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Session with Nobel Laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah opens JLF 2022

In conversation with publisher Alexandra Pringle, Gurnah talked about the diverse life events and circumstances that led to his novels

The opening session of the Jaipur Literature Festival had Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah winner of the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature, in conversation with British publisher Alexandra Pringle
The opening session of the Jaipur Literature Festival had Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah winner of the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature, in conversation with British publisher Alexandra Pringle (Reuters)

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The Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) 2022 began earlier today, the first of 5 online-only festival days this year. Until March 10, JLF 2022 will feature a range of online-only conversations and panel discussions, following which the on-ground festival will start. The very first event featured the incumbent Nobel Laureate in Literature, the Zanzibar-born (now in modern-day Tanzania) British writer Abdulrazak Gurnah in conversation with veteran British publisher Alexandra Pringle. For the most part, readers outside of the UK (like myself) have been recent inductees into Gurnah’s world (Pringle even alluded to this fact during her introductory remarks) and it was quite instructive to hear the writer talk about some of his best-known novels, like Paradise (1994), By the Sea (2001), Gravel Heart (2017) and the latest, Afterlives (2020).

The conversation was titled ‘A Life in Stories’ and true to format, Gurnah took us through a chronological tour of his life — the childhood in Zanzibar, his exit at age 18 following the Zanzibar Revolution, and subsequent return to the region after a new government promised amnesty to all those who returned.

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“Zanzibar is such a big part of who I am as a person and as a writer. And perhaps part of the curse of being a writer is that you rely so much on memory, on remembrance, especially when there are so many things you would rather forget. But they don’t go away,” Gurnah said. He described his childhood home as being “just by the docks” which gave young Abdulrazak a chance to observe his father’s seasonal trade with “merchants from Arabia and India, mostly dealing in Muslin.” “Even at a very young age, therefore” Gurnah said, “I was quite familiar with the concept of people moving coasts, countries, even continents, in the pursuit of better opportunities—or as I would fully understand only later, a safe passage.”

Seafarers — sailors, merchants and yes, migrants/refugees — have been a constant presence in Gurnah’s work, right from the beginning. Sea routes determine the trajectories of these characters’ lives and the sea/ocean itself is often described as both sustaining and utterly inscrutable — an entity that ushers in untold, juggernaut-like historical forces.

In Gurnah’s 2001 novel By the Sea (longlisted for the Man Booker Prize), for example, there’s a lovely little passage where the protagonist (an East African refugee looking to enter England) is musing upon the history of East Africa’s many encounters with colonialism. “Then the Portuguese, rounding the continent, burst so unexpectedly and so disastrously from that unknown and impenetrable sea, and put paid to medieval geography with their sea-borne cannons. They wreaked their religion-crazed havoc on islands, harbours and cities, exulting over their cruelty to the inhabitants they plundered. Then the Omanis came to remove them and take charge in the name of the true God, and brought with them Indian money, with the British close behind, and close behind them the Germans and the French and whoever else had the wherewithal.”

There’s a raw linguistic energy to this passage that’s reminiscent of peak Rushdie (Gurnah has, in the past, edited a volume of academic essays on Rushdie) but at the same time, untouched by the great man’s flaws as a writer (excessive, on-the-nose parody, an over-reliance on pop cultural allusiveness and so on).

Talking about Paradise, the 1994 novel that saw him return to East Africa circa end of the 19th century, Gurnah said, “Before writing that novel, I literally returned to Zanzibar, to begin with. There was a new leader who allowed amnesty to those who were returning in the 1980s, which was just as well because my father died a year or so after my return.” Even the best have to be meticulously prepared on occasion, and Gurnah was no different. “I realized that despite coming from this region, I didn’t actually know a lot of details about the wars that were fought here. So I did some targeted reading, in addition to all the knowledge about colonialism and its effects that I had picked up at university, and while writing the novel, it (the writing) just came very nicely indeed.”

How did war, especially one brought to one’s shores by colonial forces, affect the psyche of young East Africans? Why did a section of the population decide to join the German corps? Paradise tackles some very thorny questions like these. “I wanted to know what it took for a young man to side with the very forces that were, you know, oppressing his people,” Gurnah said during the session. This willingness to confront uncomfortable truths is a great strength of Paradise, as is the novel’s astute understanding of the way trauma and mythology go hand-in-hand, especially when it comes to colonizer-colonized equations. Sample this passage, where Yusuf, the boy-protagonist of Paradise, is describing a popular ‘campfire tale’ about the Germans who sometimes employed his father.

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“Yusuf had heard the boys say that the Germans hanged people if they did not work hard enough. If they were too young to hang, they cut their stones off. The Germans were afraid of nothing. They did whatever they wanted and no one could stop them. One of the boys said that his father had seen a German put his hand in the heart of a blazing fire without being burnt, as if he were a phantom.”

Beyond all of the diverse life events and circumstances that led to his novels, Gurnah also displayed a charming straightforwardness while talking about writing as a child. “Even if the teacher asked us to write about something boring in our lives, I would derive great pleasure from it and I would come up with something that—at least to me—was something interesting. So at some level I knew that this (writing stories) was something I could do and in fact, enjoyed doing, even as I was busy with other endeavors, university, teaching and so on.”

Luckily for his readers, Gurnah never gave up on that childlike sense of joy and it shows in his work. For him, writing is “just a lot of bits and pieces to sort out, bits of life”, as a line from Gravel Heart goes.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer

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