Nobel prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah talks about his writing life

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Nobel prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah in Lagos talks about his writing life

The Tanzanian-born novelist and academic, Abdulrazak Gurnah, 73, won the Nobel Prize in Literature last year (2021). He is now an emeritus Professor of English at the University of Kent. Gurnah has published ten novels, a couple of short stories and some scholarly works. His novels: Memory of Departure, Pilgrims Way, Dottie, Paradise, Admiring Silence, By the Sea, Desertion, The Last Gift, Grave Heart, and Afterlives. The Nobel Academy specifically commended him ‘’for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and fates of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.’’ Gurnah was in Lagos between 24 and 26 November 2022 to attend Ake Arts and Book Festival where he had a conversation with KUNLE AJIBADE, Executive Director of TheNEWS/ PM NEWS.

Kunle Ajibade (KA): Once again, Abdulrazaq, congratulations on your Nobel. To have the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature for last year on stage with me, and then the 1986 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, the first African to win the prize, who happens to be my elderly friend, a mentor, and, more crucially, one of my favourite writers of all time, sitting in the audience to watch this, is very exciting. You can’t have a better literary experience in Lagos at this moment than this. I’m so, so delighted. Let’s get started on that joyous note. Once again, Abdulrazak, congratulations on your Nobel. It is great to have you here in Lagos, so welcome to Ake Arts and Book Festival. This is a homecoming of sorts for you because you were in Bayero University, Kano, in 1980, just five years after the founding of that university. And you left in 1983, I believe, before General Muhammadu Buhari coup. Could you share with us some of your memorable experiences of Kano City and its people? And why did you leave BUK at a time that students, faculty and staff of that university were just beginning to get used to you? 

Abdulrazak Gurnah (AG): First of all, let me just say thank you very much for the welcome. It is lovely to be here with Wole Soyinka, and it’s good to be back in Nigeria as well. As you’ve just said, I was here many years ago – 40 years ago – and haven’t been back. So this is a kind of homecoming, in a way. What was it like? I had just completed my Ph.D., part of which was actually on this man here—Wole Soyinka; on his work, rather, not on him. I think I came with – as you might expect – a certain sort of intensified expectation of what this would be like. It was the first time for me returning to Africa after leaving Zanzibar. Partly, that was because it was impossible for me to return to Zanzibar. So it was interesting that my first trip back to Africa was to Nigeria. It was, I think, a very good time for Nigeria. I think perhaps it hadn’t quite sunk in just how awful things were just under the surface — you know, all the stealing and all the corruption and all the evilness that was about to come out into the open. So there was still a kind of optimism. And, you know, oil prices were high, money was everywhere and all this kind of things. And the students were very enthusiastic, very good. There were wonderful young people — not all of them that young, I have to say. Some of them were quite a lot older than, I guess, what you would expect as an undergraduate age. But that’s okay. Society’s catching up with education and so on. It was an unforgettable experience. Everything. Nigeria, after all, is an unforgettable place. And I’ve been refreshing my memory of it since being here. It was great. It was a very, very good, interesting time. 

KA: At 18, you fled your country, Zanzibar, following the brutalities that ravaged it shortly after the 1964 revolution. Before you found your feet in England, did you suffer any indignity of being treated as an outsider? For how long did you feel out of place and how did you overcome the condition of being an exile or a stranger? And why did you start writing seriously in England at 21? 

AG: Let me begin as it were, to catch up with the story as you told it there. What happened in Zanzibar in 1964 was the overthrow of the government. Sometimes this is described as the overthrow of the Sultan. The Sultan had no power. The British had taken that away from him or from the Sultans in the 19th century. So he was basically just a figurehead. The revolution was to remove an elected government. We were one month into independence and the incumbent government, which was a coalition, had won the last election. So sometimes I feel this is an important correction that we have to be aware of. It wasn’t a revolution against some kind of Arab elite or something like that–as it’s often described–it was a revolution against an elected government which had won the election. So that’s one thing. And I didn’t flee the violence so much, as I left because the new government, in its chaotic methods, decided to close the schools. And so when I was 18 or 17 and a half or so–I can’t remember exactly – we were all rounded up, as it were, in a sense, not literally, but we were more or less all forced into various kinds of what was called national service; which sounds good, except that the precursor of that was to remove people from jobs and instead to put us 16 and 17-year-olds, straight out of school, into those jobs. So, people lost jobs–teachers, various kinds of civil servants, this kind of thing. You know, people [who] were employed by the government. They lost their jobs. And instead we were put there to do their jobs.

