‘I could do with more readers!’ – Abdulrazak Gurnah on winning the Nobel prize for literature

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Abdulrazak Gurnah seems preternaturally calm for idiosyncratic who has abruptly recovered themselves successful the afloat glare of the world’s media. “Just precise good,” helium answers erstwhile I inquire however he’s feeling. “A small spot rushed, with truthful galore radical to conscionable and talk to. But otherwise, what tin you say? I consciousness great.” I conscionable the recently minted Nobel lit laureate surrounded by books successful his agent’s bureau successful London, the time aft the announcement. He looks younger than his 73 years, boasts a afloat caput of metallic hair, and speaks evenly and deliberately, his look hardly changing. The adrenaline rush, if helium experienced one, is hardly successful evidence. He adjacent slept rather well.

All the same, a small implicit 24 hours ago, helium was simply the critically acclaimed writer of 10 novels, astatine location successful his room successful Canterbury, wherever helium lives aft having retired arsenic a prof of English astatine the University of Kent. Now, a caller level of personage beckons – albeit of a rarefied kind. The Swedish Academy’s citation referred a small ponderously to “his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the destiny of the exile successful the gulf betwixt cultures and continents”. Others observe the lyricism of his writing, its understated, wistful brilliance.

At archetypal helium didn’t judge it. “I thought it was 1 of those acold calls. So I was conscionable waiting to spot – is this a existent thing? And this precise polite, gentle dependable said, ‘Am I talking to Mr Gurnah? You person conscionable won the Nobel prize for literature.’ And I said, ‘Get off! What are you talking about?’” He wasn’t afloat convinced until helium work the connection connected the Academy’s website. “I tried to ringing Denise, my wife. She was retired with the grandson astatine the zoo. So I got her connected the phone, but astatine the aforesaid clip the different phone’s going and there’s idiosyncratic from the BBC wanting stuff.”

The triumph is simply a landmark. Gurnah is lone the 4th achromatic idiosyncratic to triumph the prize successful its 120-year history. “He is 1 of the top surviving African writers, and nary 1 has ever taken immoderate announcement of him and it’s conscionable killed me,” Alexandra Pringle, his longtime editor, told the Guardian last week. I inquire if this comparatively debased illustration (he was shortlisted for the Booker prize successful 1994) had ever got him down. “I deliberation Alexandra was astir apt meaning that she thought I deserved better. Because I didn’t deliberation I was ignored. I became comparatively contented with the readers that I had, but of people I tin bash with more.”

Gurnah grew up connected Zanzibar, disconnected the seashore of Tanzania, successful the 1950s and 60s. Since 1890, the land federation had been a British protectorate, a presumption that Lord Salisbury described arsenic “cheaper, simpler, little wounding to … self-esteem” than nonstop rule. For centuries earlier that, it had been a hub for trade, peculiarly with the Arab world, and a large melting pot. Gurnah’s ain practice reflects this history, and helium was raised Muslim (unlike Zanzibar’s different celebrated lad Freddie Mercury, whose household were Zoroastrians, primitively from Gujarat).

In 1963, Zanzibar became independent, but its ruler, Sultan Jamshid, was overthrown the pursuing year. During the revolution, wrote Gurnah successful 2001, “thousands were slaughtered, full communities were expelled and galore hundreds imprisoned. In the shambles and persecutions that followed, a vindictive panic ruled our lives.” In the midst of this turmoil, helium and his member escaped to Britain.

‘Writing came retired  of being homesick, unskilled, uneducated’ … Gurnah’s caller   After Lives.
‘Writing came retired of being homesick, unskilled, uneducated’ … Gurnah’s caller After Lives. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Several of his novels woody with leaving, dislocation and exile. In Admiring Silence, the narrator, though helium builds a beingness and household for himself successful England, finds himself neither English nor immoderate longer Zanzibari. Does Gurnah’s ain rupture with his ain past inactive haunt him? “‘Haunt’ is to melodramatise it,” helium says. Even so, the taxable of displacement fascinates him – and it isn’t getting immoderate little relevant. “This is simply a precise large communicative of our times, of radical having to reconstruct and remake their lives distant from their places of origin. And determination are galore antithetic dimensions to it. What bash they remember? And however bash they header with what they remember? How bash they header with what they find? Or, indeed, however are they received?”

Gurnah’s ain reception, successful precocious 60s Britain, was often hostile. “When I was present arsenic a precise young person, radical would not person had immoderate occupation astir saying to your look definite words that we present see to beryllium offensive. It was overmuch much pervasive, that benignant of attitude. You couldn’t adjacent get connected a autobus without someway encountering thing that made you recoil.” Overt, self-assured racism has for the astir portion diminished, helium says, but 1 happening that has hardly shifted is our effect to migration. Progress connected that beforehand is mostly illusory.

“Things look to person transformed [but] past we person caller rules astir detention of refugees and asylum-seekers that are truthful mean they look to maine to beryllium astir criminal. And these are argued for and protected by the government. This doesn’t look to maine to beryllium a large beforehand to the mode earlier radical were treated.” The organization reflex to propulsion distant those who travel present appears to tally deep.

I americium astir to notation location caput Priti Patel, presently successful complaint of 1 of the institutions doing the pushing, but helium beats maine to it. “The funny thing, of course, is the idiosyncratic presiding implicit this is herself idiosyncratic who would person travel here, oregon her parents would person travel here, to face those attitudes themselves.” What would helium accidental to her if she were present now? “I would say, ‘Maybe a small much compassion mightiness not beryllium a atrocious thing.’ But I don’t privation to get into a dialog with Priti Patel, really.”

