Interview with Abdulrazak Gurnah

Abdulrazak Gurnah was born in Zanzibar in 1948 and moved to Britain in 1968. He is a Professor of English at the University of Kent in Canterbury and is best known as a novelist. He won the Radio France International “Temoin du Monde” Prize (By The Sea) and has been short-listed for the Booker Prize for Fiction (Paradise), long-listed for the Booker Prize (By The Sea), the Whitbread Prize (Paradise), and shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Book Award (By The Sea). His novels are Memory of Departure (1987), Pilgrims Way (1988), Dottie (1990), Paradise (1994), Admiring Silence (1996), By the Sea (2001) and Desertion (2005). He also edited The Cambridge Companion to Salman Rushdie.

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Professor Gurnah, you have been both long-listed and short-listed for the Booker Prize, aswell as other prestigious prizes. Do you find such praise exciting or do you shy away from it?

No it’s very exciting, because you know as a result of it you will find new readers. So people who have never heard of you or your work get to hear about you and sometimes they are intrigued and maybe go and read. So for me the greatest pleasure, aside from just the theatre of it all, [...] of seeing bets being taken out as it where, ‘which is the one that’s likely to win’. Well, who is foolish enough to do this? But also the main thing really is just to find that so many people now come to hear about you and are interested. So I enjoy that very much. So I think prizes, for that reason and for no other reason, are a good thing, that is, because they are public events, they make people interested in reading but for one reason or another don’t have time to read about everything that’s being published, it allows them to hear about interesting books that they would not otherwise have heard about.

That leads on to my next question about the role of the novelist. Some authors are notoriously shy while others are very much public figures. Where do you think the writer’s place is in public life – if he or she is to have such a role?

I don’t know. I think there are probably many different roles, rather than ‘the’ role and I’m quite happy for novelists, to some extent anyway, to select what works for them, what suits them, what they think, we may all have different opinions but what a writer does and what kind of writing is involved, I’m quite happy for writers to negotiate this with their readers and with their communities themselves and not to want to say ‘this is the way and that’s not the way’. I think it’s all okay.

As a Professor at the University of Kent, do you find that there is an oppositional force between your academic writing and your artistic work, or do you find that they co-exist quite easily?

In terms of the intellectual part of it, that is to say in terms of being an academic in literature, someone who teaches literature, and somebody who writes books, in terms of those ideas there is no conflict. In fact if anything they quite nicely inform each other, you know, so that, when you’re talking about a book or reading a book and getting ready to discuss it with your students, then you also think about how it was done and this comes back to you sometimes when you are doing your own writing (or me, I should say, I shouldn’t say ‘you’, I mean ‘me’) it comes back to me and I might think about the way such-and-such a writer has managed to do something that I found interesting and I might try and maybe do something like that.

I think where the conflict comes, especially as you go through your career, and become more senior and have to take on more duties which are really nothing to do with teaching or with books or with whatever but are to do with institutions, that’s where the conflict comes, that is, your head is filled with this other stuff and it’s then a little bit harder to find space for those things that you are interested in. In writing, for example.

What I’m trying to say I think with that last little stumble there is that it doesn’t mean that the other work, like this institutional work, is totally mindless. I find some of it quite absorbing too. So I quite like being somebody in a university and having to think about ideas and how to organise departments and how to do this and do that. I find that interesting too. Not as interesting as many other things but it’s interesting enough. But it does take up space and so it gets a little harder as your career continues, to keep finding space to do your thinking for the writing.

When you’re writing a novel, I’m interested in the process. Do you plan everything out methodically, each twist and turn of the plot? Is it possible to do that? Or do you write and let the writing tell the story?

Well I’m sure it’s possible to plan quite a lot, I mean it depends really on the kind of writing you’re doing. I would have thought if you are writing something in terms of a plot you would need to do that otherwise you might get confused or lose the story or something like that, I would imagine, I don’t know. But since I don’t write like that, since I don’t write a kind of plot-driven text, then you need a certain degree of planning, you know, and it usually takes a while, you know, for me. It usually takes me a while to, sort of, think something through, not in an intense way, it’s not that I sit there with my piece of paper and say, you know, okay, how do I move on with this? It kind of goes on in the background as you’re doing other things and it builds up and then a moment comes when you think, maybe the moment to start putting things down, so then it becomes note-taking and, kind of, accumulating the notes and then the writing begins, and so on, and that accumulates so you might write one draft and that’s fine and then you come to the second draft and more details come in or perhaps a new direction appears that hadn’t appeared there before. So, a certain degree of planning but, you know, you leave space to be able to make other choices as you go along.

In Admiring Silence there was an interesting line. The nameless narrator says “I like to dwell on differences”. Is the Derridean influence a constant in your writing throughout your career? Are there other influences that have stayed with you from the beginning until now that permeate your work?

