2021 Nobel Prize Lecture in Literature: Abdulrazak Gurnah

Abdulrazak Gurnah showing his Nobel Prize diploma. © Nobel Prize Outreach. Photo: Hugh Fox

On December 7, Abdulrazak Gurnah accepted his Nobel Prize medal for his novel, ATERLIVES, in a live-streamed event posted on Youtube. During the ceremony, which was small, intimate and attended by family members and close colleagues, a pre-recorded video of Gurnah presenting his acceptance speech was aired. In the speech, Gurnah talks about his journey as a writer, focusing on the traumatic experience that led to his leaving Zanzibar for England and how that experience set the stage for his interest in writing and the kinds of themes explored in his work. It is an inspiring speech, worth every minute of your time. Read the transcript or watch the video below.

Writing has always been a pleasure. Even as a boy at school, I looked forward to the class set aside for writing a story or whatever our teachers thought would interest us more than to any other class on a timetable.

Then everyone would fall silent, leaning over their desks to retrieve something worth reporting from memory and imagination. In these youthful efforts, there was no desire to say something in particular, to recall a memorable experience or to express a strongly held opinion or to err a grievance, nor did these efforts require any other reader than the teacher, who prompted them as an exercise in improving our discursive skills. I wrote because I was instructed to write and because I found such pleasure in the exercise.

Years later, when I was myself a schoolteacher, I was to have this experience to reverse when I would sit in a silent classroom, while the pupils bent over their work. It reminded me of a poem by DH Lawrence, which I will now quote a few lines from.

Lines from ‘The Best of School:

As I sit on the shores of the class alone,
watch the boys in their summer blouses as they write,
their round heads busily bowed.
In one after another rouse is his face to look at me to ponder very quietly,
as seeing he does not see.
And then he turns again,
with a little blood thrill of his work,
he turns again from me,
having found what he wanted,
having got what was to be had.’

The writing class I was speaking of and which this poem recalls was not writing as it would come to see me later. It was not driven, directed, worked over, reorganized endlessly. In these youthful efforts, I wrote in a straight line, so to speak, without much hesitation or correction with such innocence. I also read with a kind of abandon, similarly without any direction. And I did not know at the time how closely connected these activities were. Sometimes when it was not necessary to wake up early for school, I read so late into the night that my father, who was something of an insomniac himself, was forced to come to my room and order me to switch off the light. You could not say to him, even if you dared, that he was still awake. Why should you not be? Because that was not how you spoke to your father. In any case, he did his insomnia in the dark, with a light switched off, so as not to disturb my mother. So, the instruction to switch off the light would still have stood.

The writing and reading that came later was orderly compared to the haphazard experience of youth. But it never ceased to be a pleasure and was hardly ever a struggle. Gradually, though, it became came a different kind of pleasure. I did not realize this fully until I went to live in England. It was there in my homesickness and amidst the anguish of a stranger’s life, that I began to reflect on so much that I had not considered before. It was out of that period, that prolonged period of poverty and alienation that I began to do a different kind of writing. It became clear to me that there was something I needed to say, that there was a task to be done, regrets and grievances to be drawn out and considered.

The Nobel Prize medal and diploma were presented to literature laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah at the Swedish Ambassador’s Residence in London, UK on 6 December 2021. 

In the first instance, I reflected on what I had left behind in the reckless flight from my home. A profound chaos descended on our lives in the mid-1960s, whose right and some wrongs were obscured by the brutalities that accompanied the changes brought about by the revolution, in 1964: detentions, executions, expulsions, and endless small and large indignities and oppressions. In the midst of these events and with the mind of an adolescent, it was impossible to think clearly about the historical and future implications of what was happening.

It was only in the early years that I lived in England that I was able to reflect on such issues, to dwell on the ugliness of what we’re capable of inflicting on each other, to revisit the lies and illusions with which we had comforted ourselves.

Our histories were partial, silent about many cruelties. Our politics was racialized and led directly to the persecutions that followed the revolution. When fathers were slaughtered in front of their children, and daughters were assaulted in front of their mothers. Living in England far away from these events, yet deeply troubled by them in my mind. It may have been that I was less able to resist the power of such memories than if I had been among people who are still living their consequences. But I was also troubled by other memories that were unrelated to these events. cruelties parents inflicted on their children, the way people were denied full expression, because of social or gender dogma, the inequalities that tolerated poverty and dependence. These are matters present in all human life and are not exceptional to us. But they’re not always on your mind, until circumstances require you to be aware of them. I suspect this is one of the burdens of people who have fled from a trauma and find themselves living safely away from those left behind.

