Abdulrazak Gurnah

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Abdulrazak Gurnah in 2022

Abdulrazak Gurnah (born 20 December 1948) is a Tanzanian-born British novelist and academic. He was born in the Sultanate of Zanzibar and moved to the United Kingdom in the 1960s as a refugee during the Zanzibar Revolution. His novels include Paradise (1994), which was shortlisted for both the Booker and the Whitbread Prize; By the Sea (2001), which was longlisted for the Booker and shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; and Desertion (2005), shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.

Gurnah was awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature "for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fates of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents". He is Emeritus Professor of English and Postcolonial Literatures at the University of Kent.


  • Our histories were partial, silent about many cruelties.
  • It was necessary to write of the persecutions and cruelties which the self-congratulations of our rulers sought to wipe from our memory.
  • There was also another understanding of history necessary to address, one that became clearer to me when I lived closer to its source in England, clearer than it had been while I was going through my colonised education in Zanzibar. We were, those of our generation, children of colonialism in a way that our parents were not and nor were those who came after us, or at least not in the same way. By that I don’t mean that we were alienated from the things our parents valued or that those who came after us were liberated from colonial influence. I mean that we grew up and were educated in that period of high imperial confidence, at least in our parts of the world, when domination disguised its real self in euphemisms and we agreed to the subterfuge. I refer to the period before decolonisation campaigns across the region hit their stride and drew our attention to the depredations of colonial rule. Those who came after us had their post-colonial disappointments and their own self-delusions to comfort them, and perhaps did not see clearly, or in great enough depth, the way in which the colonial encounter had transformed our lives, that our corruptions and misrule were in some measure also part of that colonial legacy. Some of these matters became clearer to me in England, not because I encountered people who clarified them to me in conversation or in the classroom, but because I gained a better understanding of how someone like me figured in some of their stories of themselves, both in their writing and in casual discourse, in the hilarity that greeted racist jokes on the TV and elsewhere, in the unforced hostility I met in everyday encounters in shops, in offices, on the bus. I could not do anything about that reception, but just as I learned to read with greater understanding, so a desire grew to write in refusal of the self-assured summaries of people who despised and belittled us.
  • writing cannot be just about battling and polemics, however invigorating and comforting that can be. Writing is not about one thing, not about this issue or that, or this concern or another, and since its concern is human life in one way or another, sooner or later cruelty and love and weakness become its subject. I believe that writing also has to show what can be otherwise, what it is that the hard domineering eye cannot see, what makes people, apparently small in stature, feel assured in themselves regardless of the disdain of others. So I found it necessary to write about that as well, and to do so truthfully, so that both the ugliness and the virtue come through, and the human being appears out of the simplification and stereotype. When that works, a kind of beauty comes out of it. And that way of looking makes room for frailty and weakness, for tenderness amid cruelty, and for a capacity for kindness in unlooked for sources. It is for these reasons that writing has been for me a worthwhile and absorbing part of my life.
  • I learned to have pleasure in reading simply because I love stories.
  • I don’t see writing as purely fun. I do think that there is something necessary about it. This is what I talked about in my Nobel Prize lecture. There are certain imperatives that came up as I began to think about things. And that’s how I started to write. But continuing to write is because you are faced every day with things that are also necessary to be talked about, to be inquired into. And I think for me, this is the drive. It’s to speak about what I see and to do so in a way that both helps me to understand better what it is that I see and also to disseminate, to tell others about it, if they happen to be interested. I think writing is an important way of extending and understanding our vision to others which is not to say that this is something particularly perceptive or particularly informative. It could be just what we already know. Sometimes we read things and we share in the reflections of others, of the person who’s writing, and perhaps there is some illumination in it that helps us understand, but sometimes it’s just that it endorses things