SIBF 2021: Writing the truth helps readers feel more, says Nobel laureate Gurnah

Abdulrazak Gurnah spoke about his Nobel Prize win, the inspiration for his writing and how he got his start at the Sharjah International Book Fair

Photo by M. Sajjad
Photo by M. Sajjad

By SM Ayaz Zakir

Published: Thu 4 Nov 2021, 12:12 PM

When Nobel Prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah received the call from the jury, his first response was: "Is it a joke?"

Gurnah, Tanzanian novelist and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature 2021, spoke at the 40th Sharjah International Book Fair at the Sharjah Expo Centre on the event's opening day. This was his first public appearance following his win.

"There are many who are more deserving than me," he told the audience, calling the Nobel Prize win "unbelievable."

Gurnah, who published his first novel Memories of Departure in 1987, said the book took many drafts and years to complete.

"The first novel took around 12 years," he said. "I had no experience in writing and had to draft many times, along with working and studying."

Several of his novels have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize and Whitbread Award, including Paradise in 1994. By the Sea in 2001, on the other hand, was long-listed for the Booker Prize and short-listed for the LA Times Book Prize. But being awarded the highest honour is on another scale entirely, Gurnah said.

"It's great to be awarded something of the magnitude which everyone in the world talks about," he said. "I had a great time with journalists, answering their questions and posing for photographs."

Regarding his work, Gurnah said he aims to write in detail about new ideas.

"I want my work to be truthful that readers appreciate ... Writing truth means the reader gets to feel what I am talking about," he said.

His inspiration for his works comes from "the air around," he said.

"I write something that I hear in my head. I can even hear my inner voice on the usage of words. Just paying attention to those inner responses is where I get my ideas from," Gurnah said.

But his past also influences his works. Gurnah was only 18 years old when he fled Zanzibar following the revolution and arrived in the UK as a refugee.

"Having gone through so much terror, inequality, injustice and pressure gave me a perfect idea for works on refugees," he said. "Experiencing that in my younger days not only made me courageous, but also showed me the path to follow."

The Nobel winner started writing because he knew he needed to do something.

"Writing was a particular activity that I loved and enjoyed, so that something was writing," he said. "Earlier, we didn't have any courses and wrote here and there and started to draft a lot."


Gurnah is the fourth African to be awarded the Nobel honour. The celebrations didn't just take place in his hometown of Zanzibar. "Whole of Africa celebrated along with the Middle East," he said.

In his concluding statements, Gurnah stressed that he does not aspire to transform anyone or urge people to do something.

"A writer needs to understand where to begin and end. We have to be humble and that comes out of readers' experience and understanding of the book," he said.

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