Abdulrazak Gurnah: A Tribute to the Nobel Prize-Winning Novelist

by Claire Chambers

I was delighted to learn that Abdulrazak Gurnah had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. On 7 October 2021 it was announced that the prize had been bestowed on Prof Gurnah for‘his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.’

My immediate thought after finding out that he had won this ultimate literary accolade was that it couldn’t have happened to a nicer or more grounded writer. In a Tweet that went semi-viral, another colleague, Dr Michael Collins who now works at King’s College London, encapsulated widespread feelings of surprised glee that a man of Gurnah’s humility whose writing is not widely known had won the £840,000: ‘My former colleague at Kent just won the Nobel Prize in Literature! I once hit him with a door’. This humorously bathetic post made me think of the photograph I took to accompany an interview I did with Prof Gurnah over a decade ago, for my book British Muslim Fictions (2011).  In it, Gurnah is tall and dignified, his white hair distinguished over a dark suit jacket and light button-up shirt. What interests me, though, is the humble backdrop. Gurnah stands in front of an ugly Brutalist building at the University of Kent, where he works as Professor of Postcolonial Literature. In the foreground are garish plastic safety barriers, temporarily fencing off some roadworks. This, then, is a novelist whose high standards for his writing never shade into elitism or pretentiousness.

I wrote to congratulate him on this richly-deserved achievement. In these dark days of the Covid-19 pandemic, it felt great to have some good news to celebrate for a change. As well as our interview, we had got to know each other a bit more at a talk of his which I moderated at Nottingham Contemporary in 2013. In this post, I would like to provide some short reflections about his body of fiction, reflections which are informed by the interview and talk.

Abdulrazak Gurnah was born in Zanzibar in 1948, but emigrated to Britain in 1968. This migration was in part impelled by the hardships and state-sponsored terror that he and his family experienced there in the 1960s. A few months after Zanzibar peacefully achieved independence from British colonial rule in 1963, it underwent a revolution. The revolution was inflected by African, socialist, and Muslim ideologies, and next the country was forcibly brought together with Tanganyika to become Tanzania. In his essay ‘An Idea of the Past’, Gurnah writes that during the presidentship of Abeid Karume ‘the category “Arab” had been used to dispossess, expel, and murder thousands of people who had had a different idea of who they were, that is, they were Zanzibaris’. As a member of this group of hybrid Zanzibari Arabs, Gurnah seeks to complicate any easy nostalgia for the precolonial past. In many of his ten novels to date, he examines the issue of longstanding inter-ethnic conflict and exploitation, as well as intermixture and tolerance, between the myriad groups found in parts of East Africa fringing the Indian Ocean. Yet he shows the Europeans’ colonial divide-and-rule tactics and continuing colour and cultural racisms to have caused greater harm to African societies than any local dispute or abuse. Another of Gurnah’s pressing thematic concerns is to explore themes of migration, displacement, and crossings both within East Africa, and from Zanzibar to Europe (particularly to Britain and, to a lesser extent, Germany).

As well as Gurnah’s ten novels to date, he has also published a two-volume study of African writing and an edited collection on Salman Rushdie’s fiction, which derive from his other career as a professor. Gurnah’s role as an academic intersects with his writing and many of his characters are either lecturers or teachers. Furthermore, he quite often satirizes the discipline of English. We see such satire at work in the portrayal of the narrator’s girlfriend, the Austenian-named Emma Willoughby in Admiring Silence, who is doing an almost incomprehensible PhD in ‘the semiotics of dedicated narrative’; the lampooning of the ‘absurd vanity’ of university websites in Desertion; or the academic boyfriend of the protagonist’s daughter in The Last Gift, who uses conferences as a cover for adultery.

In ‘Writing and Place’, Gurnah describes how he ‘stumbled into’ writing in his early twenties out of his experiences in the postwar Britain of ‘imperialism, … dislocation, … the realities of our times’. His first novel, Memory of Departure (1987) was circulated to various publishers, eventually being picked up by Jonathan Cape when the author was almost 40. As its title suggests, the novel scrutinizes the abandonment of one’s homeland, and its permanent loss in all but memory and storytelling: concerns which resonate throughout his oeuvre. However, the ‘departure’ in question is not a journey from Zanzibar to the West but an internal displacement within East Africa. The protagonist, Hassan, journeys to Nairobi from the coastal region further east. Along the way he meets the charismatic, dissembling figure of Moses, who falsely claims to be a literature student and expounds on urban virtues while belittling Hassan’s small-town milieu. Hassan visits his rich, patronizing uncle, Ahmed, and falls in love with Ahmed’s daughter, Salma. This causes him to be expelled from their paradisiacal house to make the reverse journey back to respite at home with family in Zanzibar. Throughout Memory of Departure, Gurnah explores different sides of Muslim identity through images of angels recording deeds, a violent Qur’anic school, and a tranquil mosque.

