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Sunday, November 27, 2022

Abdulrazak Gurnah Refuses to Be Boxed In: ‘I Represent Me’

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Gurnah’s fans say the humanity in his work is one of its strongest points. Mengiste said his novels show “it’s possible for people to exist within catastrophes or political systems that are devastating and still maintain their humanity, still fall in love, still create families.” That was “a subtly political statement,” she said.

His most acclaimed work reflects that approach. “Paradise” was conceived after Gurnah was allowed to return to Zanzibar for the first time, in 1984. One day, he stood at a window watching his father walk to a mosque and realized the elder Gurnah would have been just a child when Britain was establishing a protectorate in Zanzibar. Gurnah said he “wondered how that would have seemed to a child, the beginning of recognition that strangers have taken over your lives.” The novel he wrote is as much a boy’s coming-of-age story, and about children being used as collateral for debts, as it is about colonialism.

“Afterlives,” a similarly historical novel, had its origins in wanting to write about the war between Britain and Germany in East Africa, which had previously been portrayed in novels, Gurnah said, “as a bit of a picnic,” even though hundreds of thousands of civilians died from war-related famines and disease. One of its central characters, Hamza, signs up to join the German Army, and is trapped in service despite quickly realizing his mistake. When he eventually leaves, he’s an injured stranger to his hometown, yet rebuilds his life, caught up in romance.

Winning the Nobel, and the new fame that came with it, required some adjustments: He has had no time to write, Gurnah said. His schedule has been packed with interviews and with occasional trips abroad, including a return to Zanzibar, where he was treated as a hero for the first time, despite few of his books being available there.

Denise deCaires Narai, Gurnah’s wife, said in a telephone interview that he was a naturally quiet and considered person, and that he was doing a bit of “holding onto himself” in the face of the Nobel’s demands. There had been requests from people wanting him to represent places and groups — Africa, Zanzibar, Islam — she said, and he doesn’t want to “pander to what people think someone who looks like him should say or be.”

But Gurnah, sitting in his home, with classical music playing gently in the background, hinted that he had a coping strategy. At one point, he spoke about interviewers trying to get him to discuss controversial topics. There was “a little bit of pressure” to answer them.

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