“Memory is the place understanding comes from”

March 5, 2023

Born in 1948 in Zanzibar, Abdulrazak Gurnah migrated to the UK in 1968 after the violent turmoil that followed the 1964 revolution. In 1982, he earned a PhD from the University of Kent, where he currently holds the position of emeritus professor of English and post-colonial literature. Gurnah’s debut novel, Memories of Departure, was published in 1987. In 1994, his fourth book, Paradise, was nominated for both the Booker Prize and the Whitbread Prize. By the Sea (2001) made the long list for the Booker Prize and Desertion (2005) was among the works shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. In 2006, the author was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in recognition of his literary achievements.

In 2021, Gurnah was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.” His work predominantly explores the complexities of transcultural identities, the issues of refugees, the effects of colonialism and the complex nature of identity in an increasingly interconnected world.

In this interview conducted on the sidelines of the Lahore Literary Festival, Gurnah talks about the portrayal of migration and displacement in his novels, the purpose of literature and the significance of memory for a writer. Excerpts:

The News on Sunday (TNS): How has the emotional experience of your migration journey influenced the portrayal of migration and displacement in your novels? What impact do you hope your stories will have on readers facing similar challenges?

Abdulrazak Gurnah (AG): It was a strange, alienating experience. Maybe if I was 36 years old at that time, some lawyer in some firm in London, and if I were moving from where I was today, I would think about it differently. I’d be coming from a safe and secure place. But arriving somewhere without money or skills is terrifying for anyone [as young as I was then]. So I try to portray that feeling of strangeness in my work. Can it be of help to other people? I think writing is instrumental in that sense. Because writing tells people about things, and then they can do something about the issues they are facing. I guess that is what makes writing so interesting and important since it gives a unique perspective to the reader about their particular situation. That is the great thing about literature.

We read for lots of different reasons. We go to reading to learn something about things we didn’t know before; we go to reading for pleasure or because we want to receive news about a particular thing or a topic that we may want to know more about. For example, By the Sea is about a 65-year-old merchant who escapes Zanzibar amid lawlessness and corruption and applies for asylum in England. But what is a 65-year-old man doing, seeking asylum in a strange land? Doesn’t he know he is too old? Well, you don’t know his life. You don’t understand why and how it might seem attractive to him now. And then you read about his story and learn things that may have never occurred to you before. Someone might say that their life is intolerable and that they want to change it. It doesn’t matter how old they are; they still feel that desire, and it still makes sense to them.

TNS: What led you to pursue writing, despite the obstacles you faced in your early life?

AG: Initially, I just wanted to work things out for myself. I was writing things down because I was trying to understand the experience of being a stranger, being young, having left my home, and having lost almost everything. It wasn’t even intended for anybody else to read; it was just for my eyes. But other than that, I found myself making stories out of it. And when that started happening, it became clear that I was also writing for somebody else. So rather than just writing down my feelings or confiding to the page, I was writing. Then with time, you get hooked on it, you want to succeed at it and you just keep going. Or rather, I just kept going, trying to get published. It is not a unique experience – this desire. It is a common enough experience. It takes a long time to get published for many people, sometimes a few years, sometimes more than a few years. Sometimes one does not get published at all.

“Memory is the place understanding comes from”

What you have lived through isn’t only what has happened to you or that which only befalls you. What you live through is also what you know befalls others.

“Memory is the place understanding comes from”

TNS: What is your perspective on the significance of cultural identity in literature?

AG: Writers bring their own particular perspectives and perceptions to their works. They choose what they want to write about, and that’s the whole point of writing. So it is crucial in that respect. We, as readers, go to a writer because we are interested in learning about a new perspective that is probably different from our own. We want to know about a new way of looking at things. What is reflected in the author’s writing is the cultural identity they are writing from. For example, by reading Russian literature, you gain insight into the perspectives of Russians on various issues. So yes, it is crucial to understand cultural identity’s role in literature.

TNS: Some characters in your work deviate from the conventional literary archetypes. Tell us a bit about that.

AG: The beauty of literature lies in its infinite variation; there is no set formula to abide by. The traditional dichotomy of protagonists versus antagonists does not have to be present in every work. Rather, there exist many combinations of this relationship that can be explored. While what I am doing might not be terribly experimental in this regard, I believe that the subject matter itself can serve as a source of inspiration. I draw from my unique perspective on the world.

TNS: Many of your characters are complex and flawed, and their actions often have unintended consequences. How do you approach crafting characters that feel authentic?

AG: Well, exactly as you described. In other words, all of us have several dimensions to ourselves. We’re brave, but also we’re cowardly in certain situations. We’re happy sometimes, but not so much on some other occasions. So maybe just being open to that sort of possibility. People are not straightforward; people are complicated, and exactly how complicated is what makes things interesting to write. You can make them as complex as you like.

TNS: How do you balance the themes of love and hope in your work amidst the unforgiving realities of colonisation?

AG: One of the most admirable human qualities is the capacity to retrieve something valuable from traumatic experiences. So even though it is a period of conflict, love is still possible.

TNS: How has your relationship with your memories influenced your exploration of this theme in your novels?

AG: For myself, memory is a crucial resource, but it is not because I’m trying to remember and then putting things down. Memory is a place where understanding comes from because memory is experience. It is what you have experienced and what you have lived through. And what you have lived through isn’t only what has happened to you or that which only befalls you. What you live through is also what you know befalls others. It is what you hear about, what you see in other people’s lives and what you read about. All of this is part of the human experience and a part of your memory bank. So for a writer, all of these experiences become a vital resource. Because when you have an idea you want to write about, these memories become your reference points. So memory is all the reference points against which you test an idea. Is something that you are writing about really plausible? Is it likely that somebody could’ve done something like this? Then you remember, oh yes. You remember your own experiences in certain situations or recall reading about similar events in some book that you read long ago. So that is what memory is. Memory is not just that I lived in Zanzibar till I was 18. It is what I heard, what I saw, and what subsequently happened. All of this is memory. Memory is like a huge swamp where, every now and then, something bubbles up.

TNS: So it is true what they say; you can find a writer in their work.

AG: Absolutely. But that does not mean the writer only writes about himself or herself. However, in certain types of writing, such as genre writing, crime or science fiction novels, there may be less focus on personal experience. But the kind of novel I write certainly relies on reflection and plausible scenarios. But you test those scenarios even in your imagination. You evaluate these scenarios even in your imagination. Therefore, if you envision something entirely new and unfamiliar, you unconsciously compare it to other similar or overlapping experiences. Does it sound like it makes sense? Does it sound like it’s plausible? There is always a hint of the writer’s own experience in what they write about.

The interviewer is a staff member

“Memory is the place understanding comes from”