Essay: Meg Samuelsonon Abdulrazak Gurnah

On Abdulrazak Gurnah:
A Storyteller for Our Times

Many were surprised when the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature was announced. But Abdulrazak Gurnah is an inspired choice. Each of his ten novels offer terrific rewards to readers. Though scandalously unsung till now, he is a superb crafter of narrative and a transporting storyteller. He is also a writer of worlds we sorely need today.

Starting from his first novel, Memory of Departure, published in 1987, he has taken as his theme what he describes as the ‘condition of being from one place and living in another’. More than an ordeal that he has undergone, though it is that too, he addresses this condition as one of the big ‘stories of our times’, plotting its contours through various itineraries across the pages of his books. My favourite, By the Sea (2001), traces it through two characters whose stories unfurl from Zanzibar before converging again in a seaside town in England: one had disembarked at Southampton in the 1960s after defecting from his state-sponsored studies in the GDR; the other presents himself at Gatwick as an asylum seeker some three decades later. Through subtly patterned contrasts and connections, the narrative registers how the laws governing refugees in the United Kingdom have hardened, as they have in Australia, even while the need for asylum grows across the globe.

Since its publication at the start of this century, the story that By the Sea channels has swelled considerably – and it will surely continue to do so as increasing numbers are forcibly displaced, and as more and more of the earth becomes inhospitable to life. Gurnah is among the most perceptive and accomplished chroniclers of this story. He brings to it the intimate insights of one who has experienced exile and sought refuge in another place, along with the expansive vision of a more accommodating world that he salvages for our times from the ruins of that which he left behind.

Black and white photograph of a boat on the sea with buildings in the near distance.
Dhow with Zanzibar’s Beit-al-Ajaib in the background 1948. Photograph by Ranchhod Oza, published with the permission of Rohit Oza, Capital Art Studio, Zanzibar.

Born in 1948, Gurnah grew up on Unguja island in the Sultanate of Zanzibar during its last years as a British Protectorate. He witnessed first-hand the unravelling of the cosmopolitan communities of the eastern African coast, and particularly those of Zanzibar, as they were picked apart by the imperial administration. The subsequent demand for a ‘commitment to nation and continent’ that saw Zanzibar turn away from the Indian Ocean world at independence is one he regrets across his oeuvre, including in the recent Gravel Heart (2017). Stretched to breaking point by a cartography that carved up the world to make it available to Europe, along with an administration that reorganized heterogenous groups into hierarchical races, Zanzibar’s sociality fragmented cataclysmically just as Gurnah came of age. Thousands who were identified as Arab or Asian were killed in the revolution of 12 January 1964, and many other Zanzibaris fled in its wake.

Gurnah and his brother were among those who escaped during the bleak and bitter aftermath of the revolution. Arriving in England in 1968, just as Enoch Powell was about to deliver his anti-immigrant diatribe, he suffered the blows of a barefaced racism in the country in which he had sought safety and fulfillment.  ‘What a shock it was to discover the loathing in which I was held’, he recalled later of a people who ‘thought themselves tolerant’: ‘If there had been anywhere to go to, I would have gone. But I had broken the law in my own country and there was no going back’. It was only in 1984, following a general amnesty to those who had absconded, that he was able to return and visit the family he had left behind all those years before.

Yet when his fiction revisits the coastal societies of east Africa, as many of his novels do, it doesn’t romanticize a lost world. His plots often turn on the predicaments of their more vulnerable members: the predation suffered by young men in port cities, women’s lot in an exchange economy that transacts them to extend trade networks, and the fate of children bonded as debt pawns. They are sensible, too, to the spectre of slavery that haunts these shores. Rather than dishing up the piquant repast of sultans and spices that the tourist industry now peddles, Gurnah’s narratives are instead drawn to the scene of wreckage. What they salvage for our times from the ‘complicated heritage’ of Zanzibar and other entrepots of the western Indian Ocean are their capacious accommodations: the way they harboured strangers and maintained an openness to the world; the delicate negotiations through which they sustained a degree of social heterogeneity that is remarkable even by the standards of the globalised present.

The Indian Ocean has supported long-distance travel by lateen-sailed craft since antiquity, thanks to its alternating monsoon winds. Its bidirectional wind system, which distinguishes it from the Atlantic and Pacific, is generated from the seasonal cooling and heating of its continental ceiling, the Eurasian landmass that tops it. By the Sea evokes the long history of sea-traffic that it has enabled, and which it sets in counterpoint to the bordered states of the contemporary world:

They had been doing this every year for at least a thousand years. In the last months of the year, the winds blow steadily across the Indian Ocean towards the coast of Africa, where the currents obligingly provide a channel to harbour. Then in the early months of the new year, the winds turn around and blow in the opposite direction, ready to speed the traders home. It was all as if intended to be exactly thus…. For centuries, intrepid traders and sailors, most of them barbarous and poor no doubt, made the annual journey to that stretch of coast on the eastern side of the continent, which had cusped so long ago to receive the musim winds.

Woven on the loom of this ocean, the world Gurnah cherishes was richly embroidered during periods in which the sea was ‘closed’, to quote the fifteenth-century navigational guide by renowned mariner Ibn Majid. Traders were required by the monsoon system to linger on distant shores before returning home. Over time, distinct cultures entangled into intricate knots while families distributed members all along the littoral.

