By Sharifah Alhinai
In October 2021, novelist and retired academic Abdulrazak Gurnah, PhD, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Born to a father of Yemeni descent in 1948 in the Sultanate of Zanzibar, a British protectorate that is now a semi-independent part of Tanzania, Gurnah migrated to the United Kingdom as a teenager to escape the violence and despair that erupted as a result of the 1964 Revolution. Initially inspired by his own migration and the feelings of alienation and racism that he experienced, he began to write as he completed his university studies and then joined the University of Kent as a professor of English and postcolonial literatures. He published his first novel, Memory of Departure—which details the struggles of a 15 year old as he migrates from his village to Nairobi to seek a better life in a postcolonial Africa—with Jonathan Cape Publishing in 1987, after nearly a decade of rejection by publishers. Nine other novels which likewise centre on the impact of colonialism and the experiences of migration (often from Africa to the UK) and exile later followed, and a number, such as Paradise and By the Sea, were shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the Whitebread Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
Last year, the Nobel Prize Committee recognised and praised Gurnah for ‘his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.’ The award launched him into greater popularity and wider readership, making him a household name today.
I speak with the award-winning author, who is on the cover of this issue, about his creative beginnings, the responsibility of writing about migrants’ experiences and against colonial narratives, the power of stories and his next work. This interview was edited for length and clarity after it was transcribed.
I read in an article in The Guardian, that you began to write in your twenties out of feelings of homesickness and displacement to make sense of your experiences and find relief. You started to write reflections in your diary, which then slowly turned into stories about other people. Why did you resort to fiction? Why not poetry or nonfiction, for example?
AG: It wasn’t a sudden decision or anything like that because I wasn’t setting off to write fiction. I was more or less disentangling my thoughts and working things out. Sometimes, I thought I was writing poetry, but at other times I also wrote some plays. I just wrote a few notes and this kind of thing. Gradually you work out what feels more comfortable and what feels most productive. You also think, well, the poems aren’t very good, the plays aren’t really all that good, maybe fiction’s a bit better, and so you carry on like that. It wasn’t a decision to rule things out; it’s just what came to seem appropriate, in practice, over time.
From my understanding of what I’ve read, and correct me if I’m wrong, you began to write to find a sort of catharsis. Over the years, has writing given you the catharsis that you have been looking for?
AG: Well, I wouldn’t use the word ‘catharsis.’ As I mentioned a moment ago, I think what I was doing when I started to write, before I began to write fiction, was to sort of understand things, to disentangle things that were in my mind, and writing is sometimes quite useful like this, even if you’re not writing for publication. Writing is sometimes quite useful as a way of understanding your thoughts, for kind of clarifying things for yourself. This is how it started. So I wasn’t looking for relief, if you like, in the sense of catharsis. I wasn’t looking to say that we do this because it’s painful, and when it’s over I will be cleansed, or something like that. It wasn’t anything like that. But it was very useful, as I said, in the process of understanding things and disentangling things. But writing fiction is different from that, this is what I came to understand. Doing that is like having a conversation with yourself. I think when you get to a point where you say I’m not writing this for myself, when I’m writing this for other people to see, read, share ideas or a story or whatever it is, you’re then, I think, doing something else; you’re making art, if it works. On the other hand, the kind of conversation with the self, it’s not necessarily art; it’s more to do with sorting things out. So I think they are different activities. Of course when you’re writing fiction, you’re addressing people, and you’re addressing them in certain ways; you’re not speaking by yourself—you’re making something. And you’re making it with all kinds of layers of things; you have a language you might use, you have illusions you might make for the readers to work out for themselves, sometimes the pleasurable games that you might play just to make it interesting for yourself and possibly for your readers as well.
This feature article is part of The Power of Words Issue. To read this article in its entirety digitally click here to buy a digital copy of the issue.
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