Abdulrazak Gurnah was born on December 20, 1948 in the Sultanate of Zanzibar. At the age of 18, he migrated to the United Kingdom as a refugee during the Zanzibar Revolution, when citizens of Arab origin faced persecution. Eventually he settled in England. His debut novel, Memories of Departure, was published in 1987. In 1994, his fourth novel, Paradise, was shortlisted for the Booker and Whitbread Prize. Some years later, By the Sea (2001) was longlisted for the Booker Prize, while Desertion (2005) was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. In 2006 Gurnah was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

On October 7, 2021 Gurnah was awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fates of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.” He became the first Black writer to receive the prize since 1993, when Toni Morrison won it, and the first African writer since 1991, when Nadine Gordimer was honoured.

Gurnah is Emeritus Professor of English and Postcolonial Literatures at the University of Ken in the UK. He lives in Canterbury and has British citizenship. In a conversation organised by the 2023 Jaipur Literature Festival, the Nobel laureate spoke to Scroll.in about what the win means to him, the politics of “belonging” and “home,” the injustices of the refugee crisis, and more. Excerpts from the conversation:

The idea of “home” comes under magnificent scrutiny in your novels like Admiring Silence and Gravel Heart. Can you tell us how this conflict plays out in your personal life?
Well, “home” is not a simple word or a simple concept for many of us, particularly for those who are no longer in the place that they are ancestrally connected to or originate from. So if you take a book like Admiring Silence, I am interested very much in the process of displacement, the process of losing a home, and also coming to learn to live in another home. Both these places, of course – and you don’t realise this immediately – are home. They might at times appear to be in conflict, that is to say, it might sometimes seem as if there is no obligation to be affiliated with the ancestral place and to deny the adopted place. That’s a bind that many of us find ourselves in. So that’s what I was looking at in this novel particularly.

One of the interesting things about finding yourself in another place is that more often you will be in unfamiliar places instead of the ones you consider your own – I’m talking about young people, children of refugees and migrants, displaced people who have never really called any land their own. Think about someone who “belongs” to Zanzibar and has somehow ended up in Canterbury, UK. And because you are often on your own in situations like this, no one can challenge the narrative you offer about yourself.

I explore this in Admiring Silence – especially the temptation to clean up your history and to make sure that only the good parts are known and heard about. It’s quite a powerful temptation to want to restructure your own narrative but it’s also very corruptive – you start to tell things that are not true. It is difficult to be pro-lies even if they are well-adjusted and harmless. It is easy to tell lie after lie.

This temptation comes to the fore in Admiring Silence – you tell lies not because you are malicious but because you need people to like you. But sooner or later you’ll get to a point where the lies become difficult to keep a track of, the untrue version of yourself, and how it leads to yet another conflict that needs to be addressed.

In Gravel Heart, I wanted to understand how secrets operate. You are in a new place where nobody knows what you have done. You might want to remove yourself from your past but your family knows the truth and this is unwelcome. To answer your question, “home” is just not a distinct or distant place that people leave behind. “Home” continues. It continues in our imaginations.

Bad fathers and a conflicted relationship with father figures are recurring themes in your novels, especially in Gravel Heart and Paradise. Why is it so?
That’s because of how things are! I’m not saying relationships with fathers are always conflicted but there are moments of resolution. In Gravel Heart, there is a long moment of resolution where the son and the father are trying to understand each other. It does not always work because of the competing ideas and sometimes parental kindness can even feel hostile to the child. So when the father says he’s doing something for your good, a growing child might find it patronising or constricting. The child thinks they know what’s good for them better than anyone else. This is a timeless conflict between any parent and a child, especially fathers and sons. Of course, in many cases, it is resolved as the child matures and the father begins to understand the child’s perspective.

A time will come when the son will revise the father’s “tutorials” – and it is this moment that the child will either submit and pretend to accept whatever has been taught to them, or fight back. And this is not a needless fight, they are fighting for their sense of self. In Gravel Heart and Paradise, these issue become more than a momentary tension.

