”I think a writer has an obligation to speak as truthfully as they understand.” Abdulrazak Gurnah, writer and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, shares his thoughts on writing about traumatic experiences, the good and bad in his characters and the writer’s role in society.
“The first thing I started reading was the Quran because I grew up in a Muslim society.” Abdulrazak Gurnah was born in Tanzania, where he, at the age of 5, started to read. “Reading came very easily, and I did a lot of it.” He remembers reading a copy of Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy at his uncle’s house at a very young age. “I wept through it,” he says and continues: “I didn’t know anything about that period or Russia.” To Gurnah, this is precisely why literature can be so powerful: “I think that is what literature or writing can do. You don’t have to understand it all, but it reaches you nonetheless.”
His novel, Afterlives from 2020, is a multi-generational saga og displacement, loss, and love set against the colonisation of East Africa in the context of the first half of the 20th century. The reader meets Ilyas, who, as a young boy, was stolen from his parents by German colonial troops. Within the book, Gurnah examines different kinds of trauma and what it does to people. “Is there good and bad in people? Yes, I think that’s how we are,” he explains further: “In this novel, the figures we are drawn to have their own problems. And they are certainly not heroic in any straightforward mythic sense.” To Gurnah, the characters’ “resolute and enduring beings” are what makes them heroic. “It’s the little people who somehow overcome things… They’re the ones I’m interested in.”
A theme that runs through Abdulrazak Gurnah’s work is refugees. “One of the things that motivates me is to speak about the world I live in and, particularly, if I note and see that there is an injustice taking place.” To him, as a writer, the best thing is to “leave the writer to carry on with whatever it is they have chosen to understand and write about that.” Gurnah explains: “I think it is something I most admire about us humans. It is this ability to retrieve something from bad experiences. There is an everyday way in which people can do this. But there is also the way when catastrophes happen,” he says. To him, one of the most obvious examples is people fleeing for their lives: “The thing to remember in that case is that they don’t come empty-handed. They don’t come without skills.”
Abdulrazak Gurnah (b. 1948) is a Tanzanian-born British writer and academic. He was born in the Sultanate of Zanzibar and moved to the United Kingdom in the 1960s. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature 2021 and is the author of ten novels, including Memory of Departure, Pilgrims Way, Paradise, The Last Gift and latest Afterlives. His books have been shortlisted for awards such as the Booker Prize, The Whitbread Award, Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and more. He was a Professor of English at the University of Kent and was a Man Booker Prize judge in 2016.
Abdulrazak Gurnah was interviewed by Marc-Christoph Wagner during the Louisiana Literature festival at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in August 2023.
Camera: Simon Wehye
Edited by: Roxanne Bagheshirin Lærkesen
Produced by: Marc-Christoph Wagner
Copyright: Louisiana Channel, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2023
Louisiana Channel is supported by Den A.P. Møllerske Støttefond, Ny Carlsbergfondet, C.L. Davids Fond og Samling, and Fritz Hansen.
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