The next two novels, Pilgrims Way (1988) and Dottie (1990) document racism and mixed-heritage relationships in a postwar Britain characterized by immigration and fearful, hate-filled discourses on its impact, such as Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech of 1968, and the racism promulgated by the National Front and others in the 1970s and 1980s. I wrote at some length about Pilgrims Way in my 2015 book Britain Through Muslim Eyes.

Gurnah’s early work is uncompromising in its suggestion that British society and its institutions, in part because of their imperial past, are pervasively racist, rather than the cosier view that racism is confined to a bigoted minority. Gurnah shows how racism operates through microaggressions, apparent humour and insidious gibes, which are equally as psychologically damaging as more overt acts of racism. For example, at the beginning of Gurnah’s fifth novel, Admiring Silence (1996), a white doctor makes stereotypical assumptions about Black people’s health, breezily remarking that ‘Afro-Caribbean people have dickey hearts’. The unnamed protagonist is not, however, from the Caribbean, but is instead an ‘Indian Ocean lad’. The doctor thus ignores differences between various Black ethnicities and contexts out of a casual racism. Similarly, the narrator’s father-in-law, Mr Willoughby, unwittingly insults him in almost every sentence, with self-satisfied remarks such as, ‘I suppose we’ve given your country independence. Do you think it’s too soon?’

Gurnah’s fourth novel, Paradise (1994), was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and represents at once a rewriting of the Qur’anic story of Yusuf/Joseph, and a pessimistic account of the colonization of East Africa in the late nineteenth century. In Gurnah’s richly resonant chapter, ‘A Clot of Blood’, the good-looking rehani (slave-boy), Yusuf, faces attempted seduction by the vampiric older woman, Zulekha. As in Surah Yusuf, Yusuf’s innocence is proven by the fact that Zulekha tore Yusuf’s shirt at the back when he was running away from her, yet in this corrupt, hierarchical society, the evidence counts for little. In contrast with Surah Yusuf’s concluding optimism, when the young man’s steadfast faith is rewarded in his return to his family, Gurnah’s Yusuf makes the cowardly, if understandable decision to abandon Amina, the woman he loves. Instead, he despairingly joins the ruthless German colonizers he had once despised. As can be seen, this Surah lends itself well to discussions of migration, exile, slavery, and the position of women.

Gurnah frequently wrongfoots readers, subverting their expectations of the narrative’s likely shape. His sixth novel By the Sea (2001), for example, begins with an image of an asylum seeker in Britain, but ultimately deals more closely with issues relating to memory and ideas of home. Largely narrated by the elderly, unreliable Zanzibari, Saleh Omar, By the Sea’s plot focuses on how this man comes to be seeking refuge in Britain, and his connections with Latif Mahmud, a well-established lecturer and poet at the University of London. Saleh initially finds accommodation in the small English seaside town of the title. His boarding house is run by Celia, a landlady to migrants. Celia outlines a myth of national hospitality that she believes derives from Britain ‘help[ing]’ other countries during the Second World War. She only lazily differentiates between a Czech Roma and a Kosovan tenant, tetchily positioning both as generic victims of ‘terrible … bloodlust’. However, Celia treats the Eastern Europeans better than Saleh because they are white, thus exposing the racism that lies behind her ‘hospitality’. In contrast to Celia’s reductionism towards her tenant, the complex circumstances that have caused Latif’s enmity towards Saleh are revealed via a casket of incense, ud-al-qamari. This was gifted him by Hussein, a scheming Persian trader who seduced Latif’s mother and brother. Hussein also passed on to Saleh a loan owed him by Latif’s father, which leads to Saleh taking possession of Latif’s family home, a situation for which the younger man mistakenly accords Saleh full blame.

