Nobel Prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah’s fiction retraces small lives with wit and tenderness
For those of us who have read and reread, taught and written about Abdulrazak Gurnah’s fiction, the Nobel Prize for Literature committee has confirmed what we have known all along. His superb writing deserves much wider recognition and readership.
Gurnah was born in Zanzibar, the archipelago off the Tanzanian coast, in 1948. While still a British protectorate, Zanzibar obtained its independence in December 1963, only to be plunged into the turmoil and violence of the Zanzibar revolution of January 1964. These are historical events to which he returns in his fiction on several occasions.
He moved to the UK in 1967 and has lived there ever since, with the exception of a brief teaching stay at Bayero University in Kano, Nigeria in the 1980s. He taught in the English department from the University of Kent at Canterbury until his recent retirement.
Although he has lived most of his life in England, all of his novels – with the exception of Dottie (1990), which is set entirely in the UK – are set entirely or partially on the Swahili coast of Africa. from the East or Zanzibar. To date, he has published ten extremely readable novels and numerous short stories. These are written in clean, uncluttered prose. This makes him a master storyteller, captivating the reader into the experiences and living worlds of the characters depicted.
Connect people and geographies
The work of the imagination to follow the attention of the storyteller creates connections that, in their intangibility, can seem elusive. And yet any reader will know that they are powerful and potentially transformative. As Ben Okri, a Nigerian writer reminds us, such threads, which intertwine history and life, are deeply meaningful. Indeed, stories “can infect a system or light up a world.” The ambiguity in Okri’s description of the effect of stories captures how stories potentially open up the world and challenge narratives that circumscribe and exclude reciprocity. It also evokes the danger of stories when they participate in and serve as justification for structures of domination, exclusion and violence.
Gurnah, the storyteller, probes the effectiveness of stories in connecting people and geographies. Yet, at the same time, he is extremely attentive to the divisive nature of the stories of certainty: of colonial domination, of patriarchal scripts, of racism, of xenophobia towards foreigners from elsewhere. His work shows how such certainties give people a belief in the rightness of the violence they exert on others, in the destruction of the lives of others that they deem less important than their own.
Instead, Gurnah’s work asks the reader to view the stories as provisional narratives that cannot claim closure or full knowledge. Ambiguity, multiple points of view on the same events, complex focus, self-reflective irony and narrative spirit are some of the characteristics of his writing. They make his writing so incredibly compelling. It elides narrative certainty. The narrative mode is often oblique. Maybe we can imagine it like that, or maybe it turned out differently. This mode is particularly suitable for illuminating the traveling life of people who find themselves on the move and who do not seem to belong to nowhere.
Migration and other forms of displacement, as Gurnah’s stories suggest, are common phenomena in Africa and around the world. It is therefore important to see others in relation to ourselves, to perceive their right to stay even if they cannot claim national affiliation. However, it is precisely the humanity of the foreigner that is at stake when the status of citizenship is in question. Hospitality is revealed to be conditional in the current hostile immigration climate. The asylum seeker, the refugee and the migrant hardly have the dignity that the recognition of a common humanity would require.
It is this refusal to recognize the humanity of the other and its terrible consequences that Gurnah’s accounts explore in detail. He fabricates carefully delineated juxtapositions between hostile and relentless environments in which his characters find themselves with little room for maneuver, and pockets of hospitality that beckon alternative social imaginaries where kindness and joie de vivre become possible.
Contrary to an essentialist view of a citizen as someone who is described in terms of appearance or ancestry, Gurnah defines the complexity of centuries of brewing along the East African coasts of the Indian Ocean. In this way, his stories question ideas of purity and difference. They emphasize the cultural and linguistic heterogeneity of the coastal regions of East Africa and their place within the continent, the Indian Ocean world and the globe in order to underline a common humanity.
Through his work, which crosses settings in Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam, Bagamoyo, Mombasa, Lake Tanganyika, Nairobi, Muscat, Bahrain and several places in England, Gurnah traces a long history of transnational and transoceanic movements. His work refers to the slave trade and engagement in East Africa, German and British colonial oppression and less visible but equally destructive forms of social exclusion linked to economic precariousness and poverty. migration. While his characters are often caught up in violent and uneven plots that are not on their own initiative and which are beyond their control – given that Gurnah’s stories tend to focus on people whose lives are deemed insignificant and small – her empathetic narrative subtly underscores the importance of social, yet unexpected, bonds that provide comfort and warmth.
In this way, his novels also cautiously celebrate the polyglot cosmopolitanisms and generous forms of accommodation that have emerged on the Swahili coast within larger structures of ambivalent encounter in the monsoon trade and imperial conquest. In a passage from By the Sea, Gurnah’s sixth novel, published in 2001, Seven-year-old Saleh Omar, one of the protagonists and narrators, describes his first encounter with a map of an Africa embedded in the vast world of l ‘Indian Ocean. :
As [the teacher’s] story developed, he began to draw a map on the board with a piece of white chalk: the coast of North Africa which then bulged and folded up and then slid to the Cape of Good Hope. While drawing, he spoke, naming places, sometimes in full, sometimes in passing. Winding north to the advance of the Ruvuma Delta, the tip of our coast, the Horn of Africa, then the Red Sea coast to Suez, the Arabian Peninsula, the Persian Gulf, the India, the Malay Peninsula and then to China. He stopped there and smiled.
This unbroken chalk line moment is crucial, not only to this particular novel, but perhaps to Gurnah’s work as a whole. He makes visible the ocean on which so many of his stories float. And I suspect that the smile of this professor is also that of the storyteller. It is the subtle humor that permeates his writing that gives his stories a light touch, despite the poignant aspects of the tales. It contributes enormously to the pleasure of reading.
There is the scathing sarcasm that exposes racial aggression and makes it absurd. And there is the self-deprecating humor of the migrant in the face of an immobile and indifferent environment, which avoids self-pity and triggers processes of disalienation. The dry spirit of the narratives allows Gurnah to forge a bond with the readers, who come to appreciate it as a mode of interaction that can liquefy sclerotic social categories by opening up spaces of irony and ambiguity and we recalls the fragility of the human condition that we all share.