Abdulrazak Gurnah on the 'long and arduous' journey to becoming a Nobel laureate

The Tanzanian-born author gave a talk on the opening day of the Sharjah International Book Fair to discuss his works and win

Abdulrazak Gurnah often reflects on the traumatic effects of colonialism and the refugee experience in his works. All photos Ruel Pableo for The National
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In the mid-1980s, Abdulrazak Gurnah was on the verge of calling it quits as a professional writer.

The Zanzibar-born author was almost a decade into trying to publish his first novel, Memory of Departure, when, in a last-ditch effort, he sent a manuscript to Jonathan Cape, the UK company famous for publishing such writers as James Joyce and Ian Fleming.

“It was like a suicide note, an act of recklessness,” Gurnah said during his talk at the Sharjah International Book Fair on Wednesday. “I figured if they refused as well, I’ll just stick it under the bed.”

Gurnah, in his late thirties at the time, was fully prepared to receive another impersonal rejection, and in his mind it had already been interred with the stack of others he had received over the years.

But Jonathan Cape took a chance on Memory of Departure, and the novel was published in 1987. The book, which tells the story of a Muslim man who leaves his unnamed African homeland to live in Kenya, was praised by The New York Times for being a “compelling study of one man's struggle to find a purpose for his life and a haunting portrait of a traditional society collapsing under the weight of poverty and rapid change”.

Memory of Departure established Gurnah as a fascinating new voice in English literature, but the novel was far from a commercial success. It was, however, enough to encourage Gurnah to carry on writing fiction. A year later, he published his second novel, Pilgrims Way, and in 1994 his fourth book, Paradise, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize – an accolade that brought him some international recognition.

Gurnah published six more novels in the next 27 years. His works investigate the traumatic effects of colonialism and the refugee experience. They often feature Tanzanian immigrants trying to establish their lives in the UK while facing systemic racism and marginalisation – struggles Gurnah himself has witnessed and lived through.

His writing has been celebrated by critics – his 2001 novel By the Sea was longlisted for the Booker Prize that year – but Gurnah was far from a cosmopolitan name. That is, until four weeks ago when he was awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature. Almost overnight Gurnah and his works became a globally ubiquitous literary topic.

The SIBF, taking place at the Expo Centre Sharjah until Saturday, November 13, is the first public literary event Gurnah has attended since winning the Nobel Prize.

“Time has mashed up a bit since then,” he tells The National ahead of his talk. “Partly because there have been so many requests for interviews, people want to congratulate, a lot of emails and interest from publishers. There’s a lot going on.”

Gurnah admits that the trajectory between his early days as a writer and becoming a Nobel laureate has been “long and arduous”. It is, perhaps, the only thing he would tell his younger self if he were to have the Borgesian opportunity to meet him – to warn him of the road ahead and “how much determination is required to keep on doing it".

Writing has been a lifelong interest for Gurnah, but he only began considering it as a tool for self-reflection after he arrived in the UK.

He left his native Zanzibar in the mid-1960s at the age of 18, as the country was being ravaged by a revolution and people of Arab origin were being persecuted. Facing the challenges of life as a refugee and trying to set up in a new country, Gurnah says writing fiction was “not an obvious thing to do” at the time.

“There was a desire to play things down, not to make too much drama out of one’s life, and there was just so much else to think about, how to live, how to avoid hostility.”

He says he instead began to write as a way of “coming to understand” these experiences. Even then, writing was a personal endeavour for him – something he was hesitant to let other people know about.

It would take years for Gurnah to use his experiences as fodder for fiction and for his novels to become considered as illuminating chronicles of dislocation and migration, probing into colonialism’s lasting and nuanced effects. These are themes, Gurnah says, he will carry on exploring in his writing – whenever he gets the chance to get back to his desk.

“Colonialism is very much still with us in the walls and contentions between people’s economies, cultures and languages,” he says, before quickly stating: “The experience of colonialism, depending on who’s the coloniser and who is being colonised, is not the same. There are some overlapping features, but it’s important to know what is not the same about these experiences.”

Gurnah’s Nobel win means mainstream recognition for many of the issues he highlights in his works. However, he is cautious to label it a victory against these issues, saying the forces that work to segment the population and instil fear and suspicion will hardly be thwarted by his works – Nobel winning or not.

“It’s not going to persuade the people who make decisions, I don’t think,” he says. “European governments, even those who are inclined to think humanely, are prevented by their own powerful media. The press is constantly inciting [people] to think angrily about the presence of strangers. I don’t really expect that what I write will persuade those people, but perhaps it will inform or persuade people who are simply acting out of lack of knowledge.”

Gurnah’s latest release is the 2020 novel Afterlives, and it picks up on a number of themes found in his past work. The novel tells the story of Hamza, who is sold into the Schutztruppe Askari (the German colonial troops) and returns to the town of his childhood utterly traumatised. There, he meets Afiya, a young girl battling societal expectations, and slowly finds purpose, friendship and love.

Gurnah says he was writing a new novel when he got the fateful call from the Swedish Academy, and hasn’t been able to go back to it since.

“It’s going to be a while before I can return to that,” he says, tight-lipped about the novel’s premise. “I hope sooner rather than later, but we’ll have to see."

Updated: November 10, 2021, 6:12 AM