(This was the first time I interviewed a writer and what a privilege it was to get into the mind of Abdulrazak Gurnah. It appeared in Deccan Herald. Also this happened during my first ever writing residency. So good memories all around)
VIJAY NAIR speaks with Britain-based author Abdulrazak Gurnah, whose fourth novel ‘Paradise’ was short-listed for a Booker Prize.
Abdulrazak Gurnah was born in 1948 on the island of Zanzibar off the coast of East Africa. He ran away to Britain in 1968. He is currently the head of the School of English in the University of Kent, Canterbury. His first three novels, ‘Memory of Departure,’ ‘Pilgrims Way’ and ‘Dottie’ (1990), document the immigrant experience in contemporary Britain from different perspectives. His fourth novel, ‘Paradise,’ is set in colonial East Africa during the First World War and was short-listed for the Booker Prize for Fiction. ‘Admiring Silence’ and ‘By the Sea’ are other critically acclaimed novels. His seventh novel ‘Desertion’ is due to be out in 2005. He has also edited essays on Africa and is currently editing a set of essays on Salman Rushdie.
Vijjay Nair met him in the University where he was the writer in residence for the year 2005.
Your book Paradise was nominated for the Booker prize in 1994. Do you consider it your best work?
They are all different. I was pleased with the nomination. You always like to think that the next one is the best one. Or the last one is the one where you realised things most clearly. I don’t have a special sense about it. Even though perhaps it is the book that most people know about.
What I really enjoyed about ‘Paradise’ is the secular fabric underlining it. Is it an ideal you hold personally?
In societies, all people have to have this kind of negotiation between them. Particularly in mercantile cultures. One of the things about colonialism, the colonialism in our part of the world- the moral force was to end slavery. To end Arab slavery. Because of the long crusade against Islam, which in any case, is still going on. The people who did most of the crusading against slavery were also missionaries. There was this hope that the ending of one would also enable the other. So to some extent there is a falsification of history of these events in East Africa, which was one of the impulse behind writing ‘Paradise’.
It was not just a matter of coming for enslavement. What was there was something detailed and to some extent it worked. Although there were all kinds of cruelties in it. But to some extent a degree of exchange was going on. See, one of the things I try to do in ‘Paradise,’ is the number of people who don’t understand each other’s language and the number of times these exchanges have to be translated between different groups of people. You have no idea how good these translations are. Because all we have is the translator’s account of what that person said. And I am certain they weren’t good translations. Because how learned you have to be to know two or three languages equally well? So there are all kinds of approximations and yet there is an exchange. People are tolerant, more tolerant than they seem, even though they shout at each other and use combative language.
In the Channel 4 coverage of the Booker nominations, the year Arundhati Roy got it, Carmen Callil, the previous year’s chair of the Booker judges called ‘The God of Small Things’ “an execrable book.” Have you ever had to face similar kind of literary prejudice?
No. I have not encountered that kind of difficulty at all. On the whole, most people who get around to writing about my work have been kind about it. And when I have met unkindness I have instantly forgotten about it. And I suppose considering what happened to Roy’s book, one voice like that has been drowned with all those people who have liked the book and praised the book.
‘Dottie’ is your only book with a woman protagonist. How was writing that different from writing any other book?
Well, it is different. They are all different. Particularly at that stage of my writing life. It was my third book. I had written ‘Memory of Departure,’ which had taken me a while to write. And despite everything, people said, “Nice. It is your life. It is autobiography”.
Does that irritate you?
Not anymore. But it used to... Yeah. Well. I had one book then, and people were asking is that written from your autobiographical experience. Well everything is. I don’t make it up exactly. You use things you know. But again, it wasn’t true in a detailed way. So I wrote that and then ‘Pilgrim’s Progress,’ which is also true of my experience of England.
You are editing a set of essays on Salman Rushdie. How do you rate him as a writer?
He is an excellent writer. Truly an original. He challenges things. He makes things fun. There is only one Salman Rushdie. Writers like V S Naipaul, Rushdie, J M Coetze are themselves. There is no one like them. That is what I mean by an original. Some of them you like. Some of them you don’t. But you always treat them with respect.
Can you tell me something about ‘Desertion,’ your seventh novel that is being released in May this year.
Actually, there is an Indian there. It begins in 1899 and there is an unexpected love affair between an European man and the daughter of the Indian shop keeper. So in the opening part, there is some sort of reflection on what this means, this impossible love affair.
Then the novel moves to the 1950s in Zanzibar. It is interesting that I wanted to write about two or three things. One is to write about sorrow. How our lives, human lives are inevitably sorrowful. I have always written about how vulnerable we are. And what we are vulnerable to, is not something that attacks us from outside but waylays us and maybe is something that is within us. And we grow old and sad and ripe for something that is stalking us, waiting for us. Experience makes us sorrowful and the more we experience the more oppressed we become. And in the end we become like all the old people we see. Weighed down by the things that we cannot forget.
The other thing I wanted to write about was good people. It is always difficult to write about people who are good. So I wanted to write about people who think they are undeserving of the fate that befalls them but to whom nonetheless life deals the same cards. It is also a book about choices one makes in lives.
It is 37 years since you made this country your home. How British do you feel? Do you feel nostalgic about what you left behind?
Well I do that. I do all of it. I don’t feel British. But I have lived here long enough to understand how things operate here. I never forget how I look. I have never quite lost my awkwardness about how would I appear to others.
I don’t look at other people and forget how unlike them I look. Which strangely enough I never felt when I first came here. I was naive and innocent and would forget what I looked like.
I would be walking and when I caught sight of myself in a shop window, I would be shocked at my own reflection. “Who the hell is that.” I would be shocked whenever someone shouted out an abuse at me. Whereas nowadays whenever that happens, I no longer react.
As for, where I come from, Zanzibar, Africa, I think about it every day, several times a day. Places don’t live just where they are, they live within you. So I think of all that- Life is what you make of it. Some of it is good. Some of it is bad. But you have made a choice and that is what life is.