‘Looks, sneers, gestures – it was constant’
Abdulrazak Gurnah tells Judith Woods about coming to Britain in the year of Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech
Iused to dislike it when my novels were described as autobiographical,” says Abdulrazak Gurnah with a wry smile. “I felt the implication was that they were unmediated and uncrafted. But now it doesn’t bother me; I write about the experiences of our time, I have no desire to write about my personal experiences.”
It would, at the very least, be toweringly narcissistic if every protagonist in all eight of his previous novels had been nothing more than an allotrope of Gurnah himself. Nevertheless, at the core of his intricate narratives one can invariably spot a kernel of his own tale; exile, dislocation and flight from his native Zanzibar.
He left at 17, four years after a violent coup that broke out in the former British protectorate early in 1964, in the months after independence. Salim, the main protagonist of Gravel Heart, Gurnah’s glittering new book, also leaves Zanzibar as a teenager. So, too, does Saleh Omar in his 2002 work By the Sea; Daud in Pilgrims Way, which he wrote in 1988; and the unnamed narrator of his 1996 Admiring Silence. His Bookershortlisted novel Paradise (1994) is set in East Africa, but its narrator is also torn from his homeland; sold into indentured servitude by his father aged 12.
Each work is different from the last, yet they build into a powerfully evocative oeuvre that keeps coming back to the same questions, in spare, graceful prose, about the ties that bind and the ties that fray. “There’s something dramatic about being displaced,” says Gurnah. “I see it as an experience of our times and one that allows me to comment on certain issues and ask questions about the divisions between this land and another or the now and the before.”
In some respects Salim’s trajectory in Gravel Heart is the stuff of a classic Bildungsroman; a young man comes of age in the “human carnival” of London after a modest, sheltered life in Zanzibar. “I felt as if the city despised me,” says Salim. “As if I were a tiresome, timorous child who had wandered unwelcome out of the dust and rubble... to a place where boldness and greed and swagger were required for survival.”
But, as Gurnah points out, “there’s more than one narrative line in Gravel Heart. It’s partly about living with shame, partly about the sexual exploitation of women and the way the powerful and aggressive set about controlling people and events around them. It is also about dislocation and its consequences.”
Salim carries with him the shame of a secret so terrible it drove his father, Baba, to leave the family home and retreat into a silent, threadbare existence; a secret that also explains the strange dynamic of his mother’s relationship with Amir, her dominant, manipulative brother.
Amir brings his nephew Salim to London by way of repaying his sister; the boy is to take business studies and carve out a career. But Salim learns only new versions of shame; the humiliations inflicted by his bullying uncle, the cringeing existence of an unwelcome immigrant, the shame of academic failure.
He flunks his course and is summarily thrown out by Amir. From there Salim must make his own way in the world, all but disappearing into a twilight, cash-in-hand existence in multiple occupancy houses where the world’s dispossessed gather and briefly befriend one another, before dispersing again.
“I write about people who are relatively small,” says Gurnah. “They have little power in the face of others with bigger egos and more aggressive characters, yet somehow they retain some sense of integrity and identity.”
Later in the novel we learn the stories of Salim’s mother, his father Baba and his father’s father. Theirs is, to some degree, an acquired, active passivity: “There was no choice but to sit silently while history was narrated anew,” Baba says, recounting his father’s story. “No choice but to wait in a dumbly unenthusiastic silence for the mocking dismantling of our old stories, until later when we could whisperingly remind each other what the plunderers had tried to steal from us.”
When I ask Gurnah for his own story, he shrugs and asks, softly: “Which one? I have many stories to tell, I have lived many lives.” It’s both an evasion and a statement of fact. What we do know is this: when he came to Britain in 1968, he illegally left a Zanzibar convulsed with violence and corruption. He arrived on the eve of Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech and found himself shocked by the animosity he encountered, a loathing conveyed by “looks, sneers, words and gestures, news reports, comics, on TV, teachers, fellow students”.
“Everybody did their bit and thought themselves tolerant or perhaps mildly grumbling or even amusing,” he recalls. “[But] at the receiving end it seemed constant and mean.” His assessment of his “host” country? “If there had been anywhere to go, I would have gone.”
Gurnah took a degree in English, lectured in Nigeria for a short while, then took up a post at the University of Kent in Canterbury, where he did a PhD. Now a professor of English there, he teaches post-colonial literature and has published studies of VS Naipaul and Salman Rushdie.
A slim, compact man with an air of self-containment, Gurnah listens intently to every question before responding with a thoughtful, sotto voce urgency that makes the listener strain to hear.
“I didn’t want to come to England in particular,” he says. “It could have been America, anywhere. I just wanted to get out and do something with my life. It so happened that I had a cousin finishing his PhD here, so I followed him here; it was a typical example of chain migration where people gravitate towards those they know or with whom they have kinship.”
His remarks aren’t intended as a slight, rather a conscious rejection of the post-colonial pressure incumbent on all good migrants to repay their debt of gratitude in perpetuity, long after they settle their taxes.
“British society has managed to live in peace and uphold its freedoms and, of course, I’m grateful to be part of that,” says Gurnah. “But I am here through luck and like others who come here, I am contributing something as well.
“There’s nothing new about the movement of people. Europeans colonised for centuries. In the Sixties and Seventies, people came to Britain because they needed safety and Britain needed their labour.
“What we are seeing now are forced movements of people due to war and state terror which leads to suspicion and hostility in prosperous, stable nations who don’t want instability or new arrivals making demands and putting resources under pressure. But there are other ways of interpreting the movements of people; when they settle in a new place, they don’t just take, they bring something, just as I brought something.”
Gurnah was one of the judges of last year’s Man Booker Prize, which was awarded to The Sellout, Paul Beatty’s satire on race. He has also written for the media on the plight of those fleeing persecution and conflict. But he remains wary of becoming a self-appointed spokesman for the modern diaspora.
“I am frequently being asked to comment on events but don’t want to be the voice of others,” he says. “I don’t want to speak ‘as a Muslim’ or become a symbol of anything. I have adult children who consider themselves entirely British, 10 grandchildren... I represent nobody but myself.”
He chuckles at the now-distant memory of Norman Tebbit’s 1990 “cricket test”, which tried to determine national allegiance by asking whether an immigrant would support Britain or their native country in a Test match.
“It’s unrealistic to expect someone to erase all memory of their past, all connection to the country and culture into which they were born,” says Gurnah.
“It doesn’t signify a rejection of where you are now, just that places live within you.”
‘There’s something dramatic about being displaced’: the novelist and academic Abdulrazak Gurnah