In their announcement of Zanzibar-born Abdulrazak Gurnah as the 2021 winner in literature, the Nobel Prize committee once again surprised the world. Only the sixth author from Africa to have received the prize in its 120-year history, Gurnah was lauded “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”
Readers less familiar with Gurnah could be forgiven for imagining in this description a body of work reinscribing a “clash of cultures” between Africa and Europe or a singular preoccupation with Africa’s colonial encounter with the West. But the truth of Gurnah’s writing is far richer, and the real value in his exposure to a wider readership may be in his work’s ability to complicate such simplistic notions of place and history and to disrupt our often limiting expectations for what the designations “African Literature” or “Postcolonial Literature” might include.
In fact, Gurnah himself has often rejected such categories among delimitations of all kinds, from national borders to racial and religious identities, to the tidy boundaries of stories themselves.
The irony of the Nobel committee’s invocation of “the gulf between cultures and continents” is the centrality of the Indian Ocean in Gurnah’s narrative worlds. Far from an uncrossable chasm, this body of water is introduced as a world unto itself, crisscrossed with intimate relation. This “gulf” is the very conduit of connection. The monsoons that delineate the seasons and carry “intrepid traders and sailors” back and forth between Africa and Asia form a kind of background rhythm to nearly all of his novels. In “By the Sea” (2001), Gurnah describes how these connections become deep rooted:
For centuries, [they] made the annual journey to that stretch of coast on the eastern side of the continent, which had cusped so long ago to receive the musim winds. They brought with them their goods and their God and their way of looking at the world, their stories and their songs and prayers … leaving some among their numbers behind for whole life-times. … After all that time, the people who lived on that coast hardly knew who they were.
Gurnah’s island home of Zanzibar, off the east coast of what is now the mainland part of Tanzania, and the named and unnamed Swahili coastal towns that form many of his other narrative backdrops are revealed to be ancient hubs of cultural mixing and intermingling among diverse Indian, Persian, Arab, Cushitic and Bantu languages, as well as beliefs, stories and material cultures. Seafarers bring back tales from their travels to Siam and Malaya, furniture carved in Zanzibar is exchanged for incense from Bahrain, traders from Calcutta (the former name of the Indian city Kolkata) take brides in Mombasa, and merchants in Tanga and Bagamoyo borrow from their connections in Aden and Muscat.
This alone is enough to unsettle pervasive ideas about Africa’s isolation before the arrival of Europeans. Gurnah’s work recognizes the violence of colonial rupture and its disruption of these earlier, more fluid forms of exchange, but it also conveys the successive periods of foreign invasion and control on the East African coast — from Portuguese to Omani to German to British — as further complications to an already complex cultural space. In his novels, this means the intermingling of yet more languages, literary allusions and perspectives. Gardeners sing Arab verse forms with Kiswahili words; a lover woos his beloved by translating Schiller; a son makes sense of his father’s abandonment through the lens of a Shakespeare play.
Gurnah’s decision to write in English certainly helped make his win possible, as other writers from the region, writing primarily in Kiswahili, remain largely untranslated into the globally circulating languages of the West. But while English is Gurnah’s chosen literary language, the worlds he describes are unmistakably multilingual. His books brim with translations, mistranslations and negotiations among Kiswahili, Arabic, Hindi, Gujarati, English, German and other languages.
Born into this heterogeneous African world, those characters of Gurnah’s who migrate to the U.K. and Germany confront those places with their own fully formed cosmopolitan sensibilities. As in “Desertion” (2005), often it is upon arrival in Europe that they are forced to rename themselves according to the black-and-white binaries of the West’s narrow imagination:
Soon I began to say black people and white people, like everyone else, uttering the lie with increasing ease, conceding the sameness of our difference, deferring to a deadening vision of a racialized world. For by agreeing to be black and white, we also agree to limit the complexity of possibility; we agree to mendacities that for centuries served and will continue to serve crude hungers for power and pathological self-affirmations.