And I remember being sent to a country school, a place called Kinyasini, and some of the students that I was teaching– it was only a primary school, but country schools have their own ages as it were – were older than me. Some of them were already married, but it didn’t matter. It was an interesting experience, but I didn’t really know what I was doing at 17 or something like that. So the impulse for me to leave was really because when you’re 18, you’re reckless like that; we see people risking their lives crossing the seas. So I said, “No, I don’t want to be imprisoned here. I want to go and do something, fulfil myself, study”. So, I left. Moving on to the latter part of what you’re saying, I didn’t see myself as somebody going into exile. So, exile is not a word I would use for what I did. Exile, I think of as a noble condition of somebody who’s doing something from a principled position, either because of politics or because of pursuing a greater goal. I saw myself as just trying to find a life for myself. 

KA: In By The Sea, one of your novels, Mr Shaaban, the character with whom you open the novel, gets to the border without a passport, not even a visa. And when the border police officer asks him for his name, he says, “Refugee”. What’s your name? ‘’Refugee’’. Your name, what’s your name? His answer: “Asylum”. Of course, the man understands English. All of that is just a trick. And when his ragged bag is searched, what does the officer find there? If I remember correctly, just a rumpled shirt and a trouser, and, most importantly, a coffin. A small coffin containing some funny stuff. Did you have an experience similar to that when you got to England? 

AG: No, no, no. That’s just invention. That’s what people like us do. We think these things up out of nowhere. We don’t have to live through them as such. Normally we expect somebody like a refugee or asylum seeker–particularly asylum seeker I should say–to be probably younger rather than somebody of his age, 65 or something like that, which is one of the things that baffles the immigration officer. He says, “What do you think you’re doing? Why do you want to leave your country at your age? Do you know what it means to be a stranger in another place, another country like this?” 

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And that came to me before the invasion of Afghanistan, because it was during the time when the Russians were still in Afghanistan and a group of people hijacked a plane, a flight from Kabul to Herat, or vice versa. I can’t remember exactly. Anyway, they hijacked this plane and forced the pilot to fly to the UK. It’s a long way. These guys were on an internal flight and now the plane was going to Rome, I think first, where it had to refuel and then it arrived at Stansted in London. And so news cameras were there to watch these people. It took a while of negotiation before the hijackers gave themselves up because they really wanted asylum from the UK. But the whole point of hijacking this plane was because they wanted asylum as they said. So, they knew all along what they were doing. So then we saw these people coming off the plane. As I said it was an internal flight. And amongst them was this elderly man with a huge beard. And the next day everybody asked for asylum. Then I asked myself, “What does the old guy think he’s doing? Does he realise what this means?’’ That gave me a bit of the character you’re talking about.

KA: Interesting. But why did you start writing seriously in England at twenty-one? You haven’t answered that.

AG: I haven’t. Well, I can’t answer all your questions. Some of them I can evade, if possible! (laughter) I started writing because of the– I suppose– experience of being a stranger. I explain how or what was in my mind when I left Zanzibar. But I think this is also true of many people, and I think of that as I watch some of these young people we see on the news or in documentaries who are making this journey to Europe. I didn’t think anything about what I was leaving behind. And I didn’t know anything about what I was going to really experience. I thought I did, but I didn’t. So the experience of being a stranger in Europe at 18 without family, without friends, without money was a complicated one. Complicated in both ways. It’s complicated because of the difficulty of being a stranger anywhere and also because of now suddenly realizing what has been lost, what you have given up as it were– recklessly. And I think it was in trying to understand that for myself that I started to write, not because at that time I was thinking anybody would see what it was I was writing. But simply because sometimes writing can be helpful in just sort of disentangling things–particularly if it’s miserable, sad things– that makes you feel better when you sit down and write them down and so on. So that’s how I started, really. But then as time passed, I found myself actually fictionalizing some of these experiences and then it just sort of went on. But it was a long time before I was able to say, I guess even to myself, I’m going to write or I’m going to be a writer. It seemed really an impossibly high aspiration, it took a while, took several years, probably. I probably started doing it more or less within a few months, a year or so of getting to England. But it took, as you said, till I was in my early twenties before I could actually say I’m going to write a novel or something like that. 

