Illustration by Maria-Ines Gul

Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah: ‘You realise, in English literature, you’re completely and totally absent’

The novelist explains how his books are influenced by his childhood in Zanzibar
December 9, 2021

When Abdulrazak Gurnah was growing up in the 1950s in Zanzibar, a small island off the east African coast, he could not imagine a career as a writer. Though there were poets and storytellers, there were no literary publishers. At school he was taught the English canon. “You realise, in that literature, you’re completely and totally absent,” he tells me, “or present in some kind of diminished form.” But after moving to Britain in 1968, he did become a writer and, across 10 novels, has drawn on his island’s rich history to fill in those absences. In October, this quietly spoken man—always respected but hardly a household name—won the Nobel Prize in literature. 

The decision delighted me, but I must admit a bias. My father also grew up in Zanzibar in the 1950s and I have read Gurnah’s work as much to learn about my family history as for its literary merit. (As an aside we discuss the architectural qualities of my family’s house—a seafront building called the Old Dispensary.) “Unaongea kiswahili?” he asks me hopefully. I reply I know a little bit of Swahili—childhood phrases mainly. Gurnah, who speaks and writes his novels in controlled English, gives off a different energy when using his native language. That energy powers his novels, which include 1994’s Paradise, full of the sights and smells of the east African coast, and 2020’s Afterlives, which tracks the other colonial power in the region, Germany.

“‘People of our generation,’ says Gurnah, ‘were determined to refuse these racial prefixes’”

From the 1890s Zanzibar was a British “protectorate,” which meant, according to Gurnah, “we’re here to protect you, sit down and be quiet.” In his youth, Gurnah took part in the independence movement, joining “various marches and rallies which we all loved—as kids, it was such an exciting time.” The British finally went in December 1963. The nominal ruler left in charge, Sultan Jamshid bin Abdullah Al Said, was overthrown in a left-wing revolution in January 1964. The sultan then moved to the Southsea area of Portsmouth, where he lived for 50 years.

Gurnah, who fictionalised that time in his 2005 novel Desertion, remembers it as a frightening experience. His father, a merchant who traded in fish and dates, had his business forcibly shut down. His British teachers were expelled and replaced with ones from “fraternal socialist countries” like East Germany and North Korea, who could speak neither English nor Swahili. (“The Ghanaians were OK,” he admits.) After leaving the island, he embarked on an academic career in the UK. He taught for many years at the University of Kent, from where he recently retired. 

The 1964 revolution is sometimes framed in racial terms: Africans versus Arabs versus Indians. But as Zanzibar was so racially mixed, says Gurnah, that analysis doesn’t hold. “People of our generation, I think we were absolutely furiously determined to refuse these racial prefixes… I would call myself Zanzibari. It was really important, and it still is.” On the Nobel website he was initially described as Tanzanian, and is now classed as “resident in Britain.” His entire body of work has avoided simplifying his own background. That inner confidence is perhaps why he doesn’t seem nervous about his Nobel speech. (“It will write itself.”) When I point out that four of the last five British Nobel winners—VS Naipaul, Doris Lessing, Kazuo Ishiguro and now Gurnah—were born outside Britain, and that their work has redefined English literature, he replies in typically modest style: “I’ll leave that with you.”