Zanzibar-born, British-based novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah poses for a photo at his home in Canterbury, England, Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021.

Nobel winner Abdulrazak Gurnah brings dignity to stories of colonial dispossession, colleague says

The world has discovered the magic that lies at the heart of Abdulrazak Gurnah's project, says Bashir Abu-Manneh, head of the English department at the University of Kent, where he and Gurnah have taught together for many years.

The World

Zanzibar-born, British-based novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah poses for a photo at his home in Canterbury, England, Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021.

Frank Augstein/AP

The Nobel Prize in literature has been awarded to writer Abdulrazak Gurnah, a Zanzibar-born, British-based writer of 10 novels and numerous short stories. 

The longtime author said he was shocked when he heard the news, "like when when you receive a sudden jolt of something and your body's trembling a little bit," he told the BBC. 

The Nobel Committee praised Gurnah's "uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents."

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Gurnah spent much of his adult life in the United Kingdom, arriving as a refugee himself in the 1960s. He told the BBC that writing from a distance allows him to rely on his imagination: 

"These are things that are in my mind, where I grew up, where I was from, and in some ways I don't think it's a it's an unusual or peculiar thing for people who have moved, being displaced or whatever displaced themselves to be in their mind. As you are always there, always in the place that they left, as well as in the place where they are," he said. 

Related: Nobel Prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah: An introduction

Bashir Abu-Manneh is the head of the English department at the University of Kent, where he and Gurnah have taught together as colleagues for many years. Abu-Manneh joined The World's host Marco Werman to discuss his thoughts on his colleague's remarkable achievement. 

"They have discovered the magic that lies at the heart of Abdulrazak's project — this ability to combine the sense of individual autonomy and the pursuit of freedom, intersecting it with big history and objective processes."

Bashir Abu-Manneh, literature professor, University of Kent

"They have discovered the magic that lies at the heart of Abdulrazak's project — this ability to combine the sense of individual autonomy and the pursuit of freedom, intersecting it with big history and objective processes," Abu-Manneh said. "So, this ability to tell individual stories out of the African continent, out of Zanzibar, a very small island in East Africa, and to try to connect those with much wider processes of immigration and exile and refugees and displacement than colonial violence and slavery in history — I think that ability is what caught the attention of the committee."

Abu-Manneh also notes the standout tenderness of Gurnah's writing style.

"It's a very modest form of writing. It doesn't do fanfare. It's very realist, very committed to pursuing the truth, very interested in the worldly substance of things and giving due recognition to individuals, to communities and society at large. It's a very assured voice as well. Very dignified, ethically committed, has absolute moral clarity, etc. I think that also is what's distinctive about his work," he said. 

Marco Werman: When you sit down with one of his books, what do you find that you can't find anywhere else? 
Bashir Abu-Manneh: I think Abdulrazak [Gurnah] slows things down in his writing and allows you to penetrate not just an individual, but a whole world, a whole history and allows you, takes you step by step and allows you to understand the perspective and the vantage point of the character that he's talking about and the difficult choices that they end up making and the structures that they cannot control, that they haven't produced themselves. So, it is that sense of ultimately helping you to understand someone else's condition. And he does that by slowing things down, being very, very careful about the details he provides and about the perspective he provides and about how he slowly builds up a narrative where ultimately, you end up with a whole world, either being destroyed or lost or being appreciated and savored.
If you were going to recommend one of his novels to us, what would it be and can you give us a just quick kind of synopsis? 
I think "Paradise" would be the novel, the 1994 novel shortlisted for the Booker Prize in the UK. It's a novel about a child who, as a result of his parents, owing money and owing a debt, ultimately send them over to an uncle. But he works for the uncle...and it's his journey. So, it's told from a perspective of a child in Africa in the early 20th century, at the cusp of transformation from an Africa which was much more autonomous, much more self-controlling as it were, in its processes, too, in Africa, which was dominated by British and German imperialism. So it tells that story brilliantly. I think what it does very well is its ability to try to present not just external forms of oppression and power that affect the continent, but also internal ones and internal forms of un-freedom. The forms of individual oppression, which are key to his perspective and to his, the way he conveys the sufferings and the pain of individuals on the continent and in Zanzibar. So I think that's a key novel. 
He takes on a lot of history. These days, of course, the world is grappling in such a visceral way with racism, the plight of so many refugees and the long-term impact of colonialism. How does Gurnah's work speak to this moment in time? 
This notion of centering around individual dignity is absolutely key — that you have to learn the story. You have to learn the narrative. You have to understand the world from the perspective of the dispossessed, the marginal, the people who are ultimately suffering. Crossing borders. Trying to eke out a living. Trying to live somewhere else without a homeland as a result of political pressure. I think that's the key story for this century and also for the 20th century. That, of course, links up to colonialism under dispossessions of colonialism and the displacement of colonialism, but it also links up to exile — being far away from home, losing home, losing one's family, losing one's relations, and then the other positive dimension of of his work is the idea of adopting and trying to find a new home and trying to belong somewhere else because of these forced historical events. So there's a worldliness to his writing. 
Bashir, what have you learned from Gurnah's work about the deep wounds of colonialism, how it's still very present in the way it impacts the psyche, in ways that we in the West might overlook?  
Being taken away from your history and inserted into a different history by force that's conveyed — the violence of that. Not only the violence, the also the permanent consequences of that. The idea that ultimately you can't go back to a pre-colonial time that has been lost and destroyed. But there are also continuities between those two things. This notion that what we want in both pre-colonial times and also in colonialism and after is this notion of individual autonomy and individual freedom that people seek — to be able to shape their lives in ways which are allow for justice and allow for self-development. And those are things that I've learned from him, and I worked very closely with him. So, I had a very good chance of seeing how he talks about imperialism and colonialism to this new generation of students where it was very far from their experiences. They don't know about those kinds of processes or they feel guilty about them because of parental heritage, etc.
Since you worked together at the University of Kent, can you share a favorite story with us about Gurnah? 
It's the first time I saw him teach. I was mesmerized by it, and I saw his effect on the students. His ability, very quiet, a very dignified voice, his ability to convey complex history to the students, to talk about things which are very painful, which are very, very difficult to talk about. A lot of defenses, a lot of misunderstandings around that history. But capturing one story, one narrative, one trope and then mixing that up with sometimes very complex theoretical propositions and concepts, that was absolutely magical. And you could see it in the students all the time. You know, there's a deep sense of what he represented to them, this model of a dignified, ethically committed individual who's trying to grapple with the pains and the sufferings of the world in an absolutely dignified way. I think that's what he did very well. Students, you know, they thought he was a magnificent teacher because he wanted to convey to them that ultimately, what you have to do as a student is think for yourself. We have to give you the facts of history. We have to explain the historical processes about colonialism and imperialism and various other oppressions around the world. But ultimately, you have to make up your own mind. So he also respected them as intellectuals, and they felt that, so they wanted to have an ongoing conversation with him.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.