Eventually, I began to write about some of these reflections. Not in an orderly or organized way, not yet, just for the relief of clarifying a little, some of the confusions and uncertainties in my mind. In time, though, it became clear that something deeply unsettling was taking place. A new simpler history was being constructed, transforming and even obliterating what had happened, restructuring it to suit the verities of the moment. This new and simple history was not only the inevitable work of the victors, who always had liberty to construct a narrative of their choice. But it also suited commentators and scholars and even writers who had no real interest in us or are viewing us through a frame that agreed with their view of the world when they required a familiar narrative of racial emancipation, and progress. It became necessary then to refuse such a history, one that disregarded the material objects that testify to an earlier time, the buildings, the achievements, and the tendernesses that had made life possible.

Many years later, I walked through the streets of the town I grew up in and saw the degradation of things and places and people who live on grizzled and toothless, and in fear of losing the memory of the past. It became necessary to make an effort to preserve that memory to write above what was there, to retrieve the moments and the stories people lived by, and through which they understood themselves. It was necessary to write of the persecutions and cruelties, which the self-congratulations of our rulers sought to wipe from our memory.

There was also another understanding of history necessary to address, one that became clear to me when I live closer to source in England, clearer than it had been while I was going through my colonized education in Zanzibar. We were those of our generation children of colonialism in a way that our parents were not. And no others who came after us, or at least not in the same way. By that, I don’t mean that we were alienated from the things our parents valued, or that those who came after us were liberated from colonial influence. I mean that we grew up and were educated in a period of high Imperial confidence, at least in our parts of the world. When domination disguised its real self in euphemisms, and we agreed to the subterfuge. I refer to the period before the colonization campaigns across the region hit their stride and drew attention to the depredations of colonial rule.

Those who came after us had their post-colonial disappointments and their own self-delusions to comfort them, and perhaps did not see clearly or in great enough depths, the way in which the colonial encounter had transformed our lives that our corruptions and misrule were in some measure, also part of that colonial legacy. Some of these matters became clear to me in England, not because I encountered people who clarified them to me in conversation, or in the classroom, but because I gained a better understanding of how someone like me figured in some of their stories of themselves, both in their writing, and in casual discourse, in the hilarity that greeted racist jokes on the TV and elsewhere, in the unforced hostility I met in everyday encounter in shops, in offices, on the bus. I could not do anything about that reception. But just as I learned to read with greater understanding, so a desire grew to write in refusal of the self-assured summaries of people who despised and belittled us.

© Nobel Prize Outreach.
Photo: Hugh Fox

But writing cannot be just about battling and polemics, however invigorating and comforting that can be. Writing is not about one thing, not about this issue, or that, or this concern or another. And since its concern is human life in one way or another, sooner or later cruelty and love and weakness become a subject. I believe that writing also has to show what can be otherwise, what it is that the hard domineering eye cannot see. What makes people apparently small in stature, feel assured in themselves, regardless of the disdain of others. So, I found it necessary to write about that as well and to do so truthfully so that both the ugliness and the virtue comes through and the human being appears out of the simplification and stereotype.

When that works, a kind of beauty comes out of it. And that way of looking makes room for frailty and weakness, for tenderness amid cruelty, and for a capacity for kindness in unlooked-for sources. It is for these reasons that writing has been for me a worthwhile and absorbing part of my life. There are other parts of course, but they are not our concern on this occasion. A little miraculously that useful pleasure in writing that I spoke over the beginning is still there after all the decades.

Let me end by expressing my deepest gratitude to the Swedish Academy for bestowing this great honor on me and on my work. I’m very grateful.

© The Nobel Foundation 2021

Also available on Video https://youtu.be/Rk6JIn7KvZ0

Abdulrazak Gurnah FRSL (born 20 December 1948) is a Tanzanian-born novelist and academic who lives in the United Kingdom and holds British citizenship. He was born in the Sultanate of Zanzibar and moved to the United Kingdom in the 1960s as a refugee during the  Zanzibar Revolution. His novels include Paradise (1994), which was shortlisted for both the Booker and the Whitbread Prize; Desertion (2005); and By the Sea (2001), which was longlisted for the Booker and shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.