that we have ourselves understood, but not perhaps trusted. So there are various, very complex things happening both in the process of writing but also in the process of the reader engaging with the writing – and I speak as both a reader of course, as well as a writer. That is the pleasure and the fun of the writing process. That you’re not just writing, talking to yourself, but you’re talking to imaginary readers, although for me the imaginary reader is not very specific. You’re not just confiding something to your journal. I know that I will be speaking to people about this and therefore I speak about events in the world. It may be in the form of a story, but a story can be a vehicle for addressing issues as well as addressing injustices as well as indeed just addressing pain and love.
  • (How important is diversity in literature?) I suppose, in order to understand how other people live and what it is that motivates and energises and makes them happy and unhappy you have to know about other people. It’s really quite as simple as that. You have to know. And the best way to know about other people is to hear what they have to say and not to be ventriliquising other people’s lives and trying to explain people away. So in this respect writing from other places, or at least from other perspectives, which might be cultural, social, gender, is one of the most direct ways in which you can hear what other people are saying.
  • Literature performs different functions of course. Literature also engages us because we take pleasure in it, a kind of complicated pleasure. It depends what you read, of course. But I think at its best literature does that as well as it brings news, tells you things or maybe challenges simplifications that you’ve lived happily with, makes things more difficult for you in that respect. So I see all of those complicated functions. To learn, to enjoy and perhaps also to be challenged, although, that depends on the degree to which you are open to challenges. People can be very difficult in resisting challenges.
  • (For any aspiring writers, is there a particular piece of advice that you would give to them?) The best advice you can give a writer is just write. There is no simple way.
  • I think the best moment in writing is when you think, yep, I think it’s done…Writing is best when it’s complete, when it’s finished .
  • Recently the things that I’ve enjoyed reading are writers from Africa, like Maaza Mengiste, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. These are people who are doing brilliantly well I think, and in both of those cases, they’ve just published their second novels. So very early in their writing careers. But also I admire writers like J.M. Coetzee, Nuruddin Farah, Michael Ondaatje, I can name several.
  • What inspires me to write, is to be able to speak truthfully about what I see and the things that concern me. So it’s not just my eyes are open and therefore, whatever strikes my eye I want to write about it, but there are these concerns about… for example I’m very interested in the way people can retrieve something from trauma, so I’m thinking not only of asylum seekers or refugees, but also of life, of the way people in life are able to get something out of mischance, out of traumatic events. I’ve always been interested in the way families work, particularly the way both power and kindness go along together. Of course, most families love each other, but at the same time there are, what seem like power struggles going on within families. I’m interested in writing about that and the complexity of that and how out of kindness a kind of a sort of unkindness comes as well – requiring obedience that you don’t shame us by doing this, or by doing that. Particularly, I’m thinking of the way women are treated, in our culture anyway, and in many other cultures. Those are the kinds of things that make me want to write. Things that, as I say, my sense of this needs to be spoken about. I need to say something about this. And of course also the other thing that makes me want to write is to create something which is beautiful and pleasurable.
  • This is a very big story of our times, of people having to reconstruct and remake their lives away from their places of origin. And there are many different dimensions to it. What do they remember? And how do they cope with what they remember? How do they cope with what they find? Or, indeed, how are they received?
  • When I was here as a very young person, people would not have had any problem about saying to your face certain words that we now consider to be offensive. It was much more pervasive, that sort of attitude. You couldn’t even get on a bus without somehow encountering something that made you recoil...Things appear to have transformed [but] then we have new rules about detention of refugees and asylum-seekers that are so mean they seem to me to be almost criminal. And these are argued for and protected by the government. This doesn’t seem to me to be a big advance to the way earlier people were treated.
