Nobel winner Abdulrazak Gurnah says ‘writing cannot be just about polemics’

 The Zanzibari novelist spoke of migration, colonialism and how he became a writer in his acceptance lecture on Tuesday

Abdulrazak Gurnah won the 2021 Novel prize for literature in October. Photograph: Matt Dunham/AP

The Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah, who fled Zanzibar for England in the 1960s, has spoken of how he began writing “in refusal of the self-assured summaries of people who despised and belittled us”.

Gurnah, who was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in October for his “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents”, was speaking during his Nobel lecture on Tuesday.

The author, who left Zanzibar as a teenager after the 1964 revolution, said it was after he arrived in England, following a “prolonged period of poverty and alienation”, that “it became clearer to me that there was something I needed to say”.

“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 were capable of inflicting on each other, to revisit the lies and delusions with which we had comforted ourselves,” said the novelist. “Eventually I began to write about some of these reflections, not in an orderly or organised way, not yet, just for the relief of clarifying a little some of the confusions and uncertainties in my mind.”

But Gurnah went on to speak of his “deeply unsettling” realisation that “a new, simpler history was being constructed, transforming and even obliterating what had happened”.

For him, he said, it “became necessary then to refuse such a history,” and “to write of the persecutions and cruelties which the self-congratulations of our rulers sought to wipe from our memory”.

He also wanted to explore his experience of colonialism as he grew up – something which he said had become clearer to him after moving to the UK as he “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 encounters 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,” said Gurnah, the first black African to win the prize since Wole Soyinka in 1986.

But the Nobel laureate, who joins former recipients of the honour including Harold Pinter, Doris Lessing and Toni Morrison, was clear that “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 its subject,” he said. “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 come through, and the human being appears out of the simplification and stereotype. When that works, a kind of beauty comes out of it.”

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