Interview: Tanzanian-born novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah, a Nobel laureate

JUN 26, 2022 LISTEN

Abdulrazak Gurnah was born in 1948 in Zanzibar, Tanzania, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021. He taught for a long time at the University of Kent in Great Britain and is the author of 10 novels, including "Près de la Mer", which received the RFI Témoin du Monde (World Witness) award in 2007. Three of his novels have been translated into French and are published by Denoël.

Gurnah spoke to Catherine Fruchon-Toussaint on RFI's book show Littérature sans Frontières. The interview has been edited for clarity.

RFI: You won the prestigious Nobel Prize for Literature 2021. But your name is also familiar to our listeners because in 2007 you received the RFI Témoin du Monde prize for your novel "Près de la Mer" (By the Sea). What do you remember about this award? 

AG: Very pleasant memories. I remember coming to the studios to be interviewed and then the presentation of the prize itself. And it was a great pleasure.

RFI: Do you have any particular links to France?

AG: I'm here because by my work is being reissued now in French, so that's special enough. Otherwise I'm just a neighbour.

RFI: You quote the poet Rimbaud in one of your novels and you even use some French expressions. So I was wondering if you had a particular connection to French literature and culture?

AG: Not so much the French language, but of course there are many works of French literature which are available to us in translation, and that's the beautiful thing about literature. Even if it's not in a language that you can read, if it's great enough, sooner or later it becomes available to us in all different languages. So I am familiar with many French works, but not in the original.

RFI: One of your characters is a great fan of [Senegalese poet Léopold Sédar] Senghor. Do you also admire him?

AG: Yes. I've read and studied his work and taught his work, and quoted his work in "Desertion". There's a poem of his called "New York" and it describes with great enthusiasm, with almost ecstatic joy, the speaker's arrival in New York during the period of the Harlem Renaissance. So yes he's a very important poet.

RFI: You've written 10 novels, last October you received the Nobel prize for literature – most famous and prestigious award. How did you react when you heard?

AG: Well, there's a reaction, which is to be completely surprised, which is not necessarily the gut reaction, but rather the reaction to the phone call thinking, "Is this real? Is this a joke?" But after that, it became clear that it was true. I was very proud and honoured to be awarded this prize and to be invited to join this this group of writers many of whose work I've admired for years.

RFI: Do writers dream of winning the Nobel Prize for Literature? 

AG: Well, I don't know, because I didn't dream of it. It wasn't in my mind.

RFI: Was this recognition even more valuable, given you are only the sixth writer from the African continent to receive the award?

AG: Yes, it is significant. This is clear from the response, the joy with which it was received by many people in various parts of Africa. And that made me extremely happy. Of course it was also received with joy by people who I'm glad to say had been reading my work already, to whom I was not a new writer. So they too are happy. And in fact, one of the best things about the prize was just to see how many people joined me in the celebration and their happiness. 

RFI: The Swedish Academy honoured you for your "uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism" and that your novels recoil from stereotypical descriptions and "open our eyes to a curious, culturally diverse East Africa, unknown to many in other parts of the world". Did you recognise yourself in this tribute?

AG: Yes, of course. I think it's perfectly true. They have to produce a paragraph or so to say why they have chosen this writer in many cases. In my case, you know, my work is now 10 different novels. So they have to find a way of summarising. And I think this is fair and reasonable. Because that's what struck them as being the most prominent quality in the work. Other people have remarked on this and said, "But there is more than that!" And I think that's true, but in a sense the statement from the Swedish Academy cannot go on for page after page. It can only be one particular aspect of the work that they want to focus on. But I'm sure they too would say that there are many other things in the work that they liked.

RFI: The phrase about how your novels "open our eyes to an East Africa unknown to many in other parts of the world," do you feel your literature allows us to discover a part of the world that doesn't feature enough in books? 

AG: Yes. And I think this is [part of] the great value of the Nobel Prize in particular, because it's a global phenomenon. People who may not have heard or know nothing of our part of the world, let alone of this writer, or who have known nothing about some of the episodes, historical or contemporary that I write about, it opens up a whole new part of the world. And this in part is one of the things we gain from literature, from writing. That is to say we get news of other places and we learn in quite a deep way about people in different places. But then the most amazing thing of all is that when we do learn all that, we realise that they're not that different from ourselves.

RFI:  How did people in Tanzania, your native country, react?

AG: It was excellent, terrific. I don't know where to begin, really. I mean, almost the same day I got a congratulation message from the president of Tanzania, then from the president of Zanzibar, from people. There were recorded interviews on Zoom because at that time it wasn't possible to travel. I just returned from Zanzibar two weeks ago. It was the first time I've been able to travel there since I was given the award, partly because of Covid and partly because of other commitments. The welcome was just tremendous, right from the moment the plane landed until I left, it was terrific. Everybody is so happy.

RFI: Did you return to Tanzania regularly before receiving the Nobel Prize, or was it a chance to renew ties?

