HS interview “Blood will soon flow through the streets of England” – Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah heard a racist message on the radio and began writing to make sense of things

Abdulrazak Gurnah, who has lived in Britain for more than half a century, is praised by critics but unknown to the general public. The Nobel Prize in Literature instantly made him world famous. A trip to Scandinavia and Finland is also planned. In his old homeland of Tanzania, his books are in short supply because “there is a lack of a culture of reading there”.


Last autumn author Abdulrazak Gurnah was working in peace on his eleven novels.

The script was already halfway through when the toil was interrupted by a surprise call. Gurnah was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature of the Swedish Academy.

How has the writing progress progressed since winning?

“Don’t laugh,” Gurnah says, and starts giggling out loud.

The life of a Nobel laureate has been a constant milling, a pleasant one, of course.

“I haven’t had time to write anything but reply to emails. I have to try to live it. ”

Surprise was great not only for the author, but for many others, although the Swedish Academy has made surprising choices before.

Gurnah, 73, has been praised by critics and has been rewarded in the past, but his production is quite unknown to the general public. When the news of the Nobel victory came to light, many asked who wondered Gurnah.

Britannian Gurnah’s books were not even found in bookstores for anyone interested. Publishers were in a hurry to take on new editions in the fall.

Gurnah gives HS an interview via Zoom from home.

The home is in a village near Canterbury in County Kent in the South East of England.

Author Abdulrazak Gurnah in his backyard in October. After the Nobel Prize, there is no time left to write a new novel. “Instead, I talk a lot more than before. So many people contact me … my e-mail is full, but of course I’m happy and proud of it all. ”

The author will contact Zoom at the agreed time. She is sitting in a high-backed chair at her desk. In the background you can see a decorative plate and part of a sturdy bookshelf.

“I don’t feel like I’ve been rejected as a writer. I have had my own readership. It’s no wonder that my books haven’t been readily available right away, ”Gurnah says.

First The Gurnah translation will be published in April. The translation rights were bought by Tammi.

Gurnahin Afterlivesto translate the novel (2020) Einari Aaltonen. The name of the translation is End of life, and it appears in the Yellow Library.

Gurnah can be read in Finnish in the spring.

Gurnah known as a graph of the effects of externality and colonialism. In his works, small people find themselves in squeezes between different cultures. Suffering is enough, but so is human perseverance.

AfterlivesIn the novel, the reader is excited about human destinies, and there is also a female perspective. However, the work can also be read through history and colonialism: this is how Europeans divided Africa and Africans. And no, not all Europeans were bad, even though some were very bad.

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Indeed, many of Gurnah’s works are located in East Africa. That is where the author himself originally came from.

Abdulrazak Gurnah was born in the Sultanate of Zanzibar in 1948. The archipelago of Zanzibar was a protectorate under British rule at the time.

Gurnah describes his own generation as “children of colonialism”.

Because Zanzibar had come under British rule relatively late, in 1896, Gurnah and ten years older became the first to receive a British education.

“We got a colonial education and had to absorb a new kind of knowledge.”

The generation of fathers and mothers had their own pre-British worldview. The younger than Gurnah, on the other hand, learned to abandon the legacy of colonialism.

Gurnah and his peers got caught between it – between two worlds.

“We embraced two fighting with each other [maailmankäsitystä] … Which in itself is ok, that’s how you learn it. ”

In December 1963 Zanzibar became independent, but as early as January, a bloody revolution began. Revolutionaries with an African background evicted the Arab population.

Gurnah fled chaos to England in the fall of 1967. The beginning of the country was painful. There was hardly any money.

“Some of the problems were to be expected, some of the surprises. I left home at the age of 18 and in difficult circumstances. I moved to a foreign country that I didn’t know much about, and that little I knew turned out to be wrong. The situation would have been difficult for anyone. ”

What about those unexpected problems?

In Britain, the late 1960s were marked by severe racial conflicts. No attempt was made to cover up racism.

In April 1968, Conservative MP Enoch Powell he then gave an infamous speech in which he strongly criticized immigration from the Commonwealth as well as recent legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of skin color and ethnic background.

“I was sitting at home with my girlfriend at the time, and a transistor radio was playing in the background. The radio became the news, and [Powellin] a clip was heard of how blood would soon flow through the streets of England, ”Gurnah recalls.

The worst however, was how many people owned the message of Powell’s speech and used it against immigrants.

“The speech was referred to everywhere, and in a very unfriendly way. I got to hear about it from my fellow students at the university and even on the street from occasional newcomers. ”

The message was that you are not welcome.

However, many painful problems – both in the backward Zanzibar and in the new homeland of England – gave impetus to writing.

“Writing was a way for me to try to understand what was really going on.”

In England Gurnah also got a taste of the beauty of reading. And that was a big “plus”.