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KA: The Djiboutian novelist Abdourahman Waberi, writes in his novel, In the United States of Africa: “One’s place of birth is only an accident; you choose your true homeland with your body and heart. You love it all your life or you leave it at once”. What is your own idea or notion of a true homeland, particularly for people with mixed origins and multiple identities?

AG: I guess behind that is the question of what is home or something like that, or what is belonging? It is complicated but not impossible because I think what my experience has persuaded me and made me understand is that, in fact, home means different things. It means, of course, wherever it is that you were born and grew up in and where your family and your connections and your language and so on is. So that’s home and always remains so. But then home is also a place where you choose to be or find yourself through circumstances. You end up there. I’ve lived in the UK now for 50 years. Well, traveling here and there as well, of course. But my home in that sense has been there and I’ve worked there–I work there happily. I mean, in a fulfilling way mostly at the University of Kent. I have family there; now several grandchildren there. So that’s home. But the other home is still home in a very profound way, perhaps in a more profound way. That’s why I’m saying, you know, this idea of home has different meanings. And now especially, particularly for people like us– that is, people who come from formerly colonized places or go to Europe and North America– the journey is so much longer and complicated, it seems to me, than the journeys that many Europeans made to different parts of the world as settlers or as new immigrants, or going to North America or going to Australia and so on. Partly because you’re going there in an unequal relationship to the place you’re going to. And secondly, because, in fact, there are so many big differences, you really do have to learn to be in that place in the way that, say movement in the other direction didn’t always require that kind of re-experiencing life in a way that I think movement to Europe and North America and other places like that does. So, what I’m saying is that I think this is, in a way, a phenomenon of the time we live in, this idea of multiple homes or multiple engagements, as it were, with place. 

KA: Tell us about your beginnings as a writer. And I’m going to roll into one about seven questions now. I will help you track them. 

AG: Okay. 

KA: Did you actually want to be a writer when you were young? What kind of education did you receive in Zanzibar before your departure? Did any of your school teachers encourage you? What stories were you told as a child? What books did you enjoy reading? And since you spent your childhood and boyhood in an island “that drew people from across the water and across the land”, to use your description of Zanzibar in your novel Afterlives, in what ways did that upbringing help to shape your worldview as a writer?

AG: I was vaguely considering, but rejected the idea of writing a memoir when I’m 95. But this guy wants me to do it now. Okay. I’ll pick and choose. I’ll pick and choose from that list. 

What kind of education? I had a colonial education like so many of us who were colonized, of course. There’s been various conversations about English speaking, French speaking colonies and all this kind of thing. We were colonized. We had no choice. That’s how it happened. It didn’t happen to people of my father’s generation, say, because they didn’t have that. They didn’t go to government schools, as we called it. They went to different schools—Qur’an schools–where they also learned to read and write, but to do so using a different alphabet, different epistemology, etc. So they weren’t just ignorant idiots until these people came and brought their schools, but their schools then superseded everything else that we were doing. 

Of course, we still went to Qur’anic school, and of course I can still read the Qur’an and repeat those stories, which I do in the novels. But you know, the world changed. This is what colonialism did. It transformed the world and it transformed what is important and what is not. So even as we struggle to balance things, to put things right, there is still a long way to go before we can actually have a proper engagement with what is important for us from what we had before and what is important to us now that our worlds have been changed in these ways. And this in itself, of course, is an important subject. I was going to say fruitful. I was thinking as a writer there. But it’s full of possibilities as a topic, as an idea, as a phenomenon to try and understand and come to grips with. So that was my experience. I’ve forgotten all your other questions. 

