When his first novel, Memory of Departure, appeared in 1987, Abdulrazak Gurnah wasn’t even sure whether he would continue writing fiction. I was in the UK to cover the Edinburgh festival at the time, and I met him in London. He was not a well-known writer then, let alone one with a Nobel Prize on his horizon. At first I thought he was from India or Pakistan because of his Muslim name. He told me he was from Tanzania. Born in 1948 in Zanzibar, once an Omani sultanate with a predominately Arab-Islamic heritage, he came to the UK at the age of 18. He obtained his PhD at the University of Kent and, after a brief interlude outside academia, became a professor of literature there.
Another reason for my visit to the UK was to research immigration to the country from its former colonies. The phenomenon was at its height. The streets of London were teeming with Indians, Pakistanis, Africans and Arabs. The common quip at the time was: If you want to meet an Englishman, don’t go to London. I was interested in meeting Gurnah not as a novelist, which he was not really known for at the time, but as an expert on the question of immigration. My friend Michael Billington, the chief theatre critic for the Guardian, had told me that if I wanted to know anything on the subject he was the person to see.
Abdulrazak Gurnah, a humble and mild-mannered man, spoke highly of Egypt and Arab culture. He told me his father was of Yemeni origin and he, himself, had learned the Quran as a child although he could not speak Arabic. After talking about the question of immigration for a while, our common love for English literature led us to the subject of the novel. He said that Britain added much to this art in the 19th century. Today, as I look back over my notes from the meeting I realise he touched on some important matters that will generate greater interest now that he has received the Nobel Prize. I asked him whether, in his opinion, the literature written by immigrants belonged to the English literary heritage because it was written in English or to the “literature of the South,” as the expression then had it.
Such geographical divisions don’t apply to literature, he answered. There is no such thing as a literature of the South and another of the North. Fiction speaks of a human experience regardless of where it is written. It is this human aspect that draws us to it. It makes someone from the South read a story told in the North as eagerly as a reader from the North might become engrossed in a story from the South.
But was it not the case that geographical affiliation, whether to “South” or “North”, forced its particular concerns on fiction? I asked this because Gurnah’s work was informed by his immigration to Britain. If he hadn’t been an immigrant from the South, would he have cared about the subject?
Perhaps not, he replied. But that’s not what matters. What matters in a novel is not the subject, but how it is treated. That is what makes every work of literature unique, regardless of how similar its subject matter might be to other works.
Gurnah has ten novels under his belt, all dealing in one way or another with his central concern. The best known are Paradise (1994), Admiring Silence (1996), By the Sea (2001), Desertion (2005) and The Last Gift (2011). He told me that when he set out to write his first work, he did not intend to write a novel. He merely wanted to record his own experience. However, as he got going he found the project taking on a fictional form, so he went with it.
Did he plan to follow through with a second novel?
“I don’t know,” he said. Then after a pause he added that he still didn’t see himself as a novelist but rather as researcher into his central preoccupation: immigration. He tried to capture that human experience in the best way possible.
Gurnah’s second novel, Pilgrims Way, appeared the following year and his third novel, Dottie, came out two years later, in 1990. The three, combined, might be seen as a trilogy. More importantly, the rapid succession of these novels indicates that the novelist had been inside him all the time, even if he had not been fully aware of this when he published the first.
Today, Abdulrazak Gurnah is indisputably one of the most important contemporary writers in the UK. His works have been nominated for the Booker Prize several times. One was longlisted and another made the shortlist. His protagonists suffer identity problems after being uprooted from their native environments, and they encounter superficial acceptance at best in their new ones. His novels recall the alienation experienced by many Egyptian and Arab youth forced to migrate. I am surprised that so few of his works have been translated into Arabic.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly