Nobel Laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah on Displacement, and ‘Ready Readers’

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The 2021 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature reflects on his own experience of being a refugee, that of displaced people today, and ‘the continuation of a colonial narrative.’

Abdulrazak Gurnah

Abdulrazak Gurnah. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Porter Anderson

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘The Swedish Academy Thought Otherwise’
As Abdulrazak Gurnah, the winner of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature, prepares to give an interview to Publishing Perspectives at the seaside Sheraton in Sharjah, a flurry of activity and apologies suddenly intervenes.

The small conference room on the hotel’s beach level briefly becomes a coronavirus testing center. A doctor appears, medical bag is opened, gloves go on, a vial is readied, no one bats an eye. This is the reality of international travel this autumn. PCR and antigen tests are the tokens of the traveling realm. Nevertheless, Gurnah is a gentleman. He apologizes to a journalist—”I’m so sorry for the wait”—as that swab homes in on his nose.

Gurnah is to fly out the next day, and he’ll need the results of that COVID-19 test, of course, as will most of us at  ‘s three-day Sharjah Publishers’ Conference produced by the  to precede the opening of the Sharjah International Book Fair.

On the second morning of the conference during a panel discussion on independent publishing, Gurnah quietly has materialized in the seat next to International Publishers Association president Bodour Al Qasimi in the audience. Those of us in a discussion onstage nod in his direction. The attendees around him are beaming.

Now, as the medical man withdraws and the vacant hotel conference room quietens—water bottles and Sheraton notepads awaiting a crowd that hasn’t arrived—we turn to Gurnah with two key elements of his career’s story as our questions. We want to know about the refugee dynamic he knows first-hand—the Nobel commendation refers to this as a case of a character caught “between the past and the present”—and the experience of being critically acclaimed but little known by the reading public.

The outlines of the author’s own story have been coming into focus for the world industry and its readers since the announcement of his Nobel win. Gurnah, now 72, fled his native Tanzania in his 20s during the Zanzibar Revolution. He became a British citizen and now is based in Canterbury. He’s professor emeritus of English and post-colonial literature at England’s University of Kent.

The author of 10 novels, at least seven short stories, and multiple essays, Gurnah’s experience of becoming a refugee has led him to say in the past, “In my mind I live there” about his homeland. While he has made his life and career in England, his ties to Zanzibar have endured and can be spotted in recurring themes of colonialism, displacement, being exiled from a context of one’s origin.

And in her article of October 27 at The New York Times, Alexandra Alter wrote very tellingly about how right through his latest release last year, Afterlives (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020), the readership didn’t materialize. The book, Alter wrote, “which explores the brutality of Germany’s colonial rule in East Africa, came out in Britain in September 2020 and was hailed as a masterpiece. But it failed to reach a wide readership and wasn’t even published in the United States.” Gurnah’s longtime publisher at Bloomsbury, Alexandra Pringle, said she “wondered if Gurnah’s moment might never come.”

All that is changing, thanks to the Nobel committee’s attention, although, as Alter explained, the scarcity of copies of his work combined with international supply-chain issues at the moment may not, even now, make it easy to find Gurnah’s work. “As offers poured in from international publishing houses,” Alter wrote, “many readers who were eager to sample Gurnah’s work were frustrated. The audience was suddenly there, but copies of his books were not—in several cases, even ebook and audiobook versions aren’t available.”

On Amazon.com in the United States today (November 10), Abdulrazak Gurnah’s author page has no picture of the author—despite the fact that he’s suddenly one of the most photographed writers alive. Penguin Random House’s Riverhead reportedly has bought the American rights to Afterlives, By the Sea, and Desertion. Pringle tells Alter that Bloomsbury is ordering tens of thousands of reprints as readers clamor for them.

‘Empire and Its Aftermath’

At the 2021 Sharjah International Book Fair, Sheikh Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Abdulrazak Gurnah, and International Publishers Association president Bodour Al Qasimi look at works produced by Kalimat Group, her children’s publishing house founded more than a decade ago as the Gulf region’s first dedicated publisher of young readers’ content. Image: SIBF

If Gurnah is perturbed by the scarcity of his work—or even if he’s dying to yell, “It’s about time!” as well he might—he carries it all well. Dignified and yet easily accessible, he’s a quiet speaker who listens intently to an interviewer’s question.

We start by referencing Hoda Barakat’s win of the 2019 International Prize for Arabic Fiction for The Night Mail (published as Voices of the Lost by Juliet Mabey’s OneWorld, 2021, in Marilyn Booth’s sensitive translation). At issue are some of the insights Barakat puts forward on the plight of displaced people, and how, as she told us in interview, “We see them as a very low group of people, like sheep, numbers of sheep, as masses of human beings.”

How is it, we ask Gurnah, that someone who has had the misfortune to become a refugee might be overlooked as the professional or expert that she or he may have been before being displaced?

“There has been most definitely a different reaction to the arrival of non-European people in the UK as refugees. Some of it has to do with a continuation of the colonial narrative of superiority and inferiority.”Abdulrazak Gurnah

Even at the Nobel press conference announcing Gurnah’s win (the video is embedded below), a question from the Associated Press in Stockholm refers to how “the new political context” of migration in Europe has informed the decision of the academy. And just this week, CNN International’s Arwa Damon is reporting from a Turkish coast guard craft in the Mediterranean, as its crew struggles to rescue refugees seeking asylum.