KA:  None of your teachers encouraged you? 

AG: Okay. There’s a nice story I can tell about that. That’s an easy one. There was a very good teacher of mine– he’s passed away now—who encouraged me. Zanzibar is a small place. It’s getting bigger, but population wise it was quite small. This teacher, before he died a few years ago, was basically the leader of one of the best orchestras in Zanzibar playing Taraab, which is the music of Zanzibar. He was also an artist, and his father was an artist, I mean, in the sense of a painter, and he was a teacher as well. And that’s what people did. They did several things.

So he was a teacher and he taught art, but he also taught English and he was my English teacher. I was about ten I suppose, or something like that. And I think he was the first teacher who drew my attention to say, “You write very well in English”. And we left it like that. And then on one of my visits to Zanzibar, I think it was something like about 10, 11 years ago, something like that, you can see how reduced artists’ lives had become. He was playing with a small, almost like a chamber orchestra from his big orchestra, which had something like about 30 or 40 people playing when they’re fully engaged, as it were. And he must have had about four or five of his colleagues, as it were, playing on a terrace in a tourist hotel. So, you see how the lives of artists have been reduced in a way. Anyway, there he was. And so by this time, of course, I had already, I think by then, published at least six or seven of these books. Yeah, maybe more. Anyway, he saw me– because we went in for a coffee– and he saw me sitting there. And when they stopped or when they had a break, he came over and said, “I heard you’re back. I discovered you”. I said, “Yes. Yes, you did”. He was a wonderful man. Sadly, he is gone now. 

KA: What kind of books did you read at that time? 

AG: Colonial books, of course. What else? That’s what I was saying. You know, what was there to read? What was there to read was what was provided by the school system until a certain age. It was until, I guess in adolescence. It became possible because it also coincided with decolonization. And although the usual fare was at that time crime, mystery, whatever it is that people bought, there was another source of reading which appeared miraculously, which was various colonial civil servants leaving. And as they left, they got rid of their books. And these books found their way into second-hand bookshops. And so, suddenly, there was this great, great bounty, almost, of books that you could get for almost nothing, for sixpence or something like that, whatever that was at the time. And you could, which we did, my brother and I–and other people–did as well. But we did. You could go there and buy a box full of these things that you didn’t even know what they were. 

KA: Charles Dickens… 

AG: Charles Dickens and others. I remember there was one series of American poetry, for example. You know, one of these 12 books and so on, that, you would just say, come on, let’s take that home, that kind of stuff. So, it was all haphazard. There was no method or anything about it. Many of these were people you didn’t even know, and I suspect not all of them were worth the trouble of crating away and taking home, but it was a way of broadening the reading. So the reading was you read whatever came your way and people passed books around to each other – “Hey, this is interesting. Read this.” 

KA: And also stories at home? 

AG: Yeah, yeah, sure. Okay. That’s a different source. I mentioned Qur’anic school, I mentioned what would be told at different times of the year, you know, like the miraj or the maulud or whatever, various sort of commemorative events like that when these stories will be told again. Sometimes in Qur’anic school, the teachers– because it was a big school, so there must have been maybe about 100 students or so– would just get bored themselves, I think and they would say, “Okay, children. Quiet. We will tell you a story.” And so there’ll be something, a religious story, of course.

There’ll be stories to be told at home by a mother, an aunt, a grandmother and whatever, which when you’re young enough, you’re allowed to sit in a corner and listen to, or sometimes you’re directly the audience being entertained by this. There were stories in the street, generally weird stories, you know. When I say weird, I mean, these will be stories interpreting global events in their own way. “Do you realize what is really going on there and whatever?” And then some quite bizarre version of well, now I can say that, but when you’re uninformed, it all sounded quite convincing. 

KA: Interesting. Your Nobel citation references your deep concern for the fate of millions of refugees of various ethnic groups and nationalities who believe that borders are for crossing. Why do you keep circling back on this subject in novel after novel? 

