Abdulrazak Gurnah is a fiction writer and academic. Although a permanent resident in the UK, he does not feel comfortable with the label of British and considers himself as a postcolonial cosmopolitan who has never abandoned his sentimental ties with his native land.
Abdulrazak Gurnah was born in the island Zanzibar where he received a British education. While many years later this experience would give the author a valuable insight into the discourses of imperialism, the young Gurnah felt that his colonial education came into conflict with other autochthonous knowledges such as his Koranic schooling, or the prevailing oral tradition. As a teenager, he witnessed the 1964 Zanzibari uprising and the subsequent installing of a Marxist revolutionary regime, and this historical event would mark him for the rest of his life. Gurnah (2004) assures that, ‘It was a time of hardship and anxiety, of state terror and calculated humiliations, and at eighteen all I wanted was to find safety and fulfilment somewhere else’ (26)[i]. In this light, he came to live in England amidst a moment of profound social upheaval and racial tension, epitomised by Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech. He has never returned to live in Zanzibar
Gurnah’s early writing was motivated by the immense difference he felt on arriving to the UK. Marginality and the tryst between self-image and how society constructs stereotypical images of the other are his primary concerns. The young Gurnah wrote about his sense of being alien from a position of weakness and, four decades later, this sense of being an outsider has not left him. This prevailing sense of estrangement finds its way into the lives of many of his protagonists who are predominately male and lead half-lives; with one foot in the diasporic present and the other foot in the past. The author’s own abandoning of Zanzibar and his recollections of those people left behind during Sheikh Abeid Karume’s oppressive regime are channelled into much of his writing through the trope of shame. It is perhaps for this reason that the author displays a penchant towards poetic pessimism, which primarily focuses upon how vulnerable mankind is.
Writing as a means of remembering is a premise that Gurnah holds high and his permanent ‘exile’ in England has afforded the author with a distance from where these memories can be distilled. For Gurnah, writing is also about resistance against dominant discourses; it is a space where his early intuitions about his own difference and the nature of imperialism could mature into a coherent literary discourse. In his writing, Gurnah makes much use of juxtapositions as a means of creating dynamism; harshness, self-contempt register and sentimental optimism are conflicting narratives he uses to create paradox. Throughout his literary career, Gurnah’s search for ‘truthfulness’ can be summed up as neither wishing to paint bleak pictures of ‘outpost’ of old empire, nor engage in a sentimentalism of homeland viewed from the comforts of exile.
Gurnah’s first novel Memory of Departure (1987) draws its inspiration from the authors’ early life in Zanzibar and his own subsequent departure On a formal level, Memory of Departure can be seen as a cross-over between novel and memoir. The action takes place in an East African coastal city after emancipation from colonial rule and, like Gurnah, its narrator speaks about the restrictions and sense of frustration he suffers within the postcolony. The Black African/Arab divide is seen as curtailing entropy and, through the archetype of the drunken father figure, local governance is portrayed as being ineffectual. African kleptocracy is also denounced in the novel when the protagonist visits his uncle in Nairobi. The book employs the trope of the wandering self through the first-person narrative of Hassan who traverses the conflicting emotions of expectation and loss when he abandons his home. On a conceptual level, the narrative examines how slippery the act of recollection can be; the narrator represses, distorts and selects memories so as to construct an identity that may appear coherent yet is not altogether factual.
Pilgrim’s Way (1988) borrows its title from the ancient causeway that links Winchester to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Cantebury, Kent, Gurnah’s adoptive home. The author draws upon the time he worked as a hospital orderly to develop the novel’s central character Daud who has come to the metropolis in search of a better life. The Tanzanian is a postcolonial wanderer who must deal with the incommensurable nature of the colour line in British society and how this marks the émigré. A victim of stereotyping, he develops a self-consciousness that borders upon the paranoiac. While Daud does not vocalise his psychomachia, the Liberian Karta, on the contrary, reaffirms the validity of his African identity by denouncing of the Atlantic slave trade, or reclaiming icons of white culture such as Pushkin, Saint Augustine, or Alexandre Dumas, for black culture (43). The novel arc looks at the motif of redemption through Catherine who poses him the question: ‘Why do you have to be so over-sensitive? Are you something special?’ (39). By challenging his hyper-sensitivity, she questions the self-fulfilling prophecies of assigned roles. The narrative, however, does not suggest that Daud’s association with a white woman will eradicate difference and finally there is no redemption to cure his cynicism and self-pitying, traits that mark him as an exiled man. Dottie (1990) explores similar themes of alienation through the character of Dottie Badoara Fatma Balfour, a woman of mixed origin who is marginalised from society. Set in the politically racially fraught late 1960s, Gurnah channels his own sense of deracination into the narrative and examines how a person like Dottie is doubly stigmatised by race and gender.
