Abdulrazak Gurnah: ‘My comfort reading is cricket reports’

The Nobel laureate on discovering Baldwin, reciting Dickens, and cringing at Flaubert

My earliest reading memory
Undoubtedly the Qur’an. Growing up in Zanzibar I started in chuoni, which is what we called Qur’an school, at the age of five and did not start government school until a year later, by which time I was certain to have been reading the short suras. Quite early on in government school, one of our class texts was a Kiswahili translation of Aesop’s Fables, with illustrations of the fox making a futile leap at the grapes and the hare lounging by the roadside as the tortoise came trundling by. I can still see those images.

My favourite book growing up
A Kiswahili translation of abridged selections from Alfu Leila u Leila (A Thousand and One Nights) in four slim volumes. It was there that I first read the story Kamar Zaman and Princess Badoura, which has stayed with me since. The translator and all those thanked in the preface are colonial officials, yet the language makes me think there were one or two native informants who supplied nuanced detail. Until I was about 10 or so, the only books in English I read were comics and a school prize. Its title was People of the World, and I read that again and again for a year or two. There was no mention of Zanzibar in it, though.

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The book that changed me as a teenager
This is a difficult one. I remember lying on a mat in my uncle’s modest house in Mombasa reading from a dilapidated copy of Anna Karenina. I don’t know how it ended up there; my uncle was not a reader. I was probably 13 and could not have understood much of it, but I still wept and sobbed throughout. Our reading was haphazard, depending on what was available in the school library: mostly donations from departing colonial civil servants. I was 15 when I read James Baldwin’s Another Country and I remember how thrilling that was. Our teacher also lent me VS Naipaul’s The Mystic Masseur, which I think is the first novel I read in which I saw people I recognised in real life.

The writer who changed my mind
I was 18 when I read William Saroyan’s The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and that had a tremendous impact on me. I loved its tone of freedom and openness. I could not find this tone in any of his other writings.

The book that made me want to be a writer
At the time when I was thinking of writing a novel, I was reading American authors: Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and, above all, Baldwin. I still have my battered Penguin paperback of The Fire Next Time. I was also reading a lot of Joseph Conrad and DH Lawrence and Nadine Gordimer and Wole Soyinka, so I don’t know if I can say which of these reading experiences did the trick.

The author I came back to
As a schoolboy I was made to memorise and endlessly rehearse an excerpt from Little Dorrit: the Circumlocution Office passage. The headmaster had entered me for a recitation competition; I did not know what the passage was about or where it came from. I could not bear the sight of a Dickens book for a long time after that, but I came to love and teach his novels later on.

The book I reread
JM Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, because of the precision of its language and the clarity with which it portrays human cruelty.

The book I could never read again
Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. I admired the perfection of its language but now it makes me cringe. I think I feel embarrassed for the people whose vanities are so mercilessly exposed.

The book I discovered later in life
Every day brings new discoveries; I want to celebrate the tremendous production by writers from Africa in recent times. Soyinka, Nuruddin Farah and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o have sustained an excellent output for decades. Contemporary authors Damon Galgut, Maaza Mengiste, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, NoViolet Bulawayo and Nadifa Mohamed are all brilliant.

The book I am currently reading
Knut Hamsun’s Mysteries.

My comfort reading
Cricket reports and reminiscences, even when they are about Australian victories.

Afterlives by Abdulrazak Gurnah (Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, £8.99). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

• This article was amended on 24 July 2022. The Circumlocution Office appears in Dickens’ Little Dorrit, not Bleak House.

Abdulrazak Gurnah

The GuardianTramp

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