AG: Well, because it’s there. You know, it’s in front of us. It’s an injustice. And you know, to me, it’s important that I’m able to speak about things that I see in front of me that seem to be wrong. I don’t think it’s anything more complicated than that. Of course, the fact that I have a brief kind of knowledge, of experience, which is not as intense and as horrible as some of those that we hear about. But I do have a sense of that kind of experience of losing home. Although not permanently, not as permanently as I thought. But there’s that experience, and there is the other sense of living as I’ve said, living among strangers. 

But in addition to that, I think there is a kind of human obligation involved here as well in understanding that when people are in those sorts of difficulties and problems; let’s say, for example, you think of the Syrians, the Iraqis, Kurdish people who are escaping the destruction of their homes or whose lives are at risk, then I think there is an obligation to be hospitable. So it seems an injustice in that sense to criminalize these people and their desire for safety instead of doing what is possible to do. That’s one thing. 

The other thing is that it’s a continuation, it seems to me, of a certain a certain kind of panic and well, I’ll use the word inhumanity again towards people who are not European to see them either as a disaster of one kind or another – “They will spoil things for us”. “They will ruin” – or to see them as people without anything to offer or to see them as beggars or this kind of way of thinking that they are not quite as human as us somehow or their pain is not quite as real as ours. Those are – I think – the kinds of reasons that this is a subject that seems important to me. 

This is something that millions of people in this condition, not only people from Africa or people from the Middle East, of course, but also we forget sometimes just what is going on in North America as well. And the way that the prosperity of one is somehow contingent or relied upon the impoverishment of others. So it is indeed no surprise that those impoverished now say, “Well, that is where prosperity is. We have no other recourse. We have to go there”. 

So I think of this movement of people as not just a sort of self-serving thing, “I want to be prosperous”. In any case, what’s wrong with wanting to be prosperous? What’s wrong with wanting to improve your life? But it isn’t just that. It is also a consequence of things–if you think of the Syrians, the Kurds, the Iraqis– of wars and violence that have been instigated by these very countries who are now saying, “Who are these people?”  It’s for all of those reasons that I’m kind of trying to enumerate why it seems to me this is; and anyway, you don’t really have much choice. If this is a subject that somehow grabs you, bites into you, then this is the subject you write about. 

KA: In Afterlives, your tenth novel (or your tenth published novel), you drew inspiration from different periods in African history – African and European history – to show the violence of British and German colonialism. Built on cruelties and greed, colonialism left the colonised very traumatized. You also show that Africa–pre treaty of Berlin during the centuries of slave raiding by the Arabs and Europeans– was not innocent of crimes against African humanity. Still, Africa contributed to the modernity of the world. Why do you constantly turn histories, memories and nostalgia into art? And could you share with us some of the problems you’ve encountered as you worked to weave history into your fiction and your fiction into history?  

AG:  He asks difficult questions, doesn’t he? 

KA: Why do you turn histories, memories and nostalgia into art? 

AG: Okay, I like that. Can we take out nostalgia? Then I will answer the rest. Well, partly because history has to be re-narrated. I’m thinking in particular of the historical episode which is at the core of Afterlives, although it does cover a longish period. That is to say the conflict in 1914-18, in our part of the world. In most representations of the events of that conflict, the First World War, as it’s called, much of the focus is on the conflict in Europe. Quite understandably so, not only because of the numbers of people killed, but because it affected so many people. For Europeans, that is.

But there is also something important, I think, to remember that it is called a world war. And yet, somehow, the focus is always on those events in Europe. I grew up with stories of what had happened; although, of course that happened many years before I was born. But it’s not written about or it is not known about in the popular imagination. Which is not to say that scholars don’t know about it or historians don’t know about it. But then, there is nonetheless this gap between what scholars and historians know and what is known in a kind of popular sense. And I mean, of course, popular sense in the rest of the world, not in our part of the world. 

