‘Looks, sneers, ges­tures – it was con­stant’

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Books -

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

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