Gurnah’s subsequent novel, Desertion (2005) similarly confounds first impressions. It appears to be about Martin Pearce, a relatively non-coercive Orientalist, who falls in love with a Zanzibari shopkeeper’s daughter, the deserted wife Rehana. However, the narrative leaves Martin and Rehana’s mixed-race relationship hanging, and moves forward to the 1950s and 1960s to describe the thwarted love affair of Rehana’s daughter Jamila with a boy, Amin, and the migration of his brother, Rashid, to England. Desertion is, among other things, a book about books (Melville, P. B. Shelley, Edward Lane, qasidas, Shaaban Roberts and Othello are just some of its intertexts); the sun setting on colonialism; and identity (the novel centres more on communitarian than on individual identity). At various moments during the narrative, there are meditations on aspects of Islam, as in discussion of a conflict between prayer and love; the socialist government’s corruption driving people to the mosque; and Amin being taken for a religious man after his disappointment with Jamila, when in fact he believes that ‘there is nothing out there’.

Gurnah’s The Last Gift (2011) centres on the  sexagenarian protagonist, Abbas, who collapses from undiagnosed late-onset diabetes at the start of the novel. He subsequently suffers several strokes, and his illness encourages him to reassess the life he now considers ‘as useless as a life can be’. His wife, Maryam, is a foundling apparently of Muslim heritage who was fostered by couples who treated her with varying degrees of neglect and cruelty, until she met and ran away with the 34-year-old Abbas while still in her teens. Now Maryam takes a job at the local refugee centre in order to support her bed-ridden husband. This plot strand enables Gurnah to develop his exploration of the predicament of asylum seekers, first begun in By the Sea. There is no single pattern in Gurnah’s depictions of Islam and, by removing Muslims from the position of ‘other’, the novelist asserts the right to explore his religious background, but equally to disregard, satirize, challenge, and celebrate it. Abbas nostalgically recalls that in Zanzibar, ‘we all lived together in peace, in a forbearing society as only Muslims know how, even though among us were people of many religions and races’. Yet stories and identities are rarely what they appear to be in The Last Gift, and carefully guarded secrets abound. Clearly visible beneath this patina of multiple clandestine narratives, Gurnah has created a novel replete with black humour, contemplative politics, and great generosity.

Gravel Heart came out in 2017, and is another novel that pivots on a skeleton in the closet. In this case it is the mysterious separation of Salim’s parents when he is young. When the young man comes of age he moves to Britain for higher education in literature. There he feels unmoored from both the new home and his former life, but he also learns what had transpired to end his parents’ marriage. As its title indicates, Gravel Heart may in some ways be interpreted as a writing back to Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, with its line, spoken by Duke Vincento, about a liminal, migrant-like figure whose in-betweenness makes him seem ‘unfit to live or die. O, gravel heart’.

Afterlives is Gurnah’s most recent novel, published during the Covid-19 pandemic in September 2020. This is a sprawling family saga all about German colonizing efforts in the African continent whose violence is then brought home to Europe. At one point, a German pastor remarks dismissively that Zanzibar ‘is a place of no significance whatsoever in the history of human achievement or endeavour. You could tear this page out of human history and it would not make a difference to anything. You can understand why people can live contentedly in such a place, even though they are plagued by so many diseases’. In his writing, Gurnah sticks the African page back into human history as determinedly as it had been ripped out by the brutal European empires. What is more, the timing of this novel’s publication is striking. Though he was writing before coronavirus took hold, in Afterlives the author has much of value to say about the endemic health problems and intermittent epidemics that have tormented the African continent over the last 150 years or so.

To conclude, Gurnah is an early Anglophone writers to have charted the experiences of Muslims living in Britain and their connections elsewhere. Gurnah was discussing Muslimness, religion, race, gender, class, and their complex intersectionality before Salman Rushdie controversially brought these issues under the spotlight during the furore over the publication of his The Satanic Verses in 1988.

Gurnah is also a preeminent writer of Indian Ocean literature. He takes a balanced approach to forms of oppression that predate European colonialism, representing, for instance, tensions between Africans and the descendants of Arab colonizers, and the fraught issue of African involvement in slavery. Especially in Paradise and Desertion, Gurnah depicts linked townships along the Indian Ocean as comprising a littoral zone of culture. In his writing the Zanzibari novelist indicates that cosmopolitan, interconnected cities lined the shores of the Indian Ocean, but were in many ways remote from the more monocultural rural hinterlands further inland.

His novels are always complex, subverting expectations and denying the singularity of one focalizer in favour of many perspectives. In them, Gurnah regularly grapples with the issue of (cultural) translation from one language and society into another, very different one. This is a writer who wears his learning lightly and always conveys his warm humanity and his interest, above all, in people.