AG: It varied when my parents were alive. I would probably have gone back maybe every couple of years. But then after my mother passed away, it was perhaps less frequent. My wife comes from the Caribbean, so we also go to the Caribbean sometimes; we go to Zanzibar sometimes. Whenever I feel the desire or the need to go, I go.

RFI: You've written something like: "I am from there. In my head. That's where I live." It's as if you had two parallel existences, one in Britain and one in Tanzania. Is that the case?

AG: That's correct. And I think it's probably a very common condition for people who lived a reasonable number of years of their lives in what might be their ancestral home, and then leave. So much of what we are is formed in those years. And I think it's not at all uncommon. People tell me this as I meet people and speak to them. They say, "Yes it's exactly the same for me". And it doesn't have to be such a distant difference or separation. Sometimes they say, “I come from Holland and I know exactly what you mean". So I think it's probably a common condition that people are able, or even prefer, to live in two places – to live in one place in their imagination, even while they're in practice living in another place. Certainly, I have found in my experience that it's both irresistible and also just a pleasure to be able to see myself in different ways.

RFI: This is perhaps precisely what literature allows: to be in two worlds, two places at the same time.

AG: Maybe even three places. I think it gives me an added benefit in the way that I write in English. But some of the formulations come to me perhaps in a different language, and certainly they're related to a different reality. And this makes everything a little bit more complicated and perhaps more interesting for me.

RFI: The book "Farewell Zanzibar" [talks about] the history of Tanzania, forced or voluntary exile, the impacts of colonisation, the loneliness and suffering of women and men when their society, culture, religion, even their gender, locks them in mental prisons. Exile, whether desired or not, is an experience that many of your characters go through, whether it's the forced displacement of a 12-year-old near the sea, a 65-year-old man's odyssey to Britain, or Rachid the student who leaves Zanzibar on the eve of the country's independence. And you, how did you end up leaving Tanzania to go to Britain in 1968, at the age of 20? 

AG: I left in 1967 and I hesitate to use the word exile. I don't know quite how it works in French, but I think of exile as an act that comes out of a principle that comes out of perhaps taking a position in relation to the state, or taking a position that's part of a political platform. So I relate it very much to a political gesture.

I was 18 years old and where I was seemed to be preventing me from doing anything with my life, from fulfilling myself, studying, acquiring a skill or that sort of thing. So the impulse behind my departure was to make a better life for myself. It wasn't because my life was in danger, nor was it because I didn't have enough to eat. It was, in fact, a desire for something better than what I was having to live with. So that's why I'm not sure if exile is the right word. It dramatises what I did in a way that I don't deserve. What I did was an act of desperation to a certain extent, rather than an act of principle.

RFI:  Even if it wasn't exile in the political sense, you were still seeking asylum somewhere, you couldn't stay where you were living. 50 years on, the number of refugees is still growing. What do you think that says about our world? 

AG: Yes the number of refugees coming to Europe has increased. The UNHCR has said that the number of refugees has been continuously rising for years. The most recent refugees, as opposed to other kinds of migrations, have of course been as a result of wars in Iraq, Syria, Libya, DRC and various other parts, many of which have been undertaken as a result of various Western initiatives and interventions for their own reasons. The difference, I think, between this phenomenon now and the phenomenon, say, in the 60s is that many of these people are escaping, fleeing war and violence and intolerable state actions. And the only place they can think to come to is Europe.

Of course, you also have a huge migration movement from South America towards the United States. But that, I think, is as a long-running migration route. But Syrians, Iraqis and Kurdish people coming to Europe, I think, is a relatively new thing. And it's something that has come out of the war. When people are in danger of their lives in this way, it seems to me that there is a human obligation to offer hospitality. So whether we speak of these as large numbers of refugees or not, the human thing is not to turn them away. Because in fact, I don't think the numbers are that large. It's just the spectacle makes it that way. The risks they are forced to take, the conditions in which they are detained and kept. So I think perhaps a more humane approach is possible.

RFI: The very first scene of "Farewell Zanzibar" illustrates your point well. You open the novel with a foreigner, an Englishman who arrives in a small coastal town in East Africa after crossing the desert, where he almost dies. He's saved by a family there, underlining the need to welcome the other, to show hospitality whatever the person's origin. In a way, you reverse the cliché, the problem.

AG: That's correct. I was thinking, as most societies do, that if somebody turns up and they're in trouble, you help. And this is not strange at all. And in fact, you would have thought that the experience of Europe, certainly in the second half of the 20th century would have come to mind because of the number of refugees who are back and forth across the continent of Europe – people expelled from Eastern Europe, people coming back from different forms of imprisonment and so on. But it seems that that memory has gone. So the example you mentioned is a way of saying that human societies are aware of the sort of responsibility they have to somebody who arrives amongst them, injured and in need of help. You offer help.

