SIBF 2021: 'I took it as a joke', says Abdulrazak Gurnah on the call announcing his Nobel win

'The most satisfying thing is to join the list of all those people who I have a great admiration for'

KT/M Sajjad
KT/M Sajjad

Anamika Chatterjee

Published: Thu 4 Nov 2021, 12:58 PM

Last updated: Thu 4 Nov 2021, 3:34 PM

Abdulrazak Gurnah was only 18 when he had to leave Zanzibar, following a revolution, and found another home in the UK. The idea of picking up the pieces and restarting life, the pain of being uprooted and bloody ramifications of colonialism are themes he keeps revisiting often in his fiction. Recently, he became the first Tanzanian writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature for an “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fates of refugees in the gulf between cultures and continents”. Following this announcement, the demand for his books — that once enjoyed select readership — have suddenly shot up. In the UAE top attend the 40th edition of Sharjah International Book Fair, Gurnah talks about this recent surge of interest in his work, and why it’s important to view history critically to make sense of the present

What does winning a Nobel change for the writer within?

The first, or rather the main, thing you think of is who has won it in the past. The most satisfying thing is to join the list of all those people who I have a great admiration for. That’s from the writer’s point of view. It is also an honour that I had never envisaged. I know some writers hanker for it. The surprise is an extra delight — not expecting it, not even wishing for it in a way makes it all the more pleasurable. Which is why I suppose many people remember me saying in an interview that when I was first received a call, I took it as a joke. Your question is a good one — to think what it changes in a writer. For the writer, it’s the same, it’s just that it is wonderful to be put in that company.

2. Your work primarily revolves around colonialism and the psychology of the migrant. In the popular domain, are we in denial about the impact colonialism has had on modern society?

I don’t know who that ‘we’ would be. There is obviously some kind of denial from the point of view of the former imperial nations — not everybody, but at least some of them. In popular sense, there is quite probably a feeling ‘Why are we still talking about this?’. Part of the reason is, well, we have not talked about it properly, or talked about it in a simplifying, national aggrandising sort of way. I feel people who have been formerly colonised need to be reminded of this. Perhaps in some cases, they need to be reminded of the ramifications so that they can assess what their current governments are doing. Also, there needs to be an understanding of what colonialism did to our neighbours, and what it did to others like us, and the different ways in which it worked. It’s important to remember the specificity of that experience. We will understand ourselves better if we had a greater interest in it.

UAE: Writing the truth helps readers feel more, says Nobel laureate Gurnah

3. Prior to the Nobel, you had select readership. In an interview, you said while you are content with your readership, you could do with more. Today, the demand for your books have shot up. All of a sudden, there is greater demand and possibly short supply. How do you feel about this sudden surge of interest in your work?

It is a gratifying thing to think that the books will now be read by more people in so many different languages. I am very sorry to those people who want to buy my books but cannot get them. If they had given my publishers a few months’ warning, this wouldn’t have happened (laughs). But it doesn’t happen like that. One day, an announcement is made, and the next day, thousands of people want copies of your book. I believe the publishers are rushing as many copies as they can. They are happy to be in a situation where they are forced to publish more books, and so am I.

4. What are the perils of constantly revisiting a past that’s fraught with various complexities?

I do feel there are issues I am happy to go back to again and again. For me, the dynamic of writing is that once I have finished writing, if I feel I have not dealt with something, it becomes the subject of the next book I write. It is about circling around an area. I think this is what happens with writers of a certain kind anyway. The subject and issues are not going to be fresh and new every time. You will keep returning to subjects that interest you in different ways and through different perspectives.

5. You left Zanzibar at the age of 18 and returned only after 17 years by which time you had begun writing. How was it to view Zanzibar through a writer’s lens?

I hadn’t published anything then. I went back for the first time in 1984. By then, I had already begun work on my first book. So yes, I was too deep in the process of writing. It took a little while for me to write it. I went back several times, and out of those visits came Paradise (1994). It allowed me to revisit and re-engage, to walk around, listen to stories, it reinvigorated my memories. It made me feel as though it was my right to write about what happened because ordinarily when you live far away, you are made to believe it’s probably not your subject.

6. What is it about fiction that you find liberating when addressing the ‘past’?

I think it’s important to envision certain historical moments which historians and scholars do write about, but in the popular sense, these are vaguely understood. I love to intervene there. But, of course, I don’t just write historical fiction. I also write about contemporary issues. I do find pleasure in writing fiction that’s perhaps greater than writing academically. Since I retired as an academic, I have found myself quite happy when writing fiction.

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