Abdulrazak Gurnah seems preternaturally calm for someone who has suddenly found themselves in the full glare of the world’s media. “Just very good,” he answers when I ask how he’s feeling. “A little bit rushed, with so many people to meet and speak to. But otherwise, what can you say? I feel great.” I meet the newly minted Nobel literature laureate surrounded by books in his agent’s office in London, the day after the announcement. He looks younger than his 73 years, boasts a full head of silver hair, and speaks evenly and deliberately, his expression barely changing. The adrenaline rush, if he experienced one, is hardly in evidence. He even slept quite well.
All the same, a little over 24 hours ago, he was merely the critically acclaimed author of 10 novels, at home in his kitchen in Canterbury, where he lives after having retired as a professor of English at the University of Kent. Now, a new level of celebrity beckons – albeit of a rarefied kind. The Swedish Academy’s citation referred a little ponderously to “his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents”. Others celebrate the lyricism of his writing, its understated, wistful brilliance.
At first he didn’t believe it. “I thought it was one of those cold calls. So I was just waiting to see – is this a real thing? And this very polite, gentle voice said, ‘Am I talking to Mr Gurnah? You have just won the Nobel prize for literature.’ And I said, ‘Get off! What are you talking about?’” He wasn’t fully convinced until he read the statement on the Academy’s website. “I tried to ring Denise, my wife. She was out with the grandson at the zoo. So I got her on the phone, but at the same time the other phone’s going and there’s somebody from the BBC wanting stuff.”
The win is a landmark. Gurnah is only the fourth black person to win the prize in its 120-year history. “He is one of the greatest living African writers, and no one has ever taken any notice of him and it’s just killed me,” Alexandra Pringle, his longtime editor, told the Guardian last week. I ask if this comparatively low profile (he was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 1994) had ever got him down. “I think Alexandra was probably meaning that she thought I deserved better. Because I didn’t think I was ignored. I became relatively content with the readers that I had, but of course I can do with more.”
Gurnah grew up on Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania, in the 1950s and 60s. Since 1890, the island nation had been a British protectorate, a status that Lord Salisbury described as “cheaper, simpler, less wounding to … self-esteem” than direct rule. For centuries before that, it had been a hub for trade, particularly with the Arab world, and a great melting pot. Gurnah’s own heritage reflects this history, and he was raised Muslim (unlike Zanzibar’s other famous son Freddie Mercury, whose family were Zoroastrians, originally from Gujarat).
In 1963, Zanzibar became independent, but its ruler, Sultan Jamshid, was overthrown the following year. During the revolution, wrote Gurnah in 2001, “thousands were slaughtered, whole communities were expelled and many hundreds imprisoned. In the shambles and persecutions that followed, a vindictive terror ruled our lives.” In the midst of this turmoil, he and his brother escaped to Britain.
Several of his novels deal with leaving, dislocation and exile. In Admiring Silence, the narrator, though he builds a life and family for himself in England, finds himself neither English nor any longer Zanzibari. Does Gurnah’s own rupture with his own past still haunt him? “‘Haunt’ is to melodramatise it,” he says. Even so, the subject of displacement fascinates him – and it isn’t getting any less relevant. “This is a very big story of our times, of people having to reconstruct and remake their lives away from their places of origin. And there are many different dimensions to it. What do they remember? And how do they cope with what they remember? How do they cope with what they find? Or, indeed, how are they received?”
Gurnah’s own reception, in late 60s Britain, was frequently hostile. “When I was here as a very young person, people would not have had any problem about saying to your face certain words that we now consider to be offensive. It was much more pervasive, that sort of attitude. You couldn’t even get on a bus without somehow encountering something that made you recoil.” Overt, self-assured racism has for the most part diminished, he says, but one thing that has barely shifted is our response to migration. Progress on that front is largely illusory.
“Things appear to have transformed [but] then we have new rules about detention of refugees and asylum-seekers that are so mean they seem to me to be almost criminal. And these are argued for and protected by the government. This doesn’t seem to me to be a big advance to the way earlier people were treated.” The institutional reflex to push away those who come here appears to run deep.
I am about to mention home secretary Priti Patel, currently in charge of one of the institutions doing the pushing, but he beats me to it. “The curious thing, of course, is the person presiding over this is herself somebody who would have come here, or her parents would have come here, to confront those attitudes themselves.” What would he say to her if she were here now? “I would say, ‘Maybe a little more compassion might not be a bad thing.’ But I don’t want to get into a dialogue with Priti Patel, really.”