Gurnah understands these observations and conditions, of course, and yet is quick to bring nuance to them, pointing out that even in societies that may be concerned about their own handling of refugees, the available economic and employment setting can actually be a factor in how newcomers are defined.

“I think it probably matters where a refugee is coming from,” he says. “When European refugees were setting up in the UK,” he says, they have generally written or spoken of feeling welcome. “Most of them, reasonably, German refugees, even German prisoners of war who stayed behind, and Italian prisoners of war. I don’t think there was a lasting stigma.”

In such cases, he points out, these refugees’ interactions with the host community weren’t hostile. “So that’s what I mean when I say that perhaps it depends on where a refugee is coming from.

“There has been most definitely a different reaction to the arrival of non-European people in the UK as refugees. Some of it has to do with a continuation of the colonial narrative of superiority and inferiority. And therefore, by implication, they are obviously people in need. They come because we are the prosperous, safe place and theirs is not.

“Especially since in the early periods of this movement, as opposed to mid-20th-century, it was the case that the kind of work they were needed for was mostly relatively unskilled work. Bus drivers, work on building sites. Those are not unskilled, of course, but relatively unskilled.

“So there’s an assumption already that these are people with low-level skills. It doesn’t matter what they were doing before because there’s another of assumption that whatever they were doing before, they’re probably not going to be able to perform at the level required. If they’re doctors, or lawyers, or whatever, ‘We’re gonna have to retrain them.’

“And I think this is part of the explanation. That’s to do with empire and its aftermath.

“I think what then happens, once that has been exhausted,” Gurnah says, “and the laws have been changed to make it difficult for people to make that move as easily as they had before, then the latest phenomenon is of ‘real refugees,’ if you like, people who are escaping from war and not just for economic needs—when you start to get people coming from the DRC, Zimbabwe, Mugabe getting nasty. And more recently, of course, people from Syria.

“In the midst of all this are people, young people generally, who are coming because they want to improve their lives. As if it’s wrong to want to move to another country where you’ll be able to improve your life. But this is where I think authorities have failed—governments, generally speaking—have failed to educate their own people. There is actually nothing immoral about wanting to do that,” wanting to cross frontiers and borders for a chance at a better life.

“Look at how many millions of us,” Gurnah says, “over the last 400 years or so years have done this.

“There is a kind of refusal” to acknowledge, he says, “that what is happening now is simply a reversal of what happened for ages” under colonialist pressures.

“The exception is Germany. And I think part of the reason is because Germany and Germans, many of them, do know that experience because of the catastrophe of the Second World War for Germany, because of what they did and what was done to them afterwards. They’ve taken more Syrians than anybody else.”

But beyond the German experience, “I think of this sort of lack of knowledge that allows some” populations to build hostility to immigrants, “including the British government.”

In the American arena, “I don’t think Trump is an isolated case,” Gurnah says, reflecting on the anti-immigration stances of the previous American administration, “because that is so purely, straightforwardly racist.”

But in the United Kingdom, he points out, while there’s also “a degree of that,” in terms of racism, “there also is a more complicated notion of religion, as well” among the layers of contextual headwinds that immigrants may experience.

“People sometimes say to me,” Gurnah says, “‘Do you think things have changed?’ And I’ll say, ‘Well it seems that way.’ But then suddenly it seems that they haven’t changed,” as a “degree of malice” rises again into view.

“What seems to be consistent” among governments, authorities, he says, “is a kind of racism that continues despite the laws that are brought in.”

Gurnah concedes that “a great deal of progress has been made in fighting back” against this trend, “but it’s a battle,” he says, an ongoing one.

‘Sailing Along Okay’

Abdulrazak Gurnah speaks at the 2021 Sharjah International Book Fair. Image: SIBF

In terms of his record of strong critical response but disappointing sales, Gurnah says he doesn’t see this as a failure on the part of his publishers.

Conceding that trying to attract a publisher originally took longer than he’d have liked, he says that once he was able to get contracts, “I don’t feel that the publishers weren’t appreciative.

“I don’t actually know how hard they worked,” he says, to market his material. “But the responses to what I wrote, the reception of readers … I wish there’d been more, but the ones I had were appreciative. And I thought of myself as sailing along okay.”

He qualifies his answer. “I’m not saying that there isn’t something in what you’re saying,” in reference to our question about whether the marketing support for his work was always in place. “But halfway through my writing career,” he says, I came into the hands of the editor I still have today. And who has now published all of my backlist. And in the same company.”

This is Alexandra Pringle at Bloomsbury, and the company’s listing of its many Gurnah titles is, indeed, reflective of a genuine investment in this author’s work.

For the most part, he says, it now looks as if it’s been a question simply of how many “ready readers– his apt phrase–were available as his new works were introduced.

“But I’m also very pleased,” he says–maybe a shade shyly–”that the results of this are that so many more people are saying” about his work, “‘I’m just now really looking at it, and I really like it.’

“I wasn’t desperate for more, particularly” in terms of readership and reclaim, Abdulrazak Gurnah says.

“But the Swedish Academy thought otherwise.”

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More from Publishing Perspectives on developments on the Nobel Prize in Literature is here, more on developments in Sharjah is here, more on the Sharjah Book Authority is here, more on Sharjah International Book Fair is here, more on publishing and book awards is here, and more on publishing’s trade shows, book fairs, and festivals is here.

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is a non-resident fellow of Trends Research & Advisory, and he has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As as an arts critic (National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.

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