I met Professor Abdulrazak Gurnah, through literature. Bookstop Kenya’s iconic Chan, had selected ‘By the Sea’ for me before I left to take up a new assignment in Zanzibar as Executive Director of the ZIFF Festival of the Dhow countries. I bought ‘Paradise’ as my bonus.
And stopped breathing, but just for a spot, of suspended time. For in these words and the ebb-flow of memory, rumination, unadorned complexities and cosmopolitanisms, the past-the-pain negotiations of worlds that look at you one way, while you know yourself and your people, and your histories differently, well, here we were. Here we were as a maritime race of globalised souls who were globalised before globalisation became a thing, here were we as the remnants of a broken-off people, stuck with the inconvenient dreams of defeated empires whose stories had been replaced by new-arriving entities that believed now, that before them, there was nothing. Here we were too in the awful deeds we had visited upon one another, how we had hurt each other, and then sent them off as corpses or exiles, turned them over to a people who would mostly still inflict humiliations upon their dreams and bodies without realizing that they too were being scrutinized, assessed, judged and pitied and oh so gently mocked. In ‘By the Sea’ we enter Mr Shaban meeting Ken Edelman and taking him on in a game of Asylum Chess. Here were East African fluidities, the unconfined being traversing the world, not letting its self-delusions stick to hard on the soul. Here are the complexities and layers and mysteries and difficulties of our humanity outlined in one paragraph.
‘But the whole world had paid for Europe’s values already, even of a lot of the time it just paid and paid and didn’t get to enjoy them. Think of me as one of those objects that Europe took away with her… Do you remember that endless catalogue of objects that were taken away to Europe because they were too fragile and delicate to be left in the clumsy and careless hands of natives? I am fragile and precious too, a sacred work, too delicate to be left in the hands of natives…’ By the Sea.
In my room, I laughed over loudly with Mr Shaban. The subtle sarcasm, the play of words, of languages, the woundedness, the history and its plunder, and the rebranding of atrocity in a just nine lines. Here was a laconic human saying aloud, in lyrical text, the things that many think secretly and bury in the charnel house of their souls, hoping that they would never be heard in the veneer of respectable places and spaces. In these stories one also encounters Swahili worlds, literary forms and methods refracted in a new and contemporary way.
This is why when you are done with these books at least, what at first touch looks like a slim volume, becomes an extended space of contemplation. That is why, when the story is done on the page, it enters your life and stays, and you suspect that you have crossed some unknown border, like the indentured worker Yusuf’s (in Paradise) journey into the interior. These are books you get, and later you want to approach a stranger, and say, look here, read this page.
In 2003, I landed in a strangely balmy English day little knowing that I too had embarked on an adventure that would change my life vision. A short story I had written, ‘Weight of Whispers’ had been shortlisted for the Caine Prize. This was my first public literary work, championed by the late Binyavanga Wainiana, who, with the Kwani team, would then publish the story digitally out of a need to by-pass publishing’s gatekeepers. The London I found then greeted and treated me as a ‘writer’. The greeters did not know this was my only story. It was both transfiguring and also terrifying, of wondering, what does this mean? I also thought it was a bit of a giggle. I was going to enjoy every minute of this, anyway.
The day we met the judges of the Caine Prize committee, it took over fifteen minutes before I connected the striking, courtly, soft-spoken, gentle Kofi Annan-look alike, who was chair of the judging committee with the books that had brought down walls between imposed ‘Africaneity’ and the seas that were also ultimately ours. I was far too awed to speak. It was the first time I had met a ‘writer of stature’ whose books I had read and loved. To my confusion and surprise, they awarded me the prize. My life also swerved 180 degrees. Later Professor Gurnah, so gently and firmly, said to me, ‘Whatever else you do, write. You must keep writing.’
It was an overwhelming moment, with words that felt like a benediction. Although in the acceptance speech I said the prize afforded me ‘the right to write’, I did not take that thought seriously. Not then. The agents and publishers came circling too ask for ‘the manuscript’ and did not quite believe me when I said I had none. Not a single one, and no secret drawer. I was also a most contented reader. And it would require another seven years before I could legitimately allow myself to call myself ‘writer’.
I used to travel with seven books as talismans. These included Paradise and By the Sea. I carried them with me until a few years ago when one day, I couldn’t find them anymore. I imagine whoever might have picked them up would have opened page one and slipped down a rabbit-hole.