If you think of The Last Gift, it tackles another kind of father-son relationship. Some make peace with each other, some don’t. I’m interested in families and not just fathers and sons. I have always been intrigued by how families work and how sometimes sorrow comes out of acts of familial kindness. That is to say, something done with kindness can become the cause of oppression – either by being too insistent or disregarding individual desires. This is interesting to me.

Travel is an integral part of your stories and oftentimes in dire conditions. Do you travel a lot? How has it shaped your storytelling?
I haven’t travelled a lot. I only made that one long journey [from Zanzibar to England] when I was 18 years old! A lot of the travelling that features in my books is based on what I know of other people’s journeys and lives. Travelling in these cases has not always been leisurely. Therefore, the journeys that you might have read about in By the Sea or Desertion is the kind of travel that I am familiar with.

I grew up with the awareness of people moving in literal oceans. First, the usual travels where you go back and forth and secondly, and more importantly, the centuries-old patterned migrations of people from Arabic nations, Western India, and others coming to the coasts of East Africa and settling there. The second kind of travel did not seem to me like travelling in the true sense of the word. I thought of it as a constant exchange of language, food, religion et cetera. Almost every person from both communities was involved in this exchange.

Now there’s one more type of travelling – going to Europe. To me, this is more of a displacement than anything else. Travelling to a totally alien place. This is strange to me and I think it is so for many people. It’s not just a matter of distance – I couldn’t tell you if the UK is any farther from Zanzibar than it is from, let’s say, Kuala Lumpur – but places in the East for some reason feel nearer. In our minds, people went back and forth from the East but the West was a place of no return. I’m interested in these interconnections that seem natural to the regions connected by the Indian Ocean.

As a writer of colour, what was it like having your first book published in the UK?
It was wonderful! I had been writing for a long time even before my first book was published. This is not unique to me, of course. You write for many many years and hope that one day you get published. And when it finally happens, well, it is fantastic! You think, Yes, now I have been published. After all these years!

The journey took a long time and the reader’s reactions came after a while too. But again, I cannot claim this to be a unique experience – this does not have to be the staple experience for every writer of colour. Your complexion might have a part to play but it is not the only reason for the delay. So many writers have to hang around for a while before their work finally finds a home and is published. You have to remember that you are dealing with individuals – a publisher is a person, after all.

So when you are a new writer, your manuscript has to land on the right desk for it to be published. Sometimes it happens immediately and sometimes it does not. And what can you do about it? Not much except having trust and faith in what you do. In the meantime, you can write more books. And when you finally find a publisher who is as excited about your work as you are, then of course it is wonderful.

Do you think of yourself as a British or a Tanzanian writer?
Well, I don’t know. I think of myself as both of those things but I also don’t think of myself as belonging to either of those categories. But then again – I am those categories. What I will say is this…I am both!

What are your hopes for your books? Especially with respect to refugees and their stories.
As far as the refugee business is concerned, it is a serious injustice of the time we live in. I don’t think writing will change that. But if it does, then that’s wonderful. When I write it is not something that plays in my mind – I don’t write with the intention to make people do something different. I write what I know, things that interest me, and what I believe is necessary to talk about. What that achieves…is not in my hands.

And finally, what is being a Nobel laureate like?
Life’s been pretty good actually! The win makes time more precious and what you can do with it. Which is very good especially when it happens after a lifetime of writing. The recognition is welcome and it is a wonderful thing to be told that you have a place in the line of all the exemplary writers whose works you have admired. But most of all, it is wonderful to know that your books are widely available for people to read and translate and that there are people like yourself who are interested in talking to me about my books and writing career. It’s all very good!

Abdulrazak Gurnah donates an artefact to the Nobel Prize Museum - an Oxford English dictionary that he has used since the 1980s. The dictionary used to reside on his desk but, due to the digital tools now available, Gurnah says he no longer uses it. | Picture credits: Nobel Prizes on Instagram.