Abdulrazak Gurnah refuses to be boxed in: ‘I represent me’

The books of Gurhah, who moved to Britain from Zanzibar, where he was born, in 1968, have often featured East Africa’s colonial era and its aftermath, the immigrant experience in Britain, or both — and as a result he’s sometimes had to push back against the idea that he speaks for anyone other than himself. (Photos: NYT)
STURRY, England — From the first time he was ever interviewed, around the publication of his debut novel in 1988, author Abdulrazak Gurnah has been facing attempts to categorize him and his work: Does he think of himself as an African writer? Or a British one? Who does he speak for: this group or that one?اضافة اعلان

Even after winning the Nobel Prize in literature last year — an award given to only four other African-born writers before him, including Wole Soyinka and Naguib Mahfouz — he was asked at a news conference about “the controversy over your identity.” People were apparently confused about how to define him.

“What controversy?” he recalled replying. “I know who I am!”

Gurnah, 73, moved to Britain from Zanzibar, where he was born, in 1968. During the decades that followed, he honed his craft and eventually found quiet recognition as a novelist. His books often featured East Africa’s colonial era and its aftermath, the immigrant experience in Britain, or both — and as a result he has sometimes had to push back against the idea that he speaks for anyone other than himself.

“The idea that a writer represents, I resist,” he said. “I represent me. I represent me in terms of what I think and what I am, what concerns me, what I want to write about.”

He added: “When I speak, I’m speaking as a voice among many, and if you hear an echo in your own experience, that’s great.”

Even postcolonial writing, like his, which deals with the process of colonization and its aftermath, he said, is about “experience, not about where.”

Readers the world over have indeed found a profound connection to his writing regardless of their background. Gurnah was awarded the Nobel for his life’s work: His 10 novels include “By the Sea,” about an aging asylum-seeker trying to build a life on Britain’s south coast, and “Paradise,” which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994.

Since the Nobel was announced last October, his books, many of which were out of print in the US at the time, have been reissued. They have been translated into 38 languages, including the first translation of his work into Swahili, the main language of his birthplace.

Sitting one recent morning in the living room of his home in the sleepy town of Sturry, southeast England, its walls decorated with palm-frond patterned wallpaper and friends’ paintings, he said he was anticipating the release this month of novels in Estonian, Polish, and Czech.

He was also expecting more attention in the United States, where “Afterlives,” about three people struggling as Germany and Britain fight over East Africa, will be released Tuesday by Riverhead Books. (It came out in Britain, by Bloomsbury, in 2020.)

Alexandra Pringle, Gurnah’s longtime British editor, said the book showed his ability to tell stories “of large historical events through small lives” with subtle prose, which is “the hardest to achieve.” Many readers stereotype African authors, expecting them to be showy in their writing, Pringle added. “That is not Abdulrazak,” she said.

Friends and admirers agreed with that assessment. Author Maaza Mengiste met him for lunch after his Nobel win and said he was “gracious and kind as you would imagine from his books,” but also very funny, telling her about breaking the news to his grandchildren, only to have them greet it with an “OK, Grandpa,” unaware of its significance.

Gurnah grew up in Zanzibar when it was both a British protectorate and a sultanate. His father traded dried and preserved fish caught in the Indian Ocean, and much of his early life was focused on the shoreline near his doorstep. In “Map Reading,” a short collection of Gurnah’s essays that is coming Nov. 24 from Bloomsbury, he describes how almost every November so many dhows packed into the harbor that he would watch the sailors walk from one to another, heaving with goods, as if it were land.

His childhood was first disrupted in 1964, when rebels overthrew Zanzibar’s largely Arab government. Gurnah was on a family holiday in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city, on the day of the revolution, but watched the “pitiful sight” of Zanzibar’s fleeing sultan and former British officials arriving at its port. When he returned to Zanzibar, the family drove past “burned out houses, bullet holes in the walls,” and realized that something terrible had happened. Gurnah didn’t see any violence himself, he said, “but you didn’t have to witness it; you constantly heard about it.”

The new government shut the schools, then reopened them, only to require graduates to become teachers, largely in rural areas, Gurnah said. Sensing they had little future, Gurnah and his brother left for England, where a cousin was studying. They carried just 400 British pounds, about $480, to survive.

After finishing the equivalent of high school in England, Gurnah worked as a hospital orderly for three years to survive before he attended university. And eventually he began to write — first sketches about home, much later full novels.

In his Nobel lecture, he said the impulse came “in my homesickness and amidst the anguish of a stranger’s life.” He realized, he said, “there was something I needed to say.”

The writing first reflected what had happened in Zanzibar, he added, but quickly swelled to include issues of colonialism and its legacy, as well as his treatment in England.

“A desire grew to write in refusal of the self-assured summaries of people who despised and belittled us,” Gurnah said in his Nobel lecture, although he added he never wanted to write polemics, only books filled with humankind’s capacity for tenderness amid cruelty, and for kindness, even from unexpected sources.

Gurnah’s fans say the humanity in his work is one of its strongest points. Mengiste said his novels show that “it’s possible for people to exist within catastrophes or political systems that are devastating and still maintain their humanity, still fall in love, still create families.” That was “a subtly political statement,” she said.

His most acclaimed work reflects that approach. “Paradise” was conceived after Gurnah was allowed to return to Zanzibar for the first time, in 1984. One day he stood at a window watching his father walk to a mosque and realized that the elder Gurnah would have been just a child when Britain was establishing a protectorate in Zanzibar. Gurnah said he “wondered how that would have seemed to a child, the beginning of recognition that strangers have taken over your lives.” The novel he wrote is as much a boy’s coming-of-age story, and about children being used as collateral for debts, as it is about colonialism.

“Afterlives,” a similarly historical novel, had its origins in wanting to write about the war between Britain and Germany in East Africa, which had previously been portrayed in novels, Gurnah said, “as a bit of a picnic,” even though hundreds of thousands of civilians died from war-related famines and disease. One of its central characters, Hamza, signs up to join the German army and is trapped in service despite quickly realizing his mistake. When he eventually leaves, he’s an injured stranger to his hometown, yet rebuilds his life, caught up in romance.

Winning the Nobel, and the new fame that came with it, required some adjustments: He has had no time to write, Gurnah said. His schedule has been packed with interviews and with occasional trips abroad, including a return to Zanzibar, where he was treated as a hero for the first time, despite few of his books being available there.