For reasons that are probably now known–Professor’s works did not slip into expected tropes– works and texts of Professor Gurnah were not as widely known as they should have been. Although at first it was easy to see this as a sort of literary injustice, over time the other creature, the bibliophile’s inner dog-in-the-manger took over. It meant that there were only a few people in the metaphorical ‘Gurnah Books’ club’.
I am not the patron of that formerly exclusive ‘society,’ more like its gatekeeper; chief patronage is accorded to others, including one who became a friend simply because we had a language of Gurnah. On October 7 2022, I was heading out when my phone did that shrieking thing it does. I fished it out to switch it off when I read the twitter notice announcing that The Nobel Prize for Literature 2021 had been awarded to Professor Abdulrazak Gurnah. I shrieked just as my phone had. In public, and, fortunately it was in Berlin where nothing human is eccentric, I did a twirl. I dashed back to my apartment, and launched into my computer to read the notice in full and call up people, some of whom were already phoning in and sending messages.
I have said it before, I will say it again: this felt like a family win. Not because it is the Nobel, but yes that is important, not because Professor Gurnah is East African, that too is important, not because he is the human wounded who alchemised the awfulness into words that seep into the marrow, that too is important, but it is because the award was given to the kindest, most generous, most human and most self-effacing of beautiful literary minds, whose kindness to new and emerging writers is legendary, whose works had been like a hoarders secret that was now publicly exposed. He is the patron saint of writers who toil at the anvil of the craft without demanding or expecting noise and notice. He is a writer’s writer whose knowledge of the world of story, and the story of worlds is boundless, who has used his wounds and the witness of brutal change when he was fourteen in the Zanzibar that was home to read the world, an alchemy of vision. He is the East African polyglot who inhabits other worlds, who embodies the complexity of worlds in his texts, texts in which strangers can read and also find themselves.
The Gurnah ‘accolytes’ emerged from so many hidden cubicles: Meg Arenberg, Meg Samuels, Garnette Oluoch-Olunya, Tina Steiner, Bhakti Shringapure, Anya Bengelstorff, J Makhoha, Godwin Siundu among so many others. You see, Professor Gurnah was the pre-eminent voice of our African seas, the articulator of some of its many blurred imaginaries without being strident about it. For a long time, he had helped make us fluent in our African oceanic contemplations, and helped complexify the identity we presented to the world, not only as Africans, but as peoples who made peace with internal pluralisms within, no matter how frantically the world and its cultural limitations tries to impose that upon the many. You find that the Gurnah-ists (that must be a thing now), share the hauntedness of both placelessness, of inzile and exile, of an inability to inhabit just one idea of the self, of place, of people. The Ukrainian border guards from Europe’s most recent skirmish, who villainise humans on the basis of human skin-tones could never be Gurnah-ists, for they would be delirious unto madnesses that such a caste dare exist in the world.
‘The Nobel Prize in Literature 2021 was awarded to Abdulrazak 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.’
We celebrate and also laugh at this statement, as only the obnoxiously knowing might. The Committee awarded the right writer the prize, but we are in general agreement that their reasoning was, to be polite, oversimplified and trope-y. When the Gurnah ‘fan club’ gathers we might need at least one minute to bitch about this before proceeding with the greater and far more important task of dealing with the bold themes that are foregrounded with this win, massive themes that include Another Lexica for Colonisation; East African Maritime Imaginations; Longing, Desire and Fear; Privilege and Cruelty; Cartographies of the Sea; Re-invention of the Exile; Displacement, Dislocation and Nostalgia; Swahili Histories of the Seas; Imagining Afro Sea Futures; Fluidities and Convergences; Belonging By The Sea; Trauma and Travel; Indian Ocean/Swahili Sea Citizens; African Cosmpolitanisms and Globalisation; Imperial Erasures; Loneliness and Distance; The Global Monsoon Complex. Dramatic themes, big sweep themes. Themes that reflect the bigger questions we ask of life, which Professor Gurnah so deftly and gently did and does. As time goes on, and Professor’s books are being widely circulated and translated. They are traveling quickly across worlds and collecting new friends and family. As this happens, so too does another, rarer narrative and image of a defiantly expanded and extended notion of Africa. The quiet subversive at work. I do imagine that the Nobel committee will be doing another deep reading of the works and will realise anew the nature of the force they have unleashed into the world.