Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah, who fled Zanzibar for England in the 1960s, explained how he began to write “refusing the assertive summaries of people who despised and demeaned us”.
Gurnah, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in October for his “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the plight of the refugee in the chasm between cultures and continents”, spoke during his Nobel lecture on Tuesday.
The author, who left Zanzibar as a teenager after the 1964 revolution, said that it was after his arrival in England, after a “prolonged period of poverty and alienation,” that “he became more clear to me that there was something I had to say “. .
“It was only in the first years that I lived in England that I was able to reflect on such questions, dwell on the ugliness of what we were capable of inflicting on ourselves, revisit the lies and delusions with whom we had comforted each other. ourselves, ”the novelist said. “Eventually I started to write about some of these thoughts, not in an orderly or organized fashion, not yet, just for the relief of clearing up some of the confusions and uncertainties in my mind a bit.”
But Gurnah went on to speak of his “deeply disturbing” realization that “a new, simpler story was being built, transforming and even erasing what had happened.”
For him, he says, it “then became necessary to refuse such a story” and “to write about the persecutions and cruelties that the self-righteousness of our rulers sought to erase from our memory”.
He also wanted to explore his experience of colonialism growing up – something that he said had become clearer to him after moving to the UK as he “got a better understanding of how someone like me featured in some of their stories. of themselves, both in their writings and in their offhand speeches, in the hilarity that greeted racist jokes on television and elsewhere, in the unforced hostility I encountered in daily encounters in shops, in offices, on the bus ”.
“There was nothing I could do about this reception, but just as I learned to read with greater understanding, a desire developed to write by refusing the assertive summaries of people who looked down upon and belittled us.” said Gurnah, the first black African to win the award since Wole Soyinka in 1986.
But the Nobel Laureate, who joins former honor recipients including Harold Pinter, Doris Lessing and Toni Morrison, made it clear that “writing cannot be all about struggle and controversy, so invigorating and heartwarming that it can be ”.
“Writing is not about one thing, or this or that question, or this concern or another, and since its concern is human life in one way or another, sooner or later cruelty, love and weakness become his subject, “he said. “I believe that writing should also show what can be otherwise, what the hard domineering eye cannot see, which makes people, seemingly short, feel confident of themselves regardless of the contempt of others. So I found it necessary to write about this too, and to do it honestly, so that the ugliness and virtue shine through, and the human being appears out of simplification and stereotyping. When it works, some kind of beauty comes out.