The Nobel Prize identifies Gurnah as Tanzanian (Zanzibar amalgamated with mainland Tanganyika to become the United Republic of Tanzania after the revolution) and media reports have been eager to claim him as the second black African, after Wole Soyinka, to receive the award. But the territory his fiction claims as its home patch is instead the expansive and porous one of ‘that stretch of coast’ that had ‘cusped’ so graciously before the monsoon winds. The forms of belonging that it promotes are also more elastic than the imposed equation between ‘geography’ and ‘biology’ that it explicitly challenges. Characters roaming the shores of the Indian Ocean feel themselves to be everywhere at home and are in turn received as members of the family, as are those who traverse its waters to disembark in towns such as Port Louis and Colombo.

Australia, too, is washed by this ocean. Coins have been found in the Wessel Islands that were minted a thousand years ago in the city-state of Kilwa Kisiwani, an island just south of the Zanzibar Archipelago. The still-speculative possibility of trade routes knitting Arnhem Land into the world that Gurnah’s fiction recomposes is an intriguing one for readers launching into it from Australian shores. It invites us to read ourselves into stories that measure detention against accommodation, and to ask what relation and obligation we may have to those seeking to arrive by boat today.

Gurnah’s childhood home in Zanzibar’s Stone Town was located near the old harbour. Before the ports closed to Indian Ocean traffic in 1964, he would watch traders arriving by dhow on the north-easterly winds of the kaskazi monsoon, seeking permission only from the sea before setting up camp in any open space they could find and bringing to the shores of eastern Africa the fabulous goods and the inevitable harms of a mercantile world. His fiction prizes their unchecked mobility and even the ambivalence of what they represent. One of the values it promotes is an ability to live with contradiction and complexity – an ability nourished in coastal towns that accepted imperilment as the necessary cost of an enlivening exposure to the unknown.

Modeled by the coastal cultures that Gurnah observed in their crepuscular hour are practices of hospitality that his fiction holds up as exemplary – and emulates in form. This is a hospitality claimed by visitation rather than one extended through invitation to those who have been deemed desirable or unthreatening. It comes close to realizing what philosopher Jacques Derrida described as an ‘unconditional hospitality’ and held up as the impossible ideal against which its debased form must be measured. Derrida recognized that a hospitality offered rather than claimed reproduces a colonial structure in which the master plays the genial but regulatory role of host. Gurnah, who carries this understanding in his bones, explores the terms and the potential of an unconditional hospitality across a range of settings and scenarios. He also enacts it in the shape of the narratives themselves.

black and white photo of a group of men in a market place, one is holding a bicycle
Zanzibar Market, 1958. Photograph by Ranchhod Oza, published with the permission of Rohit Oza, Capital Art Studio, Zanzibar.

Though his writing is stylistically undemonstrative, and each of his ten books memorably unique, Gurnah has crafted a distinctive novelistic architecture. Its characteristic features include a capaciousness that accommodates an expansive range of experience and allusion, along with a willingness to admit contradictory accounts. There is also the promise of repose in a quiet gentleness of tone and a tenderness of touch. These fictions are keenly aware of the ways in which those suffering colonial occupation and postcolonial displacement are both robbed of the stories that give them substance and required to recast their lives along the narrow lines of imposed narratives. And so Gurnah’s writing cusps into bays that harbour silences and hold unspeakable hurts while at the same time telling stories in service to life that spool out into the wider world (in By the Sea this dual impulse is played out through allusion to Melville’s ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’ and Shahrazad, the storyteller of the Thousand and One Nights).

As if to catch in the hammock of his oeuvre those who have fallen out of the histories designed by the powerful, some of his recent novels have returned also to pick up a minor character from a prior one or otherwise ask readers to consider what happens after events ostensibly end. His latest, Afterlives (2020), returns to the East African campaign on which the earlier Paradise (1994) concluded, reviewing the First World War from the perspective of the small lives swept up in a foreign conflict and then left with their ‘uncounted dead’ when it withdrew. Opening the home of fiction to their battered bodies and bruised hearts, Afterlives both respects and reiterates the moments of kindness and the gestures of care through which they survive and give weight to their dead.

Omani merchants in Zanzibar, c. 1950s. Photograph by Ranchhod Oza, published with the permission of Rohit Oza, Capital Art Studio, Zanzibar.

Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques. ‘Hostipitality,’ trans. Barry Stocker. Angelaki 5.3 (2000): 3–18.

Gurnah, Abdulrazak.  ‘Writing and Place’. Wasafiri 19.42 (2004): 58-60.

Gurnah, Abdulrazak. ‘Fear and Loathing’. The Guardian (22 May 2001).

Gurnah, Abdulrazak. By the Sea (London: Bloomsbury, 2001).

Gurnah, Abdulrazak. Gravel Heart (London: Bloomsbury, 2017).

Gurnah, Abdulrazak. Afterlives (London: Bloomsburty, 2020).

Ibn Majid. Arab Navigation in the Indian Ocean Before the Coming of the Portuguese, ed. and trans. G.R. Tibbetts (London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1971).