  • "The curious thing, of course, is the person presiding over this is herself somebody who would have come here, or her parents would have come here, to confront those attitudes themselves." What would he say to her if she were here now? “I would say, ‘Maybe a little more compassion might not be a bad thing.’ But I don’t want to get into a dialogue with Priti Patel, really.”
  • Writing [came] out of the situation that I was in, which was poverty, homesickness, being unskilled, uneducated. So out of that misery you begin to write things down. It wasn’t like: I’m writing a novel. But this kept growing, this stuff. Then it started to become ‘writing’ because you have to think and construct and shape and so on.
  • (does Gurnah think the British know enough in general about the history of their influence around the world?) “No,” he says, baldly. “They know about some places that they want to know about. India, for example. There’s this sort of love affair going on, at least with the India of the empire. I don’t think they’re so interested in other less glamorous histories. I think if there’s a little bit of nastiness involved, they don’t really want to know about that very much.” “It’s because they don’t get told about these things. So you have on the one hand scholarship, which deeply investigates and understands all of these dimensions of influence, the consequences, the atrocities. On the other hand, you have a popular discourse that is very selective about what it will remember.”
  • “It seems to me that fiction is the bridge between these things, the bridge between this immense scholarship and that kind of popular perception. So you can read about these matters as fiction. And I hope that the reaction then is to say, ‘I didn’t know that’ and possibly for the reader, ‘I must go and read something about that.’”
  • When I came to England in the late 60s, Sergeant Pepper was ruling the land, de Gaulle was the Great Satan and it was only months before Enoch Powell made his classical allusion to the Tiber. It is right that his speech that night has become a myth of a dark moment in contemporary British culture. His mean and ugly prophecies of bloodshed - rivers frothing with blood, no less - was not simply a mad outburst. It did not come from nowhere...It was no surprise, in the end, that Powell should pluck that evil image from his knowledge of the ancient Mediterranean world to portray the panic that had gripped the country. He was not speaking for himself alone, but he spoke too strongly, abandoning post-imperial euphemisms about non-European foreigners. His eyes flashed with prophetic conviction and suddenly, so it seemed to Ted Heath, the lunacy had gone too far. He sacked him from the shadow cabinet
  • I want to remember the terrible risks people took to escape. We have seen pictures of these people on our television screens, crammed into fishing boats, clinging to the sides of canoes or even crudely lashed bits of wood. I hadn't seen any such pictures when I left Zanzibar and I don't suppose many of the ones we watch staring back at us in terror have either. People take such risks because they fear for their lives. It is an unarguable, terrible thing to be so afraid. I want to remember that, and to remind anyone who is inclined to forget or who has not got around to imagining what it might feel like.
  • What a shock it was to discover the loathing in which I was held: by looks, sneers, words and gestures, news reports, comics on TV, teachers, fellow students. Everybody did their bit and thought themselves tolerant, or perhaps mildly grumbling, or even amusing. At the receiving end, it seemed constant and mean. If there had been anywhere to go to, I would have gone. But I had broken the law in my own country and there was no going back.
  • Now, Britain has seen those despised people become fellow citizens and has learnt tolerance and discrimination in public dealings with them. In this respect, it is a more generous society than the one I first met 30 years ago.
  • We are at that time again. The debate over asylum is twinned with a paranoid narrative of race, disguised and smuggled in as euphemisms about foreign lands and cultural integrity. The Anglo-Saxon species is once again rumoured to be on the verge of extinction, when a glance around the world shows how successfully it has invaded and displaced others. There is a rational and humane way to conduct this debate, just as there was a better way to talk about the arrival of so many non-European people in Britain in the years after 1945. That better way requires knowledge and humanity, not glib and diminishing clichés.
  • For centuries, Britain has been torn between offering asylum and xenophobia to those who have presented themselves in desperation; on average asylum prevailed and has resulted in many gains for British culture. In this, as well as in understanding the circumstances that lie behind refugee desperation, history and patience lead us not to paralysis but to a knowledge of our better selves.

Quotes about Abdulrazak Gurnah

  • He is one of the greatest living African writers...His writing is particularly beautiful and grave and also humorous and kind and sensitive. He’s an extraordinary writer writing about really important things.
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