Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah
Exile, migration and the art of writing

The Tanzanian-born Nobel Prize winner talks to Annabelle Steffes-Halmer about his decision to leave Zanzibar, to write in English – and about the rise of African writers in the post-colonial era

Born in 1948 in Zanzibar in Tanzania, Abdulrazak Gurnah's roundabout life journey is reflected in his novels, in stories full of longing, poetry and the desire for change that range between countries, continents and identities. 

His semi-autobiographical novels recount Tanzania's struggle for independence, the rise of Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, a socialist, and Zanzibar's first president, Abeid Karume, who targeted the Arab-descended population of the former Sultanate. Gurnah is of Arab ancestry and fled into exile in England in 1968 before earning a degree from the University of London. Most recently, he taught English and postcolonial literature at the University of Kent. 

Meanwhile, Abdulrazak Gurnah's 10 novels have made him one of Africa's most celebrated writers, and earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021. He was honoured "for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents".

"You don't know what you're giving up"

At the beginning of your 2001 novel, By the Sea, we meet protagonist Saleh Omar at Gatwick Airport as he seeks refuge in Great Britain. You did the same over 50 years ago. What did you experience back then?

Abdulrazak Gurnah: I was an 18-year-old young man leaving Zanzibar, in the state that Zanzibar was in 1967: it was a terrifying place for a lot of people. Our government, our authorities were still on a punitive rage of all kinds against the whole population. Many people were driven away by circumstances because their parents were persecuted or imprisoned, or in some cases killed, but also sometimes simply because they frightened everybody.

Julius Nyere (centre) becomes the first president after Tanzania's independence in 1961 (photo: United Archives International)
Tanzania's first president Julius Nyerere (centre) was socialist-oriented. But local rulers were playing their own game. Zanzibar's ruler Abeid Karume pursued a cruel Africanisation of the island, targeting mainly the Arab-descended part of the population. "Zanzibar was a terrifying place for a lot of people," says Nobel prizewinner Abdelrazak Gurnah. "Our government, our authorities were still on a punitive rage of all kinds against the whole population. Many people were driven away by circumstances because their parents were persecuted or imprisoned, or in some cases killed, but also sometimes simply because they frightened everybody." In 1968 Gurnah left his country for exile in London, tired of being pushed around and convinced he could make a better life for himself elsewhere. "But what you don't realise in those situations is what it is that you're giving up ... that you're leaving behind. So going to England was like an adventure in some ways, but it was also a great loss"

When you're young, you think: "I'm not putting up with this. I can do better than this. I don't want to be stuck here with these bullies." It's a kind of defiance. But what you don't realise in those situations is what it is that you're giving up ... that you're leaving behind. So going to England was like an adventure in some ways, but it was also a great loss.

You have been living in Great Britain for five decades now. Do you feel like you are a British or an African author?

Abdulrazak Gurnah:  My identity is that I am a man from Zanzibar who lives in the UK and I write. I don't say, I'm an African writer or I'm a British writer. I'm from Zanzibar and I live in the UK. I'm from both of these places in any possible way you can think of. If people want to use a more specific expression or description, that's fine. If identity is a way of reducing a person's being to something simplified, I'm not interested, but I won't deny others the pleasure of doing so.

Why did you decide to write in English?

Abdulrazak Gurnah: The simple answer is because I wanted to. But in a more complicated way, it's a language which, just by chance, I learnt and felt very comfortable in. Swahili was bestowed on me because of the way I was brought up and I am very grateful for that.

When it came to writing, I didn't really think about what language I wanted to write in. I kind of understood and knew that I had an intimate connection and relationship with the way I used English that I didn't quite have in writing Swahili. People who write in Swahili do things with the language that I simply can't.

These are not always choices. People do not choose to be writers. It's not just a matter of putting words together. It's a matter of having a real kind of connection and intimate feel for language. That is what makes writing. I have that and I am grateful for it.

Some of Gurnah's ten novels published to date (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Abdulrazak Gurnah's 10 novels have made him one of Africa's most celebrated writers, and earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021. He was honoured "for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents"

In 2021, important literary prizes went to authors from sub-Saharan Africa. You received the Nobel Prize for Literature, while Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, was awarded the Prix Goncourt. Is the world now more receptive to African writers?  

Abdulrazak Gurnah:  The reason these prizes have been awarded to these materials is because of the quality of the writing. And that's why I'm saying it's a coincidence. It's not that the world has suddenly woken up.

African authors were denied the ability to create works of literary value during the colonial era. Yet literature, or writing in general, is integral to the struggle for decolonisation. Could you give some examples of this?

Abdulrazak Gurnah:  You can point to many examples of that: many people during the decolonising period in Africa referred to Gandhi, for example, or civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King or South African writers like Nelson Mandela. It is the capacity of writing to disseminate beyond borders that then reaches people in similar circumstances who are enlightened, illuminated, inspired – and see that as an example of what they themselves might do.

Interview conducted by Annabelle Steffes-Halmer

© Deutsche Welle 2022

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