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Abdulrazak Gurnah (b. 1948) 

 

Abdulrazak Gurnah is a Zanzibari-born writer, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021. He entered England as an illegal immigrant when he was 18. The Nobel was Gurnah's first major literary award. The central themes in his works are migration, displacement, and travel.

"For all the years he had lived in the town, he had never been inside the cathedral. He had walked through the grounds hundreds of times, taking a shortcut through the Queen Gate. He had been chased through the cloisters by a group of skinheads: Gi' us a kiss, nigger. He gave them a good view of his right royal arse and shouted abuse as he ran. Go suck a dodo, you fucking pricks." (in Pilgrims Way by Abdulrazak Gurnah, 1988 )

Abdulrazak Gurnah was born on the island of Zanzibar off the coast of East Africa. His first language was Swahili. When Gurnah began to write as a 21-year-old refugee, English, the language of his education, became his literary language, but he has often used Swahili words and phrases in his writings. Initially, he did not plan to become a novelist.

In reference to his childhood mindset, Gurnah has said, "I remember packed Saturday morning cinemas in Zanzibar when I was a child, all of us laughing and cheering as Tarzan outwitted and outfought yet another greasy nasty African chief and then yahooed through the trees with his fresh-face blonde companion. Everyone in that cinema hall looked more like the villains than the hero, yet there seemed no contradiction with identification with Tarzan." (Reading Abdulrazak Gurnah: Narrating Power and Human Relationships by Anne Ajulu Okungu, 2016)

His early education Gurnah received in local schools in East Africa. Following a revolution in 1964 in Zanzibar, which led to the arrest and imprisonment of citizens of Arab origin – 20,000 Arabs and Asians were killed –, Gurnah fled to England with his brother. At the airport they were admitted on tourist visas. It was not until 1984 when Gurnah visited his birth country again.

Personally Gurnah had not suffered any direct physical or political persecution, but due to his father who was of Yemeni descent, his family also was a target of the hatred. His mother's family had roots in Mombasa. "When I came to England in the late 60s, Sergeant Pepper was ruling the land," Gurnah has said in an interview. ('Fear and loathing,' The Guardian, 22 May, 2001) In April 1964, Zanzibar merged with Tanganyika to form the United Republic of Tanzania under the leadership of President Julius Nyerere and his TANU party.

Many of Gurnah's novels deal with the themes of migration and being a target of exclusion. He has said, "I realise now that it is this condition of being from one place and living in another that has been my subject over the years, not as a unique experience that I have undergone, but as one of the stories of our times." (Itinerant Narratives: Travel, Identity and Literary Form in Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Fiction by Marco Neil Ruberto, 2009) His first work, Memory of Departure (1987), was rejected by various published, until it was picked up by Jonathan Cape. Partly based on his own experiences, it tells of a young boy, Hassan Omar, who leaves his traditional Islamic home in the coastal region to study in abroad. "After three years of independence, it was clear that the future had to be sought elsewhere," Hassan says. His father, a violent drunkard, considers his son a traitor. In Nairobi Hassan visits his rich uncle, Ahmed, and falls in love with his daughter, Salma. As a result, Hassan is expelled from their "paradisal home." Through Hassan's depressing experiences Gurnah seems to be demonstrating how people are made into migrants. Perhaps not so surprisingly, Gurnah's next novels were set in the United Kingdom, Tanzania's former colonial power. Daud in Pilgrims Way (1988) is an emigrant from Tanzania and the title character of Dottie (1990) is a young black woman, who tries to find a way out of her miserable existence.

With Paradise (1994) Gurnah enlarged his perspective to the history of cultures on the East African coast. The novel is set before World War I. The protagonist, Yusuf, has been sold by his father to "Uncle Aziz," a  merchant. With him Yusuf takes part of a caravan trading expedition into the interior of Tanzania. Yusuf's "paradise" is the enclosed garden of Aziz's house. At the end of the novel, he flees the garden and joins the German colonial army. "Although Mr. Gurnah . . . succeeds in making "Paradise" an evocative portrait of Africa on the brink of change, his book is less a political indictment than a poignant meditation on the nature of freedom and the loss of innocence, for both a single sensitive boy and an entire continent." (Linda Barrett Osborne, The New York Times, December 18, 1994) The work was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994; the winner was How late it was, how late by James Kelman.

Afterlives (2020), a kind of sequel to Paradise, took a closer look at Germany's colonial rule in East Africa. The central characters are Hamza and Ilyas, who are recruited into the Schutztruppe askari, the feared infantry division of German colonial forces, and Afiya, the younger sister of Ilyas. He almost disappears from the scene early on, but at the end the story wraps around the mystery of his fate.

Gurnah main characters are Muslims, and he has weaved Qur'anic stories in the fabric of his narratives, but he has said that he don't think himself especially as a Muslim writer. "I only really think of myself as Abdulrazak, who lives in England, teaches in a university, and writes books. ('Abdulrazak Gurnah,' in British Muslim Fictions: Interviews with Contemporary Writers by Claire Chambers, 2012)

From 1980 to 1983, Gurnah lectured at the prestigious Bayero University Kano (BUK), in Nigeria, and then returned back to Britain. He received his doctorate in 1982 at the University of Kent in Canterbury with a disseration about criteria in the criticism of West African Fiction. Until his retirement, he worked there as Professor of English and Postcolonial Literatures. Gurnah lives in Canterbury. He has kept his family out of public view.

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For further reading: The Fiction of Abdulrazak Gurnah: Journeys through Subalternity and Agency by Mohineet Kaur Boparai (2021);  Rejection of Victimhood in Literature: by Abdulrazak Gurnah, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Luis Alberto Urrea by Sean James Bosman (2021); Reading Abdulrazak Gurnah: Narrating Power and Human Relationships by Anne Ajulu Okungu (thesis; 2016);  Encountering Strange Lands: Migrant Texture in Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Fiction by Ezekiel Kimani Kaigai (dissertation; 2014); 'Abdulrazak Gurnah,' in British Muslim Fictions: Interviews with Contemporary Writers by Claire Chambers (2012); Itinerant Narratives: Travel, Identity and Literary Form in Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Fiction by Marco Neil Ruberto (2009); 'An Idea of the Past' by Abdulrazak Gurnah, in Moving Worlds: A Journal of Transcultural Writings, 2,2 (2002)

Selected works:

  • 'Bossy,' 1985 (African Short Stories: Twenty Short Stories from Across the Continent, edited by Chinua Achebe and C.L. Innes)
  • Memory of Departure, 1987
  • Pilgrims Way, 1988
  • Dottie, 1990
  • editor: Essays on African Writing: A Re-evaluation, 1993
  • Paradise, 1994
  • editor: Essays on African Writing: Contemporary Literature, 1995
  • Admiring Silence, 1996
  • By the Sea, 2001
  • 'Fear and Loathing,' 22 May, 2001 (The Guardian)
  • 'Writing and Place,' 2004 (World Literature Today)
  • Desertion, 2005
  • editor: The Cambridge Companion to Salman Rushdie, 2007
  • The Last Gift, 2011
  • 'The Urge to Nowhere: Wicomb and Cosmopolitanism,' 2011 (The Journal of South African and American Studies) 
  • Gravel Heart, 2017
  • Afterlives, 2020


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