So I’ve always wanted to write about this not only because I knew some of these stories – or because members of my family or people I knew had been in some way involved– but because of its absence in the general telling of both our history [and] also the history of that period or the history of that episode, all of which were a good reason to write. I mean, there are always good reasons to write, but a good reason to write is to say “not enough is known about this. I’m going to say something about this”. And also because it’s something important and should be known about. So I’ve been very interested to see that, particularly in Germany, the way in which people have wanted and now are wanting to know — not as a result of my book, of course, but that’s part of– it’s contributing to that conversation that is going on in Germany because they too, again, for good reasons, they too have kind of marginalized this part of their history.

When I say for good reason, I mean, of course, in more recent times, they’ve had more absolutely more horrendous activities to come to terms with. I’m thinking of the 1933 to 1945 period in Germany, and quite understandably, those events have had to be dealt with more immediately. But now there is a turning towards that earlier period. It’s important to me that history is not something that we consign to some place there because it informs now, it informs our understanding of what we think and what we are, what we believe about ourselves, about other people. So for that reason, history comes in and out. 

I mean, I don’t write, I don’t all the time write historical novels. But it is always important. Better to know. I always think it’s better to know than not to know. And if there is a particular moment that somehow has an echo to us now, I believe that period has an echo for us now, because it’s understanding what indeed are the consequences of colonialism. Is it over? People say to me sometimes, you hear people say, “Why do people always talk about colonialism? It’s over”. But no, it’s not. Because until we are more open about understanding its consequences, it’s not over. Well, it’s not. But in any case, we have to understand, and that will perhaps make us know how to behave, how to act more humanely and so on, including [on] the refugee issue. 

KA:  And in his novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera says, and I quote: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” This is particularly true for Ilyas, the investigative reporter- in- training in Afterlives who struggles against the power of deletion, the power of distortion, and in fact, the power of falsification and oblivion of some of uncomfortable aspects of African history in major archives of European countries. In the process, he too stumbles on some unflattering history of his uncle. It’s like the history of Africa itself. Yet he is not afraid to tell the full story. Why do you think presenting all sides of our story is important, even when such story is against us or against our ancestors? 

AG: I don’t do it deliberately. They did these things. No, I don’t invent them. I mean, this is an example for those of you who perhaps don’t yet know the book. Ilyas is somebody whose uncle was a schutztruppe, a colonial mercenary, basically. But then so were so many other Africans. If you take this conflict that we’ve been talking about, the war was fought between the Germans on one side and the British, the Belgians, the Portuguese on the other. Almost all the combatants were Africans on one side or the other. So it’s not to invent anything. It’s not to say, you know, these are nasty stories that we should keep quiet about. It is there.

And, you know, people are proud of their uniforms. My uncle was in the KAR, the King’s African Rifles, and I remember when I was a child, there was a photograph of him in his uniform on one of those tall tables people used to put flower vases on– which they don’t do anymore. I have a scar to prove their existence because I ran into one. But anyway, there was a photograph of him in his uniform and those hats that the KAR had. So, lots of people joined up for various reasons. And it was very interesting to me when I started to write Afterlives to ask this question, “Why?” Why did people do this and kill each other? What was the outcome? To see who would be their colonizer? Should it be the Germans or should it be the British? Why did they do it? It’s very interesting to reflect on, but we don’t have time because there is a little box here in front of us and for the last 10 minutes it’s been saying, “Please start Q&A”. It’s Lola Shoneyin saying so (laughter). 

KA: I will do that soon. 

KA: Of course, Afterlives is not just a historical novel. It is a fascinating love story– personal love and family love. It is about the warmth of friendship and the unexpected kindness of strangers. It is also a story of resilience in the face of difficulty. Apart from your gorgeous and very engaging descriptions in many of the pages, I find your description of the love affairs between Hamza and Afiya very, very striking. But, Abdulrazak, why did you allow the two young lovers to have premarital sex in the middle of two Ramadan afternoons? Are you possibly implying that the power of their affection is stronger than the piety of the holy month of Ramadan? 

