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Novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah: Consequences of colonialism continue

Last week was an adrenaline rush for novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah. Since his phone rang with the news that he’d been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, he’s had a few quiet moments. 

Gurnah, now 72, was born in Zanzibar, a group of small, semi-autonomous islands off the coast of mainland Tanzania, but he spent much of his adult life in the United Kingdom, arriving as an 18-year-old refugee in the 1960s.

Related: Nobel Prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah: An introduction

As a novelist, Gurnah draws from personal experiences for his 10 books, including “By the Sea,” “Admiring Silence,” “Memory of Departure,” “Pilgrims Way,” and the Booker Prize finalist — “Paradise.” His latest novel, “Afterlives,” addresses German colonialism in East Africa in the early 20th century. 

Announcing the Nobel Prize for literature on Thursday, the Swedish Academy said the award recognized Gurnah’s “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”

On Friday, Gurnah criticized the “lack of compassion” of governments, including Britain’s, that treat migrants as a problem or a threat. He pointed out that the tribulations faced by migrants hadn’t lessened in the decades since he left his homeland.

Related: Nobel winner Abdulrazak Gurnah brings dignity to stories of colonial disposession 

Gurnah joined The World’s host Marco Werman to talk about what motivates him to continue to explore the ongoing consequences of colonialism in his literary works, and the power of literature to help us understand the plight of the other. 

Marco Werman: The characters we meet in your stories — are these people you grew up with in Zanzibar? 

Abdulrazak Gurnah: Some of them, some a little. They grew up with me in my mind, in my imagination, as you were. They’re how you inform yourself about the plausibility of the people you are attempting to portray or to bring to life in your writing. 

Right. So many of these people you bring to life so brilliantly are deeply wounded by various things, various forces. What has injured them and how do they respond? 

I mean, we’re all wounded, sooner or later, and that’s experience, in a way. What we make of it is part of the process that I’m interested in. What is it that makes people encounter sometimes situations of injustice and of cruelty — but not always … sometimes situations of affection and love, and so on. But what is it that makes people then retrieve something from pain and trauma? I’m interested in that.

A lot of it is about the pain and trauma around colonialism. You said in an interview recently that you write stories that are steeped in colonialism because that’s what engages you. It’s what you care about. Why is it important to write about colonialism today, right now?

Well, it is part of contemporary reality. It’s not that colonialism has gone — colonialism and its consequences are still with us. But actually, in a very big way … European colonialism transformed the world. You could think of North America, you could think of India, you could think of South America, but more recently, the Indian Ocean world. So it’s not so much that it’s a historical event. It’s an event which happened many decades ago, but its consequences continue to be with us. 

“Afterlives,” your newest novel, is set in the era of World War I. One thing that has always struck me, having lived in West Africa for about five years, are the layers of colonialism. World War I was just one of those layers, preceded by the scramble for Africa, followed by the post-World War I carving up of the continent, and World War II was another recarving of new boundaries. How do you see the layers building on one another? What part has been most destructive?

Yeah, well, they all have their moments, you know what I mean? And also, it kind of depends on the particular experience of colonialism, different places with different experiences, both because of, shall we say, the agents of colonialism had different ideological or commercial or even, perhaps, in the case of Germany, I think a sort of military tradition that they carried over from Germany to the way in which they went about their colonialism.

And they were the colonizers in Tanzania — or what became Tanzania?

Yeah, and also, I think it depends on when it happened. If you look at the colonial experience of India, under the British, the British began there as perhaps the Europeans began in North America, as weak —  they’re just arriving there, kind of relying on other people’s indulgence in a way. And then they get stronger and stronger and stronger. … By the time you get to the 19th century and the divisions of Africa, Europe, of course, is powerful, dominant, doesn’t need to ask anybody to do anything. And so by then, that’s when Germany comes in, colonial expansion is really conquest. It’s no longer mercantile or to do with trade, then gradually turning into something else. It was straightforward conquest.

You were a teenager in 1960 when independence was claimed by many former colonies on the African continent. How do you understand independence? How did colonialism persist even after the celebratory moments in 1960, and how does it live on today? What do you see on the ground? 

Well, it continues because what we thought would happen — we were too optimistic. What we thought was that if we release the energies and the humane desires, as it were, of the colonized … — but that wasn’t what happened. Because what happened was the same ugly traits of human beings, greed and corruption and so on. I’m not saying that it’s all bleak and pointless and all of that kind of thing, but, you know, it does seem that we go one step forward, one half step back, and so on. And in some places — no steps forward. 

One of the first books I read when I lived in West Africa was Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart,” published in the late ’50s on the eve of Nigerian independence, set in precolonial Nigeria. And then it becomes this postindependence modern classic. Of course, one novel doesn’t come close to telling the whole story. What is the role of literature in African societies undergoing transformation and under stress?

Yeah, well, I think the role of literature everywhere is, to some extent, first, to engage and to address issues of the day. Now the issues of the day may also be about — how did you get to here? So, there’s scope for writing to be about understanding what happened in the past or just simply also understanding human beings — understanding how we live, how we function as social beings … what is possible, you know? How is it that people can come out of distress? Maybe it’s something you might learn by reading about other people’s examples and how they come out of distress. But above all, it’s also to give pleasure, to delight. If that happens, then I think literature will also be doing an important function.

Finally, given all of these things kind of pulling you left, right and center, I’m just curious how you are and have been celebrating what is a very exciting acknowledgment: the Nobel Prize for literature.

Most of the time, I’m talking to you guys! But when I get a moment or two, Yeah, I do sit down and celebrate quietly.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report. 

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