For Gurnah, the best part of winning the Nobel Prize has been to see how much happiness it has brought to people around the world, most of whom he does not even know
ABDUL Razak Gurnah is a man of very calm and composed demeanour. His delight upon his surprise win of the 2021 Nobel Prize for literature is not immediately obvious. And this is a writer who writes explicitly and intensively about the passionate emotions of his novels’ protagonists.
On October 8, the 72-year-old Gurnah received a call from an unidentified number at his Kent home in the United Kingdom. Thinking it was just another cold caller he blurted, “What do you want?” The person on the line informed him he had won this year’s Nobel Prize for literature. Convinced that it was a prank as he was not even aware of his nomination, he only believed the news once the announcement appeared on his computer screen!
Only the fourth person of African descent to win this prestigious prize in its 120-year history in this category, in less than a month since the announcement, Gurnah’s life has changed forever. His 10 novels to date, After Life, being the latest one printed last year, have received high critical acclaim but limited readership, which is definitely set to change. According to the Nobel Committee, his prize’s motivation is “his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”
For Gurnah, the best part of winning the Nobel Prize has been to see how much happiness it has brought to people around the world, most of whom he does not even know. When he reads about celebrations being held in his native Zanzibar, in different parts of Africa and the Arab world, in the UK etc. it greatly delights him.
Born in the Sultanate of Zanzibar, Gurnah migrated to the United Kingdom in the late 1960s as an 18-year-old refugee, fleeing the bloody revolution on his native island. “At that time I would have been nervous about using the word refugee; at that time it seemed to me a noble word. So what I mean by that is that a refugee is somebody who has suffered either for political or other reasons. To claim to be one of those when you are well and healthy and have travelled on plane to get to where are seemed to me kind of a melodrama, making too much of what had happened to us. But maybe it was a kind of modesty which wasn’t necessary,” he says.
Gurnah makes Saleh Omar, the old man in his most famous work, By the Sea, claim that he’s a refugee when he arrives at Gatwick Airport. In other words, he claims something noble. For 18-year-old Gurnah, leaving Zanzibar wasn’t a matter of life and death. It was a matter of wanting to be fulfilled and like so many young people risking their lives in apparently reckless manoeuvres to getaway. “It’s that kind of feeling, that kind of desire, it’s not that I will die if I stay here, I am, but I want to better this and I think I can find it somewhere else,” he explains.
In one of his first major public appearances since his win, Gurnah on Wednesday night spoke to a large audience about his literary journey in the UK on the first day of the 40th edition of Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF). Organised by the Sharjah Book Authority, SIBF is one of the world’s largest book fairs.
How Gurnah came to become a novelist is purely unintentional. He insists he was just writing and writing and then came to a point where he asked himself, what was he doing? And thenceforth his work started becoming a bit more concrete. It took him 12 years to get his first book, Memory of Departure, published.
“When I began writing, there weren’t any creative writing courses but probably I wouldn’t have gone to one anyway. I was quite secretive about it. Once you join a creative writing course, you are already announcing your ambitions. You are saying I would like to be a writer. I don’t think I would I have had the nerve to say that’s what I am going to do,” he explains.
Gurnah’s writings primarily revolve around journeys and evolution. “The small island of Zanzibar where I grew up is a part of a web of journeys — historical, cultural, linguistic, and so on — going back and forth across the Indian Ocean. I lived a few yards from the Malindi port and when these guys arrived from places like Somalia, Muscat etc. that’s how they came into Zanzibar. And indeed in the house that I lived in, I could see the sea and the port from almost any window so the sea was always present in my life.”
Having lived most of his adult life in Europe, Gurnah says there is no simple answer as to why attitudes towards refugees and asylum seekers have still not changed. “It seems every now and again you’re asked [if] things have gotten better since you first came in the UK in the late 1960s, and you say well yes in some ways. In the 1960s, there was a great hostility towards the Caribbean migrants and Indian and Pakistani migrants. Well that gradually for various reasons subsided. Now the children of those migrants are in major government positions. On the other hand, every few years you get another manic crisis – a few years ago it was the Roma people from Eastern Europe and lately it’s Syrians. The response is not just from ordinary people saying we don’t want this or that group to come to our country. But the press is orchestrated to make sure that the hostility continues. But they are not doing it entirely for the fun of it. They are doing it because they are playing to a gallery in order to incite these responses.”
Gurnah says writing about it in various ways, fiction as well as journalism, from his point of view helps to bridge a gap. That is to say that whenever people observe some degree of hostility towards immigrants and refugees, instead of saying this is wrong, they say nothing because they do not know better. “It’s not that they are ignorant; they don’t have the knowledge to say this is not right because they only hear one voice of this hostile press. So this is where fiction can bridge that gap.
“Migration is a global phenomenon that has been going on for centuries. But popular opinion doesn’t know that. So it seems I think this is one of the ways in which fiction can bridge the gap,” he adds.
Having said that, Gurnah is clear that the core of his writing ambition is not to transform anybody or to make somebody do anything particular. He feels as a writer he can’t begin by saying this is what he aims to achieve with his writing; he has to begin in a more humble place, truthfully and clearly and make it as beautiful as he can. “If the result of that is a more perceptive and acceptant reader then I’m fortunate. And if that’s the case then the reader is fortunate as well. But this can only be out of the reader’s experience and understanding.”