Not all of Gurnah’s characters migrate to Europe, of course, but all seem to be touched in one way or another by displacement and subsequently experience loss. And it is here that his novels get to the heart of colonialism’s dispersed effects, in stories that unfurl slowly, winding quietly across communities and down through family histories to exact their cruelties. Facing the British immigration officer who will decide his fate, the asylum-seeker Omar Saleh, in “By the Sea,” is told: “You don’t belong here, you don’t value any of the things we value, you haven’t paid for them through generations.” But payment across generations for the greedy desires of Europe, and of invaders, usurpers and violence-makers large and small, is exactly what we see unfold again and again in Gurnah’s novels.
The racist and reductive scripts that confine African migrants in Gurnah’s British and German settings also appear interpellated in his representation of postcolonial Zanzibar. His books often return to the violent uprising in 1964 that preceded the author’s own migration to the U.K. as a teenager, during which residents of Asian heritage (and those perceived as such) were killed, violently persecuted and displaced. The shameful and traumatic memories of these events sit heavily on the edges of Gurnah’s narratives and leave his characters exiled and rejected whether they choose to stay or go. For those who settle in Britain, like the narrator of “Admiring Silence” (1996), the categories they find themselves forced into become sources of parody:
I did not have the heart to tell him that I was not Afro-Caribbean, or any kind of Caribbean, not even anything to do with the Atlantic — strictly an Indian Ocean lad, Muslim, orthodox Sunni by upbringing, Wahhabi by association and still unable to escape the consequences of those early constructions. … He didn’t mean Afro-Caribbean people anyway. He meant darkies, hubshis, abids, bongo-bongos, say-it-loud-I’m-black-and-I’m-proud victims of starvation and tyrany and disease and unregulated lusts and history, etc. You know, my race.
But humor cannot soften the psychological impact of being so violently displaced, discarded and unseen.
Momentous historical events — colonial conquests, Indian Ocean slave trade, the Maji Maji and al-Bushiri uprisings, world wars, Zanzibari and Tanganyikan independence and the Zanzibar Revolution — are filtered through the experiences of individual families. In their attention to the intimate relations within households, these stories also reveal quieter forms of exploitation and interpersonal violence.
Moral landscapes are complex; suffering cannot be pinned to single actors or events; and empathies extend in all directions, even as the impacts of violation — often traceable by thin narrative tendrils to larger injustices — ripple through communities with devastating consequences. Gurnah’s central characters, while not powerless or entirely without agency, often find themselves cornered in their social circumstances, vulnerable and preyed upon by those with relative power, even within their own families. Debts and losses loom, prompting uprootings in search not of fortune but simple respite.
Perhaps in part due to Gurnah’s own resistance to being read as representative of any particular social group, his novels continually remind us that stories are always incomplete, constructed out of the limited perceptions and unreliable memories of their narrators. As he writes in “By the Sea,” stories “are always slipping through our fingers, changing shape, wriggling to get away.” Every winding, complex tale holds silences and secrets, “approaching and retreating,” perspectives lost to time or repressed in shame. The itinerants, migrants and exiles who populate his books scarcely know their own stories, which come clear to them only slowly, over time, through the revelation of other characters’ perspectives and deeper complicating histories. Like Salim in “Gravel Heart” (2017), we find ourselves as readers circling, “slowly gather[ing] together tantalising fragments” to bring events and their consequences into focus.
And even then, we are always reminded that our understanding is only partial.
In a contemporary world plagued by xenophobia and racism, Gurnah’s novels nudge us to get quiet and listen, to probe beyond the surfaces of our understanding. We might ask why and with what burdens people find themselves crossing the gulfs between continents and cultures, in what peculiarities of personal experience they might locate their senses of themselves, and in what unanticipated places they might find belonging. As we do so, we might train ourselves to expect complexity, ambiguities and depth. His stories center on particular corners of the world, but they remind us even in their specificity how wrong we can be about one another, how little we know, perhaps even of ourselves.
Reading Gurnah, we might learn that it is only in carefully, tenderly unraveling the harm we have inflicted upon one another that we can come close to fathoming the world.