The jury chose Gurnah "for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents."
Al-Ahram caught up with the acclaimed writer at the 40th edition of the Sharjah International Book Fair in the UAE, his first meeting with the Arab audience since winning the Nobel Prize.
Ahram: Your novels show your protagonists as narrators rewriting history, recounting their stories about the paths of survival between loss and freedom, old treasons and new loyalties. What’s it that you want to say through your protagonists?
Gurnah: Yes, that’s true. I think that I wanted to make them like that deliberately. I wanted to say something about how people stay alive and their capability to survive in spite of harsh circumstances, experiences and hardships they are struggling with. I am not sure if that’s an exceptional thing. I believe that there are others who tried to do this in their own way. Thus, I consider this as a personal effort. I don’t think what I write is unique. I think that others who wrote about this also attempted to write about the experience of coming to Europe and strangers coming to another place and learn.
Ahram: Then your characters are real. Have you met them in your homeland and recalled them from your memory or encountered them when you moved to Britain?
Gurnah: Some of them are reminiscent of childhood memories. I’ve returned to Zanzibar many times. However, I like to believe that these characters and their experiences can be elsewhere, because I only write about what I know. But mostly I read about experiences that can be shared about people coming from another place and facing similar circumstances and experiences. It can be said that I was brought up with these stories. I was surrounded with people who passed through those experiences first hand and were talking about them.
Ahram: In fact your novels may apply to experiences of people from our Arab world who suffered and are still suffering from colonialism and asylum experience like what’s happening in Palestine, Syria, Iraq and other countries. Maybe this made your novels more humane and evocative. I wonder how you as a writer can depict these emotions and human experiences so skillfully, which was obvious in your recent novel After lives?
Gurnah: I would like to believe that my novels portray global human experiences. However, my interest wasn’t writing about war or the atrocities of colonialism per se. Instead, I wanted to highlight and understand the context in which the war and colonialism happened. People in such a context are humans who have a life and complete existence and are capable of resisting and surviving in different ways. I wanted to show how people adapt, those who were afflicted with the war and life itself in the light of these circumstances.
Ahram: This leads me to my next question; your novels reveal how memory escapes from history, to what extent evoking the memory in a novel can challenge the stereotypes of narratives in the West and illuminate the forgotten in history or what was effaced deliberately?
Gurnah: Many African countries confronted colonialism with unique ways due to different factors. It’s important to be attentive to details. I am somehow hesitant about using the memory collectively in this context. Despite of this, feeling globally is a good way to talk to people concerning some of these issues. Certainly, literature can be considered one of the important means for achieving this.
Ahram: Your characters bear Arabic and Islamic names and it seems that you have been influenced by the Holy Quran and the Arabic tales like One Thousand and One Nights. How were you influenced by all these and in what stage of your life, and do you read Arab novelists and who are they?
Gurnah: In fact I don’t know Arabic and didn’t read Arab novelists except very, very few whom I read coincidentally as translations and I don’t recall now specific names. But what I really would like to say is that Islam gave me all these names and formed my cultural background which isn’t necessarily the Arabic culture in spite the fact that the Quran is written in Arabic. But in our area, in Zanzibar at the eastern coast of Africa, we are closely associated with the world around us with the existence of cultural hubs such as Saudi Arabia, Somalia and also India and other places. Thus, it isn’t strange at all that everybody in Zanzibar, whether Muslims or non-Muslims bear Islamic names.
Ahram: Your novels always discuss the protagonists’ aspirations and dilemmas which reflect the struggle of Africa to remove its colonial skin, through its traditions and building a new identity for itself. To what extent Africa succeeded in this in your opinion?
Gurnah: When I think in the issue of building an identity, all I am thinking about is that people be always safe. People are what they are, as you know, their expertise and life experiences form them one way or the other. They might be forced by the colonial experience to modify the kind of education they receive or something like that.
But I am not sure that this totally shakes the foundation of one’s identity. Yes, it might force you to compromise but eventually we have to wonder to what extent people succeed in clinging to things they value? This is an issue that every culture has to live with it. For instance, there are some people in England who say, “We are losing our culture because of all those foreigners coming to us.” Thus, I believe that this is common and don’t think that it is an issue that’s worth worrying about, because cultures develop and grow. In general, cultures grow and develop to the extent that if the situation isn’t safe for people, they decline and perish.
Ahram: In your novel Admiring Silence how the idea of employing silence as a symbol and a strategy for the refugee in order to protect his identity against racism and prejudice and as means to evade clash between the past and the present?
Gurnah: You can say that I was well acquainted with the way in which silence is the last resort and the only way by which the weak people respond to in their confrontation with oppression. Silence can be also the only way through which you can save yourself when you are under attack. I’ve clarified this in my novel By the Sea, where I tried to show that silence in itself can be a form of resistance, just as much, it being contradictory with the meaning of resistance itself.
Ahram: You’ve revealed in Dottie the contradictions that constitute central examples for the refugees’ and immigrants’ experience, how can layers of ethnicity, class and gender determine the nature and extent of power? How can these several layers be interconnected through your novel and to what extent did they influence your protagonists’ identity?
Gurnah: In this novel, I dealt with the weak personalities, who are weakened more by circumstances in order to make clear how they can survive, how they adapt, how they can protect what’s important to them and how the situation of those sisters, especially the circumstances of Dottie herself were very harsh for both of them. So, they are making what they are making as a kind of commitment and feeling reality and somehow feeling themselves and clinging to this as the only logical thing in their fragile world.
Ahram: I can’t end our interview without asking you: as a critic and editor of a periodical specialised in African literature, to what extent did the African literature succeed in reflecting social changes and society’s transformations?
Gurnah: I’ve said before that Africa has plenty of creative people who have rich experiences that can astonish readers in different parts of the world. Publishers began to take notice of the African literature recently. But on the other hand, it shows that the most important thing to Africans in addition to literature is what literature does in the culture of a certain society and its influence.
This is a thing that differs from one society to another. However, the most important thing in all this is it provides a way for negotiating and sharing ideas. These ideas derive from within and from without. That’s what literature does. For a long time, we were engaged in self-pity and thinking about ourselves and what we read about it. In my opinion, literature should present some role model in leadership, as you know, concerning the development and improvement of the social policy or progress or any other important issue. This is the most important criterion to evaluate its success.