Abdulrazak Gurnah – Something Inside Him, So Strong … As the Song Goes.

I read Paradise in 1995 and then again in 2009 just before I went to Zanzibar to make some BBC radio programmes on the Arab slave trade and the 1964 revolution. Today, most people in the West (and probably across Africa) know little about these island stories, inconvenient reminders of what humans are capable of doing to each other. After the programmes were broadcast, I was told I would never again be allowed into Zanzibar, a place I hold dear. An invitation to a film festival there was withdrawn. I don’t know if I am still a banned person.

When I was a child, I used to go to Zanzibar with my mother, Jena. We’d stay in a dharmsala which was built by some rich Ismaili man so needy mums and their children could enjoy seaside vacations. We would sit near the seashore in Stone Town, eating bhel puri. Jena’s father and mother had, at some point, separately crossed this ocean to get to the East African coast.

Paradise tells the story of Yusuf, a Zanzibari youngster, who is sent off to the interior with his wealthy uncle, an adventurer-entrepreneur. Yusuf doesn’t realise then that he is being given away to pay off his father’s debts, he doesn’t even know where he is going.

My maternal grandfather, Mohamed Ramji, was born into a dirt poor family in a small Gujarati town in India. When he turned ten, his father handed him over to a rich Indian merchant who was sailing off to East Africa to exploit untapped markets. The boy never saw his folks again and died when Jena was five. Born in Dar es Salaam, Jena would frequently recall the extreme brutality of German occupiers during the war. ‘Hanging everyone, whipping people with kibokos[1] for nothing, just because they could do so’. Paradise colourised my mother’s stories and jolted them back to life.

Gurnah became one of those novelists I read compulsively – the others were Chinua Achebe, James Ngugi[2], Moez Vassanji, VS Naipaul (until he became a post-imperialist baboo and ventriloquist) and a few others. Their books spoke of and to those of us who’d lived through colonialism, independence, post-independence turmoil, exile, homelessness and migration. The cannon remains small and select. Younger novelists are coming up and many of them dazzle with their talents. But, with some exceptions – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Binyavanga Wainaina among them – few have the profundity or historical knowledge of those listed above. The former alchemize experiences and political acuity into works of literature that will endure forever.

The 2021 Nobel Prize judges praised Abdulrazak Gurnah’s ‘uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.’ Gurnah’s editor, Alexandra Pringle, whom I’ve known for a long time, observes: ‘For years and years he has told beautiful and powerful stories of the winds of politics, trade, colonisation, love and war that blow people across continents.’ She kept faith, always knew his greatness. Most of the British literary establishment did not. Had, say, Martin Amis won the 2021 Nobel Prize, the British media would have exploded with joy and pride and never let the world forget it. Book sales would have rocketed. Gurnah was given the highest of literary accolades, but that just wasn’t good enough for our newspapers, magazine, radio and TV stations or powerful politicians. (His success upsets their unending chronicles of undeserving and illicit migrants, barely human humans who threaten the island nation!)  The British Government did not congratulate him when news broke of the Nobel Prize win; the president of Tanzania did, fulsomely.

A bittersweet observation about British politics, literature, media and reading public!

For us, his many fans, this determined exclusion hardly matters, though it does affect book sales. He recently said he hoped the prize would change that. It is fifty years this year since Asians were expelled en masse from Uganda by Idi Amin. Gurnah’s perceptive and emotionally intense writing has enabled me to make sense of a life of many parts and, it seems, perpetual displacement and unbelonging, in his hands.

Gurnah liberated Zanzibar from fake western romanticism and compulsive Orientalism; his occidental and oriental characters are multi-dimensional. History in his books is a mess and a mass of convolutions, many broken lines and inescapable circles. Desertion foregrounds illicit, cross-racial, cross-status love and passion and betrayal.  One kind of desertion. There are many others. We, who left our old homelands willingly or unwillingly can often feel guilty that we never went back, that we discarded the places that made us.  That the west benefits from our talents. That it is so hard to reverse the flow.  Desertion.

Great fiction writers like Gurnah get to the heart and soul of politics. When the time is right, Gurnah allows himself to enter public debates. Currently, the defenders of empire are pumped full of verve and pride. Imperial nostalgia has been used by Boris Johnson to gain cheap popularity.  Question this and you are damned for being ‘unpatriotic.’ Gurnah majestically takes on the imperialist propagandists and their humbug: ‘It’s now almost impossible for an intelligent person not to understand that colonialism was a great destroyer’. With one perfect comment made to the journalist Max Liu, the author undercut the revisionist project.

Admiring Silence (1996) and By the Sea (2001) are both about Zanzibari men who arrive in Britain seeking asylum. It is a subject rich with possibilities and dangerously political too. Gurnah makes numbers human and so subverts the prevailing narrative. The Nobel Prize judges recognised ‘his dedication to truth and aversion to simplification’ and praised the way he recoils from stereotypes  of the various nations and peoples of Africa. So true. Memories in his books are shifting sands, the sea his recurring metaphor, the recurring metaphor for all wanderers and rootless cosmopolitans.

Jena loved the sea. Her favourite Bollywood song was about surf and waves reflecting the storms in her heart and calm, still salty waters promising a return to quiet harmony. She learnt to speak and write basic English after she moved to the UK. I would read her small bits from novels. One of her favourites was Tennyson’s Break, Break, Break:

‘Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.’

And she was mesmerised by Paradise. For that I thank Abdulrazak Gurnah with all my heart. He touched people he never knew he could touch. I return to that novel often when I miss my beloved Jena.

An English friend, a novelist herself confessed: ‘I have never felt this envious of a writer – the worlds he traverses. Makes us Brit novelists feel small and petty; Gurnah makes us journalists feel even smaller and pettier. He knows that in modern times, novelists, poets and artists must market their work, but he does it his way, without feigning charm or munificence. I used to think it showed a lack of respect for the media. But then, he maintained the same distance and slight disdain when being interviewed by an academic at the University of Kent after his Nobel Prize win. He didn’t see the point of being asked the same questions over and over. His answers were minimalist. Is it vanity, shyness or honesty? Does he find this side of the business hard or utterly tedious?

Whenever I have managed to get an interview with Gurnah, I get uncharacteristically nervous, at times overawed. He is contained. Every word and every thought is considered and exactly shaped. His voice is strong yet soft; his eyes seem to look into you and far away at the same time. 

Oddly, his reticence and/or coolness makes him even more compelling and mysterious. He has the power. Something inside him, so strong, as the song goes.

[1] Whips made out of hippo or rhino hides.

[2] By 1970, he had changed his ‘colonial’ name to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o


  • Born and raised in Uganda. She is a multiple award winning journalist. She also writes non-fiction books which include The Settler’s Cookbooks, a memoir, In defence of Political Correctness, Exotic England and Ladies Who Punch. She is a weekly political columnist with the I newspaper.

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