AG: I expect when you are young and in love, it probably is even more exciting to do something like that, to go against the sanctions as it was. Hey, it’s Ramadan, why not? (laughter, more laughter)  

KA: So finally, I want you to talk a bit about the brutal attack on Salman Rushdie on August 12, this year in upstate New York. And what do you think that writers should do to protect their freedom to write? 

AG: What do I think about the event? I think it’s outrageous, and I think it’s completely wrong. I think the whole persecution, I suppose, of Salman Rushdie– for what really in the end [are] made up accusations, but nevertheless– it’s gone on long enough and now it just seems to be keeping things going in persecuting this man for writing. I think that in itself just as a general idea is unjust and intolerable to want to kill him for that. 

How do you protect the writer’s freedom? Well, you know, you just write. I don’t suppose there is a way of making absolutely certain that you will be safe. Generally, people are safe, but we know that in many places they’re not and are forced to tone down what they write if they want to continue to do so. Some do, some people don’t and so run the risk of danger. I don’t think this is anything new. And I think it’s what makes this profession a noble one. 

KA: Thank you. Thank you very much. A round of applause for him. So, let’s take some questions from the audience. Questions and comments from the audience. 

Audience Member 1 (AM1): Hello Sirs. I must first start by admitting that this question isn’t mine. Someone was in the audience and had to run before it was over. So she asked that I put it to you. Is the decolonization of Africa possible, given that we are using the languages of colonizers in all we do? There are those who would argue, given the intricate relationship between language and culture, our minds can never be free because of what we speak and how we communicate, even with each other. That’s the question. 

AG: Well, I understand the question, but I do not share its pessimism. I do think that it is possible to use language to speak and to reflect your thoughts, even when you are aware of the implications of certain words. But we are not ‘innocents’ anymore about this. We don’t use words without understanding the meaning and without understanding what lies behind them. 

To try and mute ourselves by saying, “if I speak or write in this language, I’m somehow reflecting the mentality of my oppressors” or something like that is, I think, an incomplete way of understanding how a person, a mind functions with language. And it’s also just to be too pessimistic about the possibility of working within, in a way that actually engages and contests the assumptions and implications of language. It’s one of the things that, for me makes writing interesting; that I am in it. I’m in a language which actually would not willingly have admitted me if it had known I was going to be using it. And that provides with an interesting dynamism for me rather than cause for pessimism. 

AM2: Thank you so much, sir. I’m Peter Okonkwo. I do love Afterlife and it’s very fascinating to me. What sort of advice do you have for young writers like us who are passionate about impacting the world through literature? What can you tell people in this category? 

AG: There’s no other way apart from to write, and there is no other way than to actually trust your judgment when you do so– to write until you’re satisfied that it’s done. And even then, if you show it to somebody else, like a publisher and they say, well– we had examples today, Jennifer Makumbi was telling us this morning– and if they say to you, “nope, this is no good,” then you go back to your own mind as it were and say, “Is it true? Do I give up now or do I try another publisher or do I try another novel?” These are judgments that have to come from within. You have to trust and believe and trust in that belief. That’s really the only way. And write. I don’t know that there is any other advice to give than that, really. 

AM3: Thank you so much. It’s really such an honour to have listened to you talk about your body of work. I want to ask about Afterlives. I read Afterlives last year and I absolutely loved it. I like how it is able to talk about not just the war, but make us understand everything that was happening during that period. There is a theme of feminism, theme of education, and diverse themes that don’t take us away from the fact that this is a war story. And I loved that. And I want to know if this was something you set out to do while writing it. For us to not just look at Afterlives as a story about the war, but as well as a commentary on various issues that were happening around that period.  

AG: Thank you very much. Thank you. I think it’s always sensible to assume that everything that’s in a writer’s novel is there deliberately, even if it’s not there in a kind of cleverly prearranged, pre-worked out way because quite a lot of the time you work by intuition you work by sort of feeling and you go for things. But I think in any case, it’s probably courteous to assume that it’s all intended and to give credit fully to the writer. 

KA: Our time is up. Please give a round of applause to Abdulrazak Gurnah.

 


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