RFI: The first part of the novel is set during the colonial British Empire. There's a transgressive affair and the consequences of that will be felt 60 years later in the second part of the novel when the granddaughter suffers a kind of curse from her grandparents illicit union. What does this tell us? That you are always a prisoner of the past, of your family, country and in particular of colonisation?

AG: I think it's the case that sanctions of one generation do get passed on. In this case, imagine the idea of a relationship between an Englishman and a local woman, a native woman, and how this would have seemed from the European side as something transgressive. But it would also have seemed transgressive from the other side as well. And so it becomes a clandestine relationship, a relationship of shame in a way. And I think that's what's passed on – that the next generation will say: "Why do you want to have anything to do with that person? She's the product of a shameful liaison." And so it goes on in that sort of way, burdening the unborn, almost all the next generation, with the sanctions and strictures of another time.

RFI: As you say the transgression is on both sides. But to what extent does it mean that the colonisation of that time continues 60 years later? 

AG:  I don't think it is just to do with colonisation, but also to do with love, to do with acts. Members of the family intervene, at least on the side of one of the brothers in the story, to protect him from what seems to be a mistaken affair with this woman who's a product of shame. So it can also simply be something done out of love, to protect. But it really is a way of imposing an authority from elsewhere, from the society, from the larger culture, rather than from just the place. But so far as colonialism is concerned, yes, we live with the consequences in all sorts of ways, not just in relations between individuals.

RFI: The novel is set in two periods – 1899 and then the years 1950-1960 with a couple who love each other deeply in Zanzibar. They have three children: a girl, Farida, and two boys, Amine and Rashid. Rashid goes to study in Britain just before independence in 1963. As you show in the novel, independence involved pain, with weeks, months even years of fear, chaos, shortages, rejection and withdrawal. Even if you are not quite the same age as your characters, did you use your memories of that time to feed this historical part?

AG: Oh yeah, sure. I used my memories and experiences, but always slightly at an angle. So, for example, the obsession the young Rashid has with the Italian, I didn't have that. But I know that somebody gave me a teach-yourself French book when I was very young, perhaps about eight or something like that. And I remember trying to learn French by reading this book and boring everybody with it. So to that extent it was an experience like that, but not in any really profound way.

I use my experience [but] Rashid's experience of England was not mine. He lived in London, I didn't.  It's very often important in writing, of course, to get that context. So sometimes I use things that I've been through to provide a detail of how an encounter might have taken place. But I don't think I use my experience in an autobiographical way.

RFI: It seems to me that the key word in this book, and perhaps in your other books, is the question of independence, historical independence, of course, but individual independence, and for women in particular. There are three female characters: Rayhana the grandmother, Djamila the little girl and Farida, Rashid's discrete sister. They're in the process of gaining independence, freeing themselves from their condition, trangressing the status they've been assigned depending on their age and social class. They flee, get divorced, love younger men, write and publish collections of poetry – and all for love. What do you think of my feminist reading? 

AG: I think it's perfectly valid. Pretty good. I should say that I have experience of some of the restrictions that have been placed on women. So for example, people of my father and mother's generation, not my father exactly, but of that generation, the boys were allowed to go to school, but the girls were not. So they would grow up like my mother and my aunts. They would grow up unable to read or write. And the reason for this, to a great extent, was to do with preserving the authority of the father, of the male. And not necessarily of a particular male [but] what the culture was demanding.

But I also have four sisters, all four of whom, it seems to me, have made a good life, have known how to live despite various restrictions and problems they've experienced. And I know of many other people, many other women. So in a way, it's to celebrate that agency, I would say, rather than independence. That's what was often denied. I'm thinking of both our culture and perhaps many other cultures. What women are often denied is the ability, the capacity for agency, to do the things that they want to do. That's what I try to portray.

RFI: So you are an observer. Could you be an activist for the feminist cause through your books?

AG: My advocacy is with a keyboard.
RFI: That's exactly what I mean. Literature can have this committment to the cause of women.

AG: Of course it does. It's important to speak about all kinds of injustices as well. So that's why I would want to have a label that says this one is a feminist and that one is not. And because if I see an injustice in front of me, then I want to speak about it. And this is true both in the treatment of women in many societies, but in particular as it was in our society. I think it's changing, but also in the way children were treated. I think very often, for example, as in "Paradise" and elsewhere, sometimes in a fairly mercantile and cynical way, as if they were items of trade. And sometimes, as we just discussed briefly a moment ago, out of a kind of love, a kind of protectiveness, which results in sorrow rather than happiness.

RFI: What drives you to write?
AG: I started in this way of trying to work things out for myself. And that grew into an attempt to an aspiration to write as well for public consumption. And I think when you start to do things like this, then you're hooked. It becomes something that you have to do again, especially if it works. And then it becomes something that you just cannot resist, cannot stop. So I see something and I think, yes, that's interesting. And sooner or later, it becomes a more concrete idea and something to write about. So I don't think anymore about why I do it. It's just my life.

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