• Fri. Apr 12th, 2024

EIBF 2022: Abdulrazak Gurnah, ‘Migration, The Story of Our Times’

ByPatricia Kohring

Aug 29, 2022

Though initially intrigued but nonetheless unfamiliar with Abdulrazak Gurnah and his work, I sat mesmerised by the Nobel Prize winner for the hour he had been allotted at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. The man, with fifty years of writing behind him along with a career in academia, carried with him none of the pretensions that are sometimes associated with the personas of highly achieved writers- in his talk he gave his listeners nothing but the solace and humility that I have afterwards discovered in his writing.

Seeming to care little for the promotion of his latest novel, Gurnah nearly avoided emphasis on Afterlives (2020) altogether and instead directed the discussion towards the key themes and drivers of his life of writing. In fact, the hour did not even begin with Gurnah, but a quote he spoke from an excerpt from Salman Rushdie’s Imaginary Homelands. It was read as follows, “An old photograph hangs on a wall of the room where I work. It’s a picture dating from 1946, of a house into which at the time of its taking, I had not yet been born. Which reminds me, that the past is home, albeit, a lost home”. The greatness of Rushdie’s work was respectfully congratulated in light of the tragic event that recently befell the writer. The quoted excerpt, however, also acted as a gentle precursor to Gurnah’s discussion on the movement of people, places and time, that was to succeed it.

Gurnah revealed how his experiences as a Black, Muslim refugee during a time of great anxiety over immigrants in the United Kingdom have been a large influence on his work. The writer emigrated from Zanzibar in the aftermath of its 1964 revolution in hope of finding a future abroad. But Britain, he proclaimed, was a surprising, scary and most of all, strange, adventure. The venomous nostalgia for imperialism was unavoidable. The year that Gurnah arrived in the UK was also the year of the infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, where Enoch Powell raised the rising conservative concern for the ‘erosion of national character’ as an impending result of the twentieth century’s immigration influx. There was homesickness, of course, among such outright rejections from the land of former expectations, and in his talk, Gurnah recalls some of the biggest questions circulating amongst people in similar positions at the time; ‘What have I done?’, ‘What have I lost?’.

At the time of the talk, I was simultaneously in the process of getting acquainted with Gravel Heart (2017), Gurnah’s second to latest novel and my first reading of him. Coincidentally, this novel aligned itself perfectly with the very heart of the author’s discussion at the Book Festival. Gravel Heart follows young Salim as he emigrates from Zanzibar to London and all the struggles, confusion and unforeseen disappointments that follow. Salim defies his prosperous uncle by quitting his business studies for a literature degree and is thereby left to fend for himself with his own inexistent economy. Narrated is not only the struggle of low-paid jobs, poor housing, and various social rejections but also the confusing feeling of having lost something fundamental (not merely a physical home) by moving permanently from a place where you once believed you belonged. This dispossession in the tumult and mass movements of the 21st century echoes Gurnah’s own experiences.

Though I have yet to read Afterlives, the author, when prodded by the host to discuss it, once again omits details about the novel’s content. Instead, he explains how Afterlives, as all of his other work, concerns itself with the relations of human beings, injustices, and how people deal with decisions. Writing, he says, is an expression of one’s humanity. What makes writing interesting, is how you get to the point, the method of doing it, and how you might dramatise it; it is the process that reveals how human relations work. From the little I have encountered, this exploration, this desire to work towards an understanding of human dealings, conflicts and pains has an overwhelming presence in Gurnah’s work. There is a sensitivity there, in its quality, and when one reads the Nobel Prize winner there is a desire to savour every sense of his writing. Immense feelings are inevitably evoked by writing that whispers humanity with confidence.

Image Credit: “Abdulrazak Gurnah on Hebron Panel” by PalFest is licensed under CC BY 2.0.