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“It was not easy to get books in Zanzibar. Some James Bond adventure books were found, of course, but not a wide variety of literature. When I came to England, it was wonderful to just read, to find books from side to side, all the way to translations. ”

Another big plus was freedom.

Although England was racist in the late 1960s, there was great freedom in the country compared to Zanzibar.

“I learned what freedom means. I learned that I can walk down the street freely, I can say what I want, and I can go wherever I want. I was free in a way I had never understood before. ”

Britain has been the homeland of Gurnah for over 50 years.

May I ask if the author feels British or perhaps Tanzanian? Zanzibarhan is now part of Tanzania.

“I am Zanzibar (Zanzibar). Absolutely. I feel like a Zanzibar. If I were woken up at three in the morning and asked who you are and where you come from, I would say I am a Zanzibar. ”

However, that does not mean that Gurnah is not clear about his rights and status as a British man either.

“I would be very appalled if someone told me I didn’t have the right to be in the UK. I have given this country my whole career. ”

He himself wants to rejoice in both Zanzibar and British.

2020s However, Britain is already a completely different place than it was in the 1960s.

“A lot of things have changed because we – and others here – have managed to fight for it. We have written and talked and shared our experiences. ”

Gurnah recalls how a black player on the football field in Division 1 used to be the subject of a celebration.

“Today, half of the players on the team as a team come from Africa.”

However, he is worried about how every couple of years “racial fanaticism” and immigration panic will rise both in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. The most recent target has been refugees from Afghanistan and Syria, who have previously left the Democratic Republic of Congo, among others.

“Narrative sees as a criminal what is basically either an escape from violence, or in other cases an escape from poverty. When European authorities criminalize escape, it comes to mind that nothing has fundamentally changed. ”

Author Abdulrazak Gurnah says he often wonders if he would have ever become a writer if he had not moved to England at a young age: “Learning to write takes years.” It’s reportedly not becoming a writer that you just sit at the keyboard and start typing.

Difficult after the beginning Gurnah returned home to England. He studied and defended his doctorate.

Gurnha spent his academic career at the University of Kent as a professor of English and postcolonial literature.

“While I was still teaching, there was a balance to find time for more than just academic writing. Since retiring three years ago, I have only written fiction. ”

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He is now Professor Emeritus.

In addition to his novels, Gurnah has written short stories and essays. He has been nominated twice for the Booker Prize. He has also been a judge of the Booker Jury.

“As I write, I start work in the morning, and continue until about two in the afternoon, that is, until the mind starts to get bored and the screen annoys. Then I read in the afternoons. ”

Although Gurnah’s mother tongue is Kiswahili (i.e. Swahili), he writes in English.

In Tanzania, however, his books are poorly available. Will this change with the Nobel Prize?

“I don’t know, it’s a matter for publishers. Part of the reason my books are not available [Tansaniassa] neither in English nor in Kiswahili is the lack of a culture of reading. ”

In Tanzania, books are expensive. There is also a reason that reading is often associated only with schools and learning.

“It’s not common to read literature just for the pleasure and pleasure of reading.”

However, Gurnah stresses that the situation is different in many other parts of Africa. South African literature is particularly vibrant. The situation is also good in Nigeria and North Africa.

Gurnah sprinkles the words of Kiswahil and other languages ​​in his works, which are not translated separately, at least in the original works. To the delight of the reader, google.

For example Afterlivesin the novel, women are wearing fabric, which makes the Finnish reader rub his eyes: what a wonder this is Finnish! However, it is a rectangular African kangaoutfit.

“Oh, could it be Finnish too? I didn’t even know, ”Gurnah laughs.

Due to the pandemic, the Nobel celebrations were missed in the fall of 2021. However, Gurnah was celebrated in London at the Swedish Embassy.

The Nobel laureate was celebrated on 6 December at the Swedish Embassy in London.

When the pandemic eases, travel to Gurnah North.

“I’m definitely leaving for Sweden in the spring. Another plan is that when you book [tuoreet käännökset] appear, it’s time for a Scandinavian tour. And that includes Finland. ”

Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah

  • English-born author Abdulrazak Gurnah won the Nobel Prize for Literature in the fall of 2021.

  • He has written ten novels and a collection of short stories and essays.

  • The latest novel by Gurnah, who writes in English Afterlives will be published in the spring under the Finnish name End of life.

  • Gurnah’s novel Paradise (1994) was both a Booker and Whitbread Award nominee.

  • Novel By the Sea (2001) was a Booker nominee as well as a Los Angeles Times Literary Prize nominee.

  • Gurnah is Professor Emeritus of English and Postcolonial Literature at the University of Kent.

  • He was born in Zanzibar in 1948. The Zanzibar archipelago now belongs to Tanzania.

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