Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah on exile and literature
Born in 1948 in Zanzibar, Tanzania, Abdulrazak GurnahThe diverted life course of is reflected in his novels, in stories full of nostalgia, poetry and desire for change that oscillate between countries, continents and identities.
His semi-autobiographical novels chronicle Tanzania’s struggle for independence, the rise of Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, a socialist, and Zanzibar’s first president, Abeid Karume, who targeted the ethnic Arab population of the former sultanate. .
Gurnah is of Arab descent and went into exile in England in 1968 before graduating from the University of London. More recently he taught English and postcolonial literature at the University of Kent.
Meanwhile, Abdulrazak Gurnah’s 10 novels made him one of Africa’s most celebrated writers and won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021. He was honored “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of effects of colonialism and the plight of the refugee in the chasm between cultures and continents.
DW spoke to the author about African history, identity, writers and his own literary journey.
DW: At the start of your 2001 novel, “By the Sea,” we meet the protagonist Saleh Omar at Gatwick airport as he seeks refuge in Britain. You did the same over 50 years ago. What did you experience at the time?
Abdulrazak Gurnah: I was an 18 year old young man who left Zanzibar, in the state Zanzibar was in in 1967: it was a terrifying place for many people. Our government, our authorities were still in a punitive rage of all kinds against the whole population. Many people were driven out by circumstances because their parents were persecuted or imprisoned, sometimes even killed, but also sometimes simply because they frightened everyone.
I think when you’re young, you think, “I can’t stand this. I can do better than that. I don’t want to be stuck here with these bullies. It’s kind of in that spirit.
But what you don’t know in these situations is what you’re kind of giving up…what you’re leaving behind. So going to England was like an adventure in some ways, but it was also a big loss.
You have lived in Britain for five decades now. Do you feel like a British or African author?
Well, I know my identity, that is, I’m a man from Zanzibar who lives in the UK and I write. It’s my identity. I’m not saying, I’m an African writer or I’m a British writer or whatever. I am from Zanzibar and live in the UK. I come from both places in every possible way you can think of.
And whoever wants to find a more refined expression or description, that’s fine. If identity is a way of reducing a person’s being to something simplified, that doesn’t interest me, but I don’t want to deprive anyone of the pleasure of doing so.
The 2021 #Nobel prize in literature is awarded to the novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the plight of the refugee in the chasm between cultures and continents”. pic.twitter.com/zw2LBQSJ4j
— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 7, 2021
Why did you decide to write in English?
Well, for starters, the simple answer is simply because I wanted to. But in a more complicated way, it is a language that I learned by chance and in which I felt very comfortable. Swahili was given to me because of the way I was brought up and I am very grateful for that.
As for the writing, I didn’t really think about the language in which I wanted to write. I kind of understood and knew that I had an intimate connection and relationship to how I used English that I didn’t quite have in writing. Swahili. People who write in Swahili do things with a language that I don’t know how to do.
These are not always choices. People don’t choose to be writers. It’s not just about putting words together. It’s about having a real connection and an intimate sense of the language that I think makes the writing. And I had that and I was grateful for it.
In 2021, major literary prizes were awarded to authors from sub-Saharan Africa. You received the Nobel Prize for Literature, while Mohamed Mbougar Sarr received the Goncourt Prize. Is the world now more receptive to African writers?
I think the reason these materials have won these awards is because of the quality of the writing. And that’s why I say it’s a coincidence. It’s not [that] the world is waking up now.
African authors were denied the opportunity to create works of literary value during the colonial era. Yet literature, or writing in general, is an integral part of the struggle for decolonization. Could you give some examples?
You can cite many examples of this: Many people during the decolonization period in Africa cited examples of Gandhi, or perhaps even civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King or South African writers like Nelson Mandela.
And so, it is the writing and its ability to spread beyond its borders that then reaches people who are also in similar circumstances who are enlightened, illuminated, inspired by this, and see this as an example of what they could do.