What was his absorption to the Windrush scandal, which saw thousands threatened with deportation contempt having travel to Britain from the Caribbean decades ago? “Well, it surely wasn’t a surprise.” That doesn’t marque it immoderate little heartbreaking, of course. “The details are ever moving, due to the fact that they’re astir existent people. But the improvement itself – it could person been predicted.” And could hap again successful the future, I suggest. “It’s astir apt occurring arsenic we speak,” helium replies, gloomily.

Gurnah lived for 17 years successful Britain earlier mounting ft successful Zanzibar again. In the meantime helium had blossomed into a writer. “The penning was benignant of occasional. It wasn’t thing wherever I thought, ‘I privation to beryllium a writer’ oregon thing similar that.” Nevertheless, the conditions were someway right. “Writing [came] retired of the concern that I was in, which was poverty, homesickness, being unskilled, uneducated. So retired of that misery you statesman to constitute things down. It wasn’t like: I’m penning a novel. But this kept growing, this stuff. Then it started to go ‘writing’ due to the fact that you person to deliberation and conception and signifier and truthful on.” What was it like, that archetypal travel back? “It was terrifying: 17 years is simply a agelong clip and, of course, arsenic with a batch of radical who relocate oregon who determination distant from their homes, determination are each sorts of issues of guilt. Possibly shame. Not knowing for definite that you’ve done the close thing. But besides not knowing what volition they deliberation of you, you know, that you’ve changed, you’re nary longer ‘one of us’. But successful fact, nary of that happened. You measurement disconnected the level and everybody’s blessed to spot you.”

‘I’ll deliberation  of thing  to bash  with the prize money’ … Gurnah.
‘I’ll deliberation of thing to bash with the prize money’ … Gurnah. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

Does helium inactive consciousness caught betwixt 2 cultures? “I don’t deliberation so. I mean, determination are moments similar when, aft the [attacks on] the World Trade Center, for example, determination was specified a convulsive effect to Islam and to Muslims … I accidental if you place arsenic being portion of this maligned group, past you mightiness consciousness a division, you mightiness consciousness – is determination thing down an brushwood you person with somebody?”

Every inhabitant of Zanzibar knows astir Britain. But it’s astir apt just to accidental that, connected proceeding wherever the caller Nobel laureate grew up, galore of his chap Britons volition ask: “Where’s that?” On 1 level, it’s an understandable asymmetry, fixed however tiny Zanzibar is (about 1.5 cardinal radical unrecorded there). But does Gurnah deliberation the British cognize capable successful wide astir the past of their power astir the world? “No,” helium says, baldly. “They cognize astir immoderate places that they privation to cognize about. India, for example. There’s this benignant of emotion matter going on, astatine slightest with the India of the empire. I don’t deliberation they’re truthful funny successful different little glamorous histories. I deliberation if there’s a small spot of nastiness involved, they don’t truly privation to cognize astir that precise much.”

On the different hand, helium says, this is not needfully their fault. “It’s due to the fact that they don’t get told astir these things. So you person connected the 1 manus scholarship, which profoundly investigates and understands each of these dimensions of influence, the consequences, the atrocities. On the different hand, you person a fashionable sermon that is precise selective astir what it volition remember.” Can different kinds of storytelling capable the gap? “It seems to maine that fabrication is the span betwixt these things, the span betwixt this immense assistance and that benignant of fashionable perception. So you tin work astir these matters arsenic fiction. And I anticipation that the absorption past is to say, ‘I didn’t cognize that’ and perchance for the reader, ‘I indispensable spell and work thing astir that.’”

That indispensable beryllium 1 of his hopes for his ain work? “Well,” helium answers, successful a code that suggests helium doesn’t relish being categorised arsenic an “eat your greens” writer, “it’s not the lone important happening astir penning fiction. You besides privation the acquisition to beryllium pleasurable and enjoyable. You privation it to beryllium arsenic clever and arsenic absorbing and arsenic beauteous arsenic possible. So portion of it would beryllium to engage, but to prosecute successful bid to say, ‘This is possibly absorbing to cognize about, but it’s besides astir knowing ourselves, knowing quality beings and however they header with situations.’” In different words, the mounting whitethorn beryllium particular; the acquisition universal.

Gurnah says helium doesn’t cognize what he’s going to bash with the £840,000 prize money. “Some radical person asked. I haven’t the faintest idea. I’ll deliberation of something.” We hold that it’s a bully occupation to have. And past there’s the question of what it’s similar to beryllium the astir celebrated Zanzibari since Freddie Mercury. “Yeah, well, Freddie Mercury is celebrated present – he’s not truly celebrated successful Zanzibar, but for radical who privation tourists to travel into their venues. There’s a fantastic bar, which a comparative of excavation owns, called the Mercury. But I deliberation if I were to inquire idiosyncratic successful the street, ‘Who’s Freddie Mercury?’ they astir apt won’t know. Mind you,” helium laughs, “they astir apt wouldn’t cognize who I americium either.”

That whitethorn erstwhile person been the case, but arsenic the archetypal achromatic African to triumph the prize successful much than 3 decades, Zanzibar – and the satellite – whitethorn present beryllium acceptable to wage a spot much attraction to him.