Abdulrazak Gurnah: where to start with the Nobel prize winner

By Maaza Mengiste
Abdulrazak Gurnah, who has been awarded the Nobel prize in literature, in London on Friday.
Abdulrazak Gurnah, who has been awarded the Nobel prize in literature, in London on Friday. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

For more than three decades, Abdulrazak Gurnah has been writing with a quiet and unwavering conviction about those relegated to the forgotten corners of history. Born in Zanzibar in 1948, Gurnah fled political oppression and settled in England at the age of 18. The author of numerous short stories and essays, as well as 10 novels, he has dedicated his writing career to examining the many ways that human beings can find themselves in exile: from their homes, families and communities and, perhaps most importantly, from themselves. His novels unfold in the intimate spaces created by families, companions and friendships: those spaces that are nurtured by love and duty yet rendered vulnerable by their very nature. In book after book, he guides us through seismic historic moments and devastating societal ruptures while gently outlining what it is that keeps those families, friendships and loving spaces intact, if not fully whole.

Many of his books, including his first novel, Memory of Departure (1987), grapple with betrayals and broken promises on the part of the state or those in power, and focus on people who leave home in search of better lives. His second novel, Paradise, which was shortlisted for the 1994 Booker prize, is set just before the first world war and is a heartfelt – and heartbreaking – exploration of the costs of German colonialism and political aggression. In hindsight, it feels like a precursor to his latest novel, Afterlives (2020), which opens in the midst of a 1907 uprising against German colonisers and unfolds to offer us psychologically complex characters who, over generations and through transitions from German to British rule, struggle to maintain their families and communities in a small coastal town in mainland Tanzania.

The Last Gift (2011) and By the Sea (2001), which was longlisted for the 2002 Booker prize and shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times book prize in fiction, imagine the lives of refugees trying to make their homes in England. Through these books, Gurnah questions the meaning of belonging and whether one can ever truly leave the past behind.

Each of Gurnah’s novels focus on the stories of those whose stories might not have made it into the archives or who lack the documents that would make them memorable to the larger world. But these shopkeepers, homemakers, askaris – local soldiers serving in colonial armies - students and refugees all matter to him and in the course of his writing, he makes them meaningful and complicated, and reminds us that every single one is worthy of remembrance.

In recent years, as a series of humanitarian crises has forced desperate people to risk their lives in the hope for greater stability and a better future in Europe, Gurnah’s work has gained greater resonance and importance. In a 2001 essay in the Guardian, he wrote: “The debate over asylum is twinned with a paranoid narrative of race, disguised and smuggled in as euphemisms about foreign lands and cultural integrity.”

Gurnah’s novels insist on stripping this “paranoid” narrative of its power, not by shouting over the debates but by offering that steady, relentless, unflinching voice that soon becomes the only sound one hears.


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