Paradise (1994) is a seminal novel in Gurnah’s career as it most vividly portrays the complexities of East African Arab-Swahili identity. The novel appropriates the Surah Yusuf, the most detailed of all the narratives in the Qu’ran that tells the story of Joseph, son of Jacob. It is set in the period 1900-14 in German East Africa, and it looks at Tanganyikan colonial society at a moment of its disintegration. The impulse behind writing Paradise was to challenge the Manichean discourses constructed by colonialism around the issue of ending Arab slavery, the falsification of history, and the crusade against Islam. The story is told through the eyes of Yusuf, a twelve-year-old boy who has been handed into the service of a Muslim trader as a ‘rehani’ (a kind of slave) and sent to work in the coastal city of what is modern-day Tanzania. The central part of the Paradise deals with a trading expedition into the heartland of Tanganyika, and this epic journey commences from the town of Kawa which lies upon the Tanganyika railway. It is from this strategic trading post that the Arab-Swahili elite freight raw materials and other goods procured from interior to the coast. Through Yusuf’s voice, the reader comes to see Kawa as the last outpost of civilisation, and as the expedition ventures towards ‘the Great Lake’, the narrative steers the reader towards perceiving the interior as a place of darkness and savagery. In this respect, the text signals those imperial narratives of explorers such as John Hanning Speke and Richard Burton and also becomes reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. This perception of peril is born out when Uncle Aziz’s safari arrive at the kingdom of king Chatu, a ruler renowned for his cruelty and from whom they are hoping to buy ivory. No trade is conducted, the party is attacked, many are killed and Yusuf escapes with his life. The only perception Paradise gives us about the black Africans of the hinterland is one of ‘savage’, yet we know that the prevailing colonial regime classifies both the Arab-Swahili elite and the black Africans under the same rubric of inferior other. Through the journey into the African interior, the reader vicariously lives out these paradoxes through Yusuf’s perceptions; he witnesses both the brutality of king Chatu and the cynicism and ruthless exploitation of the Arab elite who are implicated in slaving practices. In the novel’s final pages, Yusuf prefers to follow the Askari troups led by a German officer than return to his own people, which becomes a source of shame for him.
This is the double bind that torments many of Gurnah’s charcters and fuels their ambiguities. In By The Sea (2001), Saleh Omar looks back to his childhood and muses upon how the imperial pedagogy had selected him from a ‘ruck of native boys eager for their kind of education’ (17). Saleh Omar has cultivated a need for learning instilled by a Qu’ranic tradition, yet it is the colonial education with its ‘glamour’ and the sense of ‘being alive to the modern world’ (17) that draws him. The narrator admits that he secretly admires the British for their ‘audacity’, their ‘calling the shots’ such a long way from home (17). Arrival to the colonial metropolis, however, tempers this admiration. The book’s first pages narrate Saleh Omar’s interrogation at immigration control, Gatwick airport, and explore needless humiliation. (The scene finds its inspiration from Gurnah’s arrival at that same airport with his brother in 1969.) By the Sea returns to Gurnah’s premise of remembering as a fundamental process in identity, and one section of the novel is dedicated to Saleh Omar’ recollections of the past. For Gurnah, writing is a way of remembering, and the obsession with the abandoned homeland fuels the need to narrate and recreate it.
Desertion (2005) similarly revisits these concerns through Rashid’s narrative of arrival to the UK. Rashid is at first dismayed at how English people perceive him. His image of self becomes disturbed by the hostile looks he receives and he must then go through a process of reconstructing his own previous relationship with the English coloniser in Zanzibar and how this was founded on many carefully constructed fallacies: ‘It took a long time to learn not to care, years, a lifetime. […] I realised that I did not know very much about England, that all the books I had studied and the maps I had pored over had taught me nothing of how England thought of the world and of people like me’ (214).
The Last Gift (2011) returns to Gurnah’s concerns of identity as a shifting narrative that was present in Admiring Silence (1996). In this earlier novel, Gurnah’s unnamed narrator is a Zanzibari dissident who has fled his native land. He finds asylum in the UK, becomes a school teacher, and marries an English woman. However, below this surface of stability we find a much more fragile scenario where the unnamed narrator must fabricate details of his own past so that he can become palatable to his host family. This sanitising of his family history through the act of fictionalising is in stark juxtaposition with the fact that he has severed all links with his family and that they know nothing about his English bride. The protagonist thus finds himself in the precarious situation of having both to attend to the demands of colonial nostalgia of his political family on one hand, and silence the fact that he has married a white woman on the other. He sustains this half life through fabrication, a seemingly innocent pursuit that is shattered upon a return visit to Zanzibar where he finds the family home in decay and his old friends now complicit in a suppressive regime of kleptocratic governance. This and other revealed truths such as the real circumstances under which his mother was given to his father, wake him up from his self-delusionary narratives spun in exile. The edginess he feels when confronted by the ‘real’ Zanzibar is compounded by family encroachments regarding an arranged marriage which causes the protagonist to abandon Zanzibar once more. However, on his return to the UK he finds his wife has left him, and the comfort of his assimilated life is shattered. Alone and confused, he is cut adrift in his adopted island and left to swim amongst the incommensurable seas of cultural difference.