What was his reaction to the Windrush scandal, which saw thousands threatened with deportation despite having come to Britain from the Caribbean decades ago? “Well, it certainly wasn’t a surprise.” That doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking, of course. “The details are always moving, because they’re about real people. But the phenomenon itself – it could have been predicted.” And could happen again in the future, I suggest. “It’s probably occurring as we speak,” he replies, gloomily.
Gurnah lived for 17 years in Britain before setting foot in Zanzibar again. In the meantime he had blossomed into a writer. “The writing was kind of occasional. It wasn’t something where I thought, ‘I want to be a writer’ or anything like that.” Nevertheless, the conditions were somehow right. “Writing [came] out of the situation that I was in, which was poverty, homesickness, being unskilled, uneducated. So out of that misery you begin to write things down. It wasn’t like: I’m writing a novel. But this kept growing, this stuff. Then it started to become ‘writing’ because you have to think and construct and shape and so on.” What was it like, that first trip back? “It was terrifying: 17 years is a long time and, of course, as with a lot of people who relocate or who move away from their homes, there are all sorts of issues of guilt. Possibly shame. Not knowing for sure that you’ve done the right thing. But also not knowing what will they think of you, you know, that you’ve changed, you’re no longer ‘one of us’. But in fact, none of that happened. You step off the plane and everybody’s happy to see you.”
Does he still feel caught between two cultures? “I don’t think so. I mean, there are moments like when, after the [attacks on] the World Trade Center, for example, there was such a violent response to Islam and to Muslims … I suppose if you identify as being part of this maligned group, then you might feel a division, you might feel – is there something behind an encounter you have with somebody?”
Every inhabitant of Zanzibar knows about Britain. But it’s probably fair to say that, on hearing where the new Nobel laureate grew up, many of his fellow Britons will ask: “Where’s that?” On one level, it’s an understandable asymmetry, given how small Zanzibar is (about 1.5 million people live there). But does Gurnah think the British know enough in general about the history of their influence around the world? “No,” he says, baldly. “They know about some places that they want to know about. India, for example. There’s this sort of love affair going on, at least with the India of the empire. I don’t think they’re so interested in other less glamorous histories. I think if there’s a little bit of nastiness involved, they don’t really want to know about that very much.”
On the other hand, he says, this is not necessarily their fault. “It’s because they don’t get told about these things. So you have on the one hand scholarship, which deeply investigates and understands all of these dimensions of influence, the consequences, the atrocities. On the other hand, you have a popular discourse that is very selective about what it will remember.” Can other kinds of storytelling fill the gap? “It seems to me that fiction is the bridge between these things, the bridge between this immense scholarship and that kind of popular perception. So you can read about these matters as fiction. And I hope that the reaction then is to say, ‘I didn’t know that’ and possibly for the reader, ‘I must go and read something about that.’”
That must be one of his hopes for his own work? “Well,” he answers, in a tone that suggests he doesn’t relish being categorised as an “eat your greens” writer, “it’s not the only important thing about writing fiction. You also want the experience to be pleasurable and enjoyable. You want it to be as clever and as interesting and as beautiful as possible. So part of it would be to engage, but to engage in order to say, ‘This is perhaps interesting to know about, but it’s also about understanding ourselves, understanding human beings and how they cope with situations.’” In other words, the setting may be particular; the experience universal.
Gurnah says he doesn’t know what he’s going to do with the £840,000 prize money. “Some people have asked. I haven’t the faintest idea. I’ll think of something.” We agree that it’s a nice problem to have. And then there’s the question of what it’s like to be the most famous Zanzibari since Freddie Mercury. “Yeah, well, Freddie Mercury is famous here – he’s not really famous in Zanzibar, except for people who want tourists to come into their venues. There’s a wonderful bar, which a relative of mine owns, called the Mercury. But I think if I were to ask somebody in the street, ‘Who’s Freddie Mercury?’ they probably won’t know. Mind you,” he laughs, “they probably wouldn’t know who I am either.”
That may once have been the case, but as the first black African to win the prize in more than three decades, Zanzibar – and the world – may now be ready to pay a bit more attention to him.