Yeah, lots of influences, influences of upbringing, of country, of the [...] narratives and discourses you grow up with, religion, all of these things. Experience of course aswell – my own particular experience, of being from ‘there’ and moving to ‘there’, going through the various things that happened to me, but also experiences of other people that I recognise as adjacent to mine or unlike mine.

Yeah, a whole bundle of a variety of things, but when I say I like to dwell on differences [it is] also important to be able to make distinctions, to see where difference lies and to understand that, and to, depending on what it is, both to celebrate it, to narrate it, to do all of those things. Or to refuse it.

In Admiring Silence the narrator is slightly unreliable. He tells fantastical tales of exaggeration to Mr Willoughby and even to Emma. In Desertion, the reader is jarred from his comfort zone when he discovers that Rashid has been narrating for nearly half the book. Are you making a point about the narratives around us that we choose to believe. About omniscient third person narration? Problems of authorial stability?

Yes, sure, although not in itself so much as, I want to prioritise as it were the stories for our consideration, not prioritise because they are important, but to say, when we listen to a story we possibly need to know who is writing this? Who is telling it? Why is he telling it, or she telling it? Do we believe it? And does it matter? So all of these are part of the way in which we weigh it up and analyse it and try to understand what we can understand of it.

So the wisdom of the story as it were consists on being able to.... the wisdom that might be in the story, the wisdom we might take away, that is, from the story, consists of being able to answer these questions to some degree for ourselves. Not to say it to decode the story or to find a trick in the story or something like that, but to be able to ask these questions like do we believe this? Who is doing it? Why do you think? Is there another way of thinking about this? Do we find it a more interesting story in fact if we are sceptical about it? Rather than if we, as I imagine that you would find Admiring Silence as a reader, I would imagine, if you read it sceptically rather than saying ‘what a life this poor fellow had!’ In other words if you see that he is up to something and saying, ‘what is he up to? What’s going on? Why is he telling all these stories? Why is it necessary to do this?’

Well I like that process of engaging and disengaging at the same time, you know, of both engaging because the narrative requires you to, you have no choice, one hopes, you have no choice because you are interested, but at the same time you maintain, you know, a certain degree of distance, which is why in Desertion you have that interruption. ‘Let’s think about this you know, can I do this?’ and that sort of thing.

In By The Sea Latif Mahmud thinks “This is the house I live in [...], a language which barks and scorns at me behind every third corner.” You choose to write in English but intersperse your novels with snippets of other languages, including Swahili. Am I right to think that you would side with [Chinua] Achebe over Ngugi [wa Thiong’o] in the debate over the language question, that the language of the coloniser must be usurped from within?

No I don’t think you would. I don’t think I would want to be in either camp on that argument because I think their arguments are different from the argument I might use for what I am doing.

Achebe is arguing that English can be adapted in some way, to an anti-colonial function. Ngugi is saying it can’t because language invades everything that you do – it invades how you interpret, it invades values, controls things and so on.

I don’t think either are, or rather should I say, I don’t share those ways of understanding how language functions, particularly for a writer. I don’t think that language functions in quite that way, as to say, in one case as instrumental, in another case as something which is almost unreflected upon, something that you speak through. I just don’t think that’s how a writer and a language relate to each other.

So I don’t find myself in either of those two camps. And I would have said that the reason I started to write in English was, of course, to do with colonialism – otherwise I probably would not have learned English – but it’s also to do with what I read, which was mostly in English. It’s also to do with where I found myself at the time I started writing. It’s to do with a number of other... and the rest is accidental and contingency and whatever.

I like to say [that I was somebody] who stumbled into writing. I didn’t think when I was 10 or 11 years old ‘I want to be a writer’. I found myself writing in my twenties when I was in England in some distress and it didn’t occur to me at that point to say ‘what language should I use?’ The language that I knew how to use, in writing, was English because that’s what I read in. And I do think this link between reading and the kind of... we are all familiar with this idea of, writing or indeed reading is a series of these text and textual references that we make and a whole network of textual connections that we make both as readers and as writers. Those were available to me in a way, in English, that weren’t available to me in any other language.

But of course, I had a whole mass of other stuff that I also knew about which were not necessarily to do with writing. So what makes the kind of writing I’m able to do, and I’m not unique, is that I’m writing in one language, in English, and I’m bringing to it an imaginative landscape from another culture and another language and that produces, I think, a dynamic and rather interesting mix.

Saleh Omar thinks to himself “I want to look forward, but I always find myself looking back”. Your novels twist and turn between past and present. Is it fair to say that for you the past is not a ‘lost world’, as Rushdie conceives of it?

Well I do think that Rushdie doesn’t actually mean that it is completely a lost world. I think what he means... you remember that image that he uses of walking through a mirror and being cut to pieces. He means it’s a painful process, I think, but that nonetheless it’s something past, it’s something you mourn, something that’s gone.

