Public Media Arts Hub

Gurnah's latest novel 'Afterlives' explores effects of colonial rule in East Africa


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: Abdulrazak Gurnah is receiving worldwide attention after being awarded last year's Nobel Prize for literature.

His latest novel, "Afterlives," is set in a place and time rarely explored in fiction, colonial East Africa, occupied by Germany in the early 20th century.

Having left his own homeland at an early age amid political violence, Gurnah writes of individuals caught up in the sweep of history and the impact on their later lives.

Jeffrey Brown caught up with him for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Abdulrazak Gurnah, Author, "Afterlives": I was in the middle of writing something.

Jeffrey Brown: Oh, you were?

Abdulrazak Gurnah: Yes, when this came.

Jeffrey Brown: What does winning the Nobel Prize in literature do for a writer? On a recent trip to New York, Abdulrazak Gurnah offered one answer.

Abdulrazak Gurnah: Maybe it will make me think more kindly of my previous writing.


Jeffrey Brown: Of your previous writing?

Abdulrazak Gurnah: Yes. I will say, hey, maybe I wasn't so bad.


Jeffrey Brown: Last year, the Nobel announcement helped introduce many readers around the world to Gurnah and his work.

Person: The Nobel Prize in literature for 2021 is awarded to the novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah, born in Zanzibar, active in England, for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fates of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.

Jeffrey Brown: "Afterlives" is set in an unnamed coastal East African town in the early 1900s, when most of the continent, as the novel says, belonged to Europeans, at least on a map.

As great powers vie for control, it is African mercenaries who do most of the fighting and local people who do most of the dying or face displacement.

Abdulrazak Gurnah: My concern is to ask several questions, primarily, how it is that people cope in these situations, how, when people are caught in these conflicts that are nothing to do with them, how they hang onto something, how they retrieve something perhaps from the traumatic events that they are part of, and also, in another way, how it is that the — shall we say, the callousness and the disregard of those others who are fighting their own wars and then go home, how it is that that is something that needs to be revisited and to be remembered and for responsibility to be taken for that.

Jeffrey Brown: Gurnah, now 73, grew up on the island of Zanzibar, then under British control. In 1964, after independence, a revolution targeted citizens of Arab origin, and Gurnah, then 18, fled to England as a refugee.

He has lived there ever since, becoming a writer and professor at the University of Kent in Canterbury. He is the first African-born writer to win the Nobel in more than a decade and first Black writer since Toni Morrison in 1993.

Did you imagine being a writer when you were growing up? Was that even a consideration, a possibility?

Abdulrazak Gurnah: No. There was no role model, as it were. There was nobody. I didn't know anybody who was a writer. So the idea of becoming a writer was not a possible choice, as it were, for a career.

And it was only, I suppose, after getting to England and finding myself writing, in a way, trying to understand things. And so — and then that just grew and grew and grew, until, in the end, I was hooked.

Jeffrey Brown: You were a writer.

Abdulrazak Gurnah: And I was a writer. And it was too late.


Jeffrey Brown: But in the Nobel speech you gave, you speak very specifically about this feeling of dislocation…

Abdulrazak Gurnah: Sure.

Jeffrey Brown: … as being the impulse to start writing seriously.

Abdulrazak Gurnah: It was out of that period, that prolonged period of poverty and alienation, that I began to do a different kind of writing.

You don't always think about what you are leaving behind. It is the destination that matters more.

Jeffrey Brown: You probably can't at that moment, right?

Abdulrazak Gurnah: Well, you can't because you are worried, due to anxieties of being a stranger in a place you don't know. How do you cope? How do you go about doing things and so on?

It is only when you get there that you think, I have lost something. I have left something, and particularly if this is in a situation where you know pretty well that you can't go back, for whatever reason. Then I think there are things to sort out.

Jeffrey Brown: Through 10 novels, Gurnah has told stories set in parts of Africa, as well as England, his characters in many ways between places, looking backwards and forwards across time and continents.

Abdulrazak Gurnah: I don't think it's something you, in the end, say, OK, I have fixed it. Now I know where I am, because I think it probably continues all the time, that sense of being from there and here and so on.

Jeffrey Brown: Well, has it continued for you?

Abdulrazak Gurnah: Well, yes, sure. It's very much the way I every day. I think about something to do with Zanzibar, especially now, because I get a lot of e-mails from there.


Abdulrazak Gurnah: But, also, I think about my life in the U.K., where I have family and children and grandchildren, but I also have family there.

And the concerns of here and the concerns of there, they are all parts of my existence.

Jeffrey Brown: It is a particularly interesting moment to be talking now, after the death of Queen Elizabeth, when you talk about the afterlife of colonialism, of post-colonialism.

Do you see a continuing reckoning or the need for a reckoning now?

Abdulrazak Gurnah: Well, I don't know about reckoning.

I think there is a need to pay attention to those historical responsibilities, to the things that happened, and not to be in denial about them. There is a defensiveness, I think, among certain parts of the political body in the U.K. that wants to say, no, no, it was OK, it was alright. Most of what was done in that period was OK.

There is, of course, another body of opinion that says, no, it wasn't. So it is right there in the center of the society and the culture now, I think, this idea of wanting to confront them to think about. Now, this is not only true of the U.K. It is also true of other colonizing — formerly colonizing empires, the French, or indeed the Germans.

Jeffrey Brown: I know you have spent much of your time since winning doing this kind of thing, talking to people. Do you think it will or has changed your writing at all, winning the award?

Abdulrazak Gurnah: I will tell you when I get back to writing.

Jeffrey Brown: Abdulrazak Gurnah, thank you very much.

Abdulrazak Gurnah: It's a pleasure.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.