When I spoke to new Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah, 72, last year for his 10th novel Afterlives, a part of our conversation stuck with me. The Tanzanian had retired as emeritus professor of English and postcolonial literature and was reflecting on his career as a writer and academic. “I’ve been thinking about the various dimensions of colonialism throughout my adult life,” he admitted. “Colonialism transformed everything.”
I began to see his point wherever I looked. In the fallout from Brexit, colonialism was there in the continued belief in British exceptionalism, a state of affairs Sathnam Sanghera so brilliantly explored in his non-fiction book Empireland earlier this year.
On a walk with Anita Sethi recently, where we talked about I Belong Here – her wonderful blend of memoir and nature writing, taking on grief, feminism, mental health, Black Lives Matter and racism – she told me that colonialism and her family history were key. She reminded me of Ambalavaner Sivanandan’s famous phrase: “I am here because you were there.”
When Gurnah won the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday, he became the first black African to do so since Wole Soyinka in 1986. Coincidentally, Soyinka’s new novel deals with the extended fallout of the British involvement in Nigeria; colonialism is indeed everywhere and everything, and Gurnah is its expert chronicler.
As the Nobel jury noted, Gurnah was awarded the prize “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents”.
It’s telling that Gurnah first began to write when his experience closely matched those of his protagonists. He was a refugee in England who had fled the revolution in Zanzibar when people of Arab origin were persecuted in the mid 1960s, and while it took some time for his ideas about the alienation and loneliness of uprooted lives to percolate into a novel, 1987’s Memory of Departure was a promising start. Hassan’s journey from an unnamed, collapsing East African totalitarian state to Kenya – where he believes he might be able to reinvent himself – spoke to the sense of migration as laden with hope and disappointment.
Gurnah’s writing began to be noticed for its texture, too, as he drew on images and stories from the Quran and 1001 Nights, using traces of Arabic and his first language, Swahili. Two further novels, Pilgrim’s Way and Dottie, followed, before his 1994 breakthrough, Paradise.
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize that year, the novel is about a young Muslim boy born in fictional town of Kawa in Tanzania who goes on a trading mission into the country's interior just as the German army begins to sweep into his land. It was a way in which Gurnah could interrogate how societies and cultures collapsed with relative ease against the "colonial infringement".
“What was it that made it possible for colonial powers to walk in with their maps already drawn and say, 'this belongs to us now?” Gurnah told The National last year.
Seven years later, his sixth novel By The Sea also made the Booker longlist, and while these nominations might suggest otherwise, Gurnah has tended to fly under the radar. Commercial success has eluded him in the main.
Perhaps that’s because this quietly-spoken academic has often lived up to the Nobel Prize’s characterisation of his writing as uncompromising. True, the writing can be sombre and grave, but also compassionate and kind. It asks for people to see the other point of view, which in an increasingly polarised world is something of a rarity.
Maybe, too, Gurnah has been characterised as a single issue writer. As Moroccan-American novelist Laila Lalami said after Thursday’s announcement, “the attention on the subject matter of Abdulrazak Gurnah’s work at times takes away from the aesthetic pleasures of his novels, his precise sentences, and his wit”.
It’s also true that Gurnah’s work takes on the big themes of colonialism, dislocation and migration without ever resorting to polemic; it’s the characters in these stories that feel true, not only their wider situations and contexts.
In Afterlives, for example, characters survive war with kindness and hope. "Gentleness and kindness does resonate with people," he said. "It's how we save each other from utter despair and self-destruction. This is what it means to be in a community … people are not always cruel to each other.”
So where to start in Gurnah’s bibliography? As much as it’s tempting to suggest his most famous novel, Paradise, Somali-British author Nadifa Mohamed – up for the Booker herself this year for The Fortune Men – thinks it should start with By The Sea, as she told her Twitter followers on Thursday. Scottish-Sierra Leonean writer Aminatta Forna said the same.
It begins with an old man who arrives in London as a refugee from his corrupt country with nothing but a carved incense box, and one word: “asylum”. His experience in various immigration-holding zones make him realise he hasn’t actually met anyone “who could actually see me”. But Gurnah can – and this book is a paean to friendship and shared experience.
It’s Gurnah’s writing in microcosm; tales of displacement that have a nuanced, transformative and lasting impact. As Anders Olsson, chair of the Nobel committee, put it this week: his work is “an unending exploration driven by intellectual passion.” Quite.