Yeah sure, in that respect I don’t go that far. Anita Desai has a lovely sentence in... I think it might be in Clear Light Of Day, and I steal this sentence in Admiring Silence (I borrow it; I don’t steal it) and it is “nothing is over, ever”, she makes some of her characters say. “Nothing is over, ever”. Well I think of the past like that. It’s never over, even if it’s over. But it’s never actually over.

In the sense that the past inhabits the present?

Well sure. The past is present. The past is present because we live in our imaginations aswell as in real life, so the past that is part of our imaginative landscape is still alive for us. It’s never over, in that sense I think.

I was fascinated by [the character] Legbreaker in Desertion...

Boys like violence!

Is he in any way an historical character or is that pure fiction?

It’s mostly fiction. It’s probably 90% fiction, although there were people who were notorious for, bonesetters were notorious for being unreliable. Dangerous in their way. So if someone did break something it could work either way.

You were putting your life into his hands!

That’s right.

He was the doctor in the village and doctors in society tend to have that superior role of the knowledge-bearers. And yet his knowledge was about as limited as everyone else’s it seems – when putting bones back together. Were you consciously trying to get your readers to question the [...] connection between power and knowledge, in a Saidian way?

No, I wasn’t trying to use him as a paradigm as it were or to say, ‘this is the kind of medicine that was practiced’ because there would have been other kinds of medicines also practiced at the same time, to do with, say, midwifery, for example, to do with probably use of various herbal medicines for fevers or whatever.

But there was also a kind of mystification of certain things, you know, so that there was a kind of medievalism aswell so that if you were to... one of the medicines that people would take for example would be to go to the [...] priest [...] who would write the words of the Koran on a plate and you would take this home and wash this and drink that and that would be medicine. For some people. For others it would be herbal medicine. There were some areas were there were serious medicines, like maternity care and that kind of thing. These are obviously things that people had learned. So I wouldn’t want to say ‘this is all folk stuff and useless’ but the setting of bones was a very uncertain science.

Our modern world surrounds us with new media and instant communication through the internet. Where do you see the role of the novel – not so new anymore – in this new world we live in?

I don’t really know for sure but I can see how it’s affecting the publication of things like magazines. A lot of magazines and a lot of journals now are available online and so presumably it would certainly have some effect – like yours – it would have some effect on publication of short pieces, I would have thought. Or it already has some effect on that.

But I also know at least a couple of people who are thinking more ambitiously than that and are publishing books online, which you can also download, if you want it, as a book, not as typescript. I know at least one website which does that so you buy a book and they print it, just the one book, and send it to you through the post. So if you want you can either buy the book or you can just read it online.

Apparently they are able to do this because it is now very easy to publish just one copy. It costs nothing, no more than if you published 500. The economics of publication have always been driven by this business of ‘how many copies’, otherwise it is not economical.

So all of those things will make it possible I suppose for people to publish 5 copies of a novel and for it still to be economically viable. I’m sure that kind of thing will make a huge difference. Okay 5 might be an exaggeration but you could publish for a small audience of 100-200 people and for that still to be viable which it wouldn’t be commercially on the whole.

So you think the new technologies might be liberating, not frightening?

I’m sure it will. I don’t think it will be frightening. You might get...

People reading less?

I wouldn’t have thought so. You might get people reading different varieties of things. It might be harder to get that sense of public participation when a book is read by several people and reviewed and then you get some sense of a debate, even if it’s sometimes at a silly level. Not always, sometimes. You would lose that I presume because you wouldn’t get.... or who knows there might be review sites on the internet that would look at what other people are producing, I don’t know.

But obviously it’s too late for some of us but I can see how, you know, it will move writing in different directions, different kinds of writing perhaps, will appear. People won’t have to wait until they get a publisher as it were, somebody who is looking at the commercial value of this before they publish it. I’m sure it will make a difference.

Certainly I would imagine it will make a difference in lower technology communities or societies where, for example, it is harder to produce books because of the cost of it. Then you can produce an online magazine which doesn’t cost anywhere near as much. I can see things moving in that direction for some people in a good way.

Desertion was published in 2005. I was interested to know if you are working on a new novel?

Well I think I just finished one.

Can you tell the readers of Politico anything about it?


No?! It’s a secret...

It’s not a secret but [...] I don’t like to say ‘this book is about this and this book is about that’, even the ones that we have been discussing. I wouldn’t want to say because first of all it is to claim authority where it doesn’t make any real sense. Let the readers find out for themselves and see what they think and sometimes I am surprised when people tell me things about what they have read and often delighted to hear how they read it and I don’t want to tell them how to read it.

Well Professor Gurnah we certainly look forward to the publication of your next book!