Through the character of Abbas, Gurnah revisits this motif of in-betweenness in The Last Gift. The book looks at self-reproach and contradictory emotions that this produces through a narrative crossing back and forth from the past in Zanzibar to a present in the UK. There is an initial reticence within the narrative to convey Abbas’s identity, and this is mirrored by the lacunas that other character have as regards Abbas. His wife Maryam’s knowledge about her husband’s past is sketchy while his children Hanna and Jamal know little about their father’s past bar ‘he was a monkey from Africa’; a self-deprecatory tone Abbas uses in irony to hide his real emotions. This reticence spawns from Abbas’ conflictual attitudes about Zanzibar. When Maryam encourages her husband to make a series of recordings about his past, he becomes scathing about Zanzibar which he describes as ‘that old latrine’. Yet memories of his homeland are integral to who he is, and being ill and bedridden wake him up to the fact that he can no longer camouflage the past through fable. As Abbas’ impaired speech declines, his need to say why he abandoned Zanzibar augments and he now must tell the truth. Maryam, a foundling, also suffers from identity crises through her troublesome relationship with her foster parents, and similarly initiates a search into her past. For Maryam’s offspring, the journey is a reverse one. Abbas’s new candour means they must look closer at what it means to be second generation. Hanna is defensive about her ethnical background and struggles to block out the casual racists remarks of her upper-middle class white boyfriend, a theme Gurnah previously explored in Admiring Silence. Jamal struggles with the nature of his father’s guilt, and must learn to accept both the true nature of his father’s immigrant story and his own roots.
[i] Gurnah, Abdulrazak. ‘Writing and Place’. World Literature Today 78:2 (2004): 26-28.
Memory of Departure. 1987. London: Jonathan Cape.
Pilgrim’s Way. 1988. London: Jonathan Cape.
Dottie. 1990. London: Jonathan Cape.
Paradise. 1994: London: Hamish Hamilton.
Admiring Silence. 1996. London: Hamish Hamilton.
By the Sea. 2001. London: Bloomsbury.
Desertion. 2005. London: Bloomsbury.
The Last Gift. 2011. London: Bloomsbury
My Mother Lived on a Farm in Africa’. In The Anthology of New Writing, Volume 14. Lavinia Greenlaw & Helon Habila (eds). London: Granta Books.
Essays on African Writing: A Re-evaluation. 1993. Oxford: Heinemann.
Cambridge Companion to Salman Rushdie. 2007. Cambridge: CUP.
Los Angeles Times Book Prize (Fiction) shortlist, By the Sea
Man Booker prize shortlist. Paradise (1994) and Desertion (2005)
Man Booker prize longlist. By The Sea (2001)
Whitbread prize shortlist. Paradise (1994)
Commonwealth Writers Prize (Eurasia Region, Best Book), Desertion
Current Professor at University of Kent
Member of the Wasafiri advisory board, the UK-based journal for international contemporary writing.
Bungaro, M. ‘Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Dottie: A Narrative of (un)Belonging.’ ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 36(3-4) (2005): 25-41.
Cooper, B. ‘Returning the Jinns to the Jar: Material Culture, Stories and Migration in Abdulrazak Gurnah’s by the Sea’. Kunapipi: Journal of Postcolonial Writing 30(1) (2008):79-96.
Gurnah, Abdulrazak. ‘Writing and Place’. World Literature Today 78:2 (2004): 26-28.
Hand, F. ‘Untangling Stories and Healing Rifts: Abdulrazak Gurnah’s by the Sea’. Research in African Literatures 41(2) (2010): 74-92.
Helff, S. ‘Illegal Diasporas and African Refugees in Abdulrazak Gurnah’s by the Sea. Journal of Commonwealth Literature 44(1), (2009):67-80.
Jones, N. ‘Abdulrazak Gurnah in Conversation’. Wasafiri: The Transnational Journal of International Writing,46 (2005): 37-42.
Mirmotahari, E. ‘Interview with Abdulrazak Gurnah Conducted at the University of Kent, Canterbury’. Ufahamu: African Studies Journal 32(3) (2006): 11-11-29.
Steiner, T. ‘Writing ‘Wider Worlds’: The Role of Relation in Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Fiction. Research in African Literatures 41(3) (2010): 124-135.
Watts, I. ‘British Identity and the Challenge of Immigration in Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Dottie and by the Sea’. Journal of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies 12(2) (2005):37-51.
Whyte, P. ‘Heritage as Nightmare: The Novels of Abdulrazak Gurnah.’ Commonwealth Essays and Studies 27(1) (2004): 11-18.