their situations, much as his characters learn to do in By the Sea or Desertion. Though the Nobel laureate in his writings is unsparing in his detailing of the horrors of colonialism and the abject suffering of the refugee, he rejects the lockdown of victimhood and looks to restore agency to the lives of his often deeply traumatised subjects.

One of the outcomes of displacement, he says, is “the way that you understand, think, the perspectives you can occupy to reflect on things and the stories you can unearth, means you have a much bigger hinterland to do your growing in”.

I want to understand much of the cruelty that was carried out in the name of law, in the name of progress, according to its own terms and how the perpetrators forgave themselves

In Gurnah’s most recent novel, Afterlives, describing the genocidal German presence in colonial southern Africa, he says he tried to “retrieve something after trauma” and to show how growth was possible even in the most unpromising of circumstances. He talks about “the kind of resilience which I admire in migrants or displaced people. They don’t just go from here to there and open a little corner shop to sell newspapers. That’s a really big thing to do. To go from there to there. To go from Syria to opening a bakery in Middlesbrough or something like that. These require sources in the self to be able to make changes like that.”

The imperial gaze

Gurnah is predictably critical of western notions of progress and describes his attempts to reverse the direction of the imperial gaze, to show what it is like to be on the receiving end of self-promoting and self-justifying terror: “This is what I’m up to, to some extent, in Paradise. I want to understand much of the cruelty that was carried out in the name of law, in the name of progress, according to its own terms and how the perpetrators forgave themselves, whatever horribleness they did, because of a perception that what had to be done was morally good.”

He argues that the colonial cover story “was completely untrue, it was a lie. But in writing something like Paradise I want to say, well, how do you think it looked like from the other side? If you were there at that moment which is presented as some kind of triumphant incursion in a place of chaos and disorder, how do you think it looked if you came from that place rather than from elsewhere?”

An admirer of William Trevor and John McGahern (`I love the way he made farming seem almost as a sophisticated thing to do rather than something tedious'), Gurnah was initially baffled by the prose experiments of Joyce

Gurnah is equally aware of the disappointments of the postcolonial moment when you find that “the very oppressed become your oppressors”, a predicament explored in his very first novel, Memory of Departure (1987).

Even if the latest winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature welcomes advances in legislation outlawing discrimination on the basis of race in the areas of housing and employment, he is not persuaded that basic mechanisms of exclusion go away. They simply shift their target, “it may even be that it becomes more subtle”. Looking to examples from recent history and the present moment, he says: “It seems to me that the methods of the authorities certainly in the UK, but probably elsewhere in France as well, have not changed enough for brutality and forms of mental and other kinds of torture to be unacceptable.

“If you think of the way the British forces behaved during the Troubles, for example, in Northern Ireland as late as the mid-1970s and early 1980s or the way refugees and asylum seekers are treated in the UK at the moment, we think why are they doing this; you know, is it really necessary or is it some kind of administrative reflex that makes such behaviour okay?”

Racial superiority

Gurnah is particularly exercised by forms of racial superiority that are largely unthinking, based on an unquestioned fantasy of a natural order of things. The aggression comes less in the form of the alt-right jackboot than in the ready classification of everything different as inferior.

He has been to Ireland on a number of occasions, even if never for any prolonged period, but his contact with Irish literature has largely come through his teaching. Irish authors featured on courses he taught on romanticism and modernism. Yeats was an early source of fascination for his “musicality” and his musings on the broken hearts of young lovers.

An admirer of William Trevor and John McGahern (“I love the way he made farming seem almost as a sophisticated thing to do rather than something tedious”), Gurnah was initially baffled by the prose experiments of Joyce. He says his understanding changed when “I began to teach Ulysses and read it with that kind of thoroughness. I think one of the things that appealed was its great and endless attention to the quotidian as well as to the small things, the details of everyday life.” He was also taken by its “anti-imperialism”, though he claims it is a “version of anti-imperialism that referenced other non-Irish cultures”, with the Jewish Irish Leopold Bloom as protagonist.

Language

One of the concerns Gurnah shares with Joyce’s Dedalus is what it is like to fret in the shadow of another man’s language. His first language was Swahili and English has always been his literary language even if his works contain Swahili or Arabic cultural references or words in either of these languages which Gurnah has always refused to anglicise. He resists the idea that his English “is some kind of reflection of Swahili diction” but acknowledges that it is “an English which is inflected by a kind of a cultural imagination, one might say, even more than language, which is not straightforwardly familiar to someone who has lived or grown up or spoken English in England or Britain”.

Referring to Latif Mahmud – a character in By the Sea, who says “this is the house that I live in, a language which barks at me around every corner” – Gurnah pursues the metaphor of the house to point to the expressive possibilities of different varieties of English: “This a house which is quite large, so although there are barks around the corner, there are also other spaces where things can happen and spaces in which to reimagine what already exists or to persuade the reader to see what was apparently already there in a way not seen before.”

Deeply suspicious

Gurnah may be keen to open up new spaces and broaden the experiences of his readers, but he is deeply suspicious of writers who surf on the historical experiences and sufferings of others. This, he argues, becomes an “appropriating of other people’s circumstances and other people’s pain and other people’s histories and I try to avoid that if I can”. As he puts it, simply, “I write about what I know and it gives me great pleasure."

As part of International Literature Festival Dublin, Abdulrazak Gurnah discusses his work with fellow writer Christine Dwyer Hickey on Friday, May 20th, at 8pm in Merrion Square Park. ilfdunblin.com

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