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Abdulrazak Gurnah: How I Became a Writer

The Nobel laureate says in this acceptance lecture that he started writing after realizing that there was a task to be done and regrets and grievances to be drawn out and considered.

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The Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah delivered this Nobel Prize lecture in literature on Tuesday, December 7, 2021.

Writing has always been a pleasure, even as a boy at school, I looked forward to the class set aside for writing a story, or whatever our teacher thought would interest us, more than to any other class on the timetable.

Then, everyone would fall silent, leaning over their desk, to retrieve something worth reporting from memories and imagination. In these useful efforts, there was no desire to say something, in particular, to recall a memorable experience, or to express a strongly held opinion, or to air grievance.

Nor did these efforts require any other reader than the teacher who prompted them as an exercise in improving our discursive skills. I wrote because I was instructed to write and because I found such pleasure in the exercise.

Years later, when I was myself a schoolteacher, I was to have this experience to reverse when I would seat in a silent classroom while the pupils bent over their work. It reminded me of a poem by D. H. Lawrence, which I’ll now quote a few lines from, lines from the “Best of School.”

As I sit on the shores of the class, alone,

Watch the boys in their summer blouses

As they write, their round heads busily bowed:

And one after another rouses

His face to look at me;

To ponder very quietly,

As seeing, he does not see.

And then he turns again, with a little, glad

Thrill of his work he turns again from me,

Having found what he wanted, having got what was to be had.

The writing class I was speaking of, in which this poem recalls, was not writing, as it would come to seem later. It was not driven, directed, worked-over, re-organized endlessly.

In these useful efforts, I wrote in a straight line so to speak. Without much hesitation or correction, with such innocence. I also read with a kind of abandon, similarly without any direction, and I did not know at the time how closely connected these activities were.

Sometimes when it was not necessary to wake up early for school, I read so late into the night that my father, who was something of [an] insomniac himself, was forced to come to my room and order me to switch off the light.

You cannot say to him, even if you dared, that he was still awake, why should you not be? Because that was not how you spoke to your father. In any case, he did his insomnia in the dark, with the light switched off, so as not to disturb my mother. So the instruction to switch off the light would still have stood.

The writing and reading that came later [were] orderly compared to the haphazard experience of youth. But it never ceased to be a pleasure and was hardly ever a struggle.

Gradually, though, it became a different kind of pleasure. I did not realize this fully until I went to live in England. It was there, in my homesickness and mixed anguish of a stranger’s life, that I began to reflect on so much that I had not considered before.

It was out of that period, that prolonged period of poverty and alienation that I began to do a different kind of writing. It became clearer to me that there was something I needed to say, that there was a task to be done. Regrets and grievances to be drawn out and considered.

In the first instance, I reflected on what I had left behind in the reckless flight from my home. Profound chaos descended on our lives in the mid-1960s whose rights and wrongs were obscured by the brutalities that accompanied the changes brought about by the [Zanzibar] Revolution in 1964.

Detentions. Executions. Expulsions. And endless small and large indignities and oppressions.

In the midst of these events, and with the mind of [an] adolescent, it was impossible to think clearly about the historical and future implications of what was happening. It was only in the early years that I lived in England that I was able to reflect on such issues.

To dwell on the ugliness of what were capable of inflicting on each other. To revisit the lies and illusions with which we have comforted ourselves.

Our histories were partial, silent about many cruelties. Our politics was racialized and led directly to the persecution that followed the revolution. When fathers were slaughtered in front of their children and daughters were assaulted in front of their mothers.

Living in England, far away from these events, yet deeply troubled by them in my mind, it may have been that I was less able to resist the power of such memories than if I had been among people who were still living their consequences.

But I was also troubled by other memories that were unrelated to these events. Cruelties parents inflicted on their children. The way people were denied full expression because of social or gender dogma, the inequalities that tolerated poverty and dependence.

These are matters present in all human life and are not exceptional to us. But they are not always on your mind until circumstances require you to be aware of them. I suspect this is one of the burdens of people who had fled from trauma and find themselves living safely away from those left behind.

Eventually, I began to write about some of these reflections not in an orderly or organized way, not yet. Just for the relief of clarifying a little some of the confusions and uncertainties in my mind.

In time, though, it became clear that something deeply unsettling was taking place. I knew simply history was being constructed; transforming and even obliterating what had happened. Restructuring it to suit the very victors of the moments.

This new and simply history was not only the inevitable work of the victors, who are always at liberty to construct a narrative of their choice. But it also suited commentators, scholars and even writers who had no real interests in us, or viewing us through a frame that agreed with their views of the world, and who required a familiar narrative of racial emancipation and progress.

It became necessary then to refuse such a history; one that disregarded the material objects that testified to an earlier time, the buildings, the achievements, and the tenderness that had made life possible.

Many years later, I walked through the streets of the town I grew up in, and saw the degradation of things and places and people who live on grizzled and toothless and in fear of losing the memory of the past.

It became necessary to make an effort to preserve that memory, to write about what was there, to retrieve the moments and stories people lived by and through which they understood themselves.

It was necessary to write of the persecution and the cruelties, which the self-congratulation of our rulers sought to wipe from our memory.

There was also another understanding of history necessary to address. One that became clearer to me when I lived closer to its source in England. Clearer than it had been while I was going through my colonized education in Zanzibar.

We were, those of our generation, children of colonialism in a way that our parents were not. And nor were those who came after us, or at least not in the same way. By that, I don’t mean that we were alienated from the things that our parents valued, or that those who came after us were liberated from colonial influence.

I mean that we grew up and were educated in that period of high imperial confidence, at least in our part of the world, when domination disguised in its real self in euphemisms and we agreed to the subterfuge.

I refer to the period before decolonization campaigns across the region hit a stride and draw our attention to the depredation of colonial rule.

Those who came after us had their post-colonial disappointments and their own self-delusions to comfort them, and perhaps did not see clearly or great enough depth the way in which the colonial encounter had transformed our lives, that our corruption and misrule were in some measures also part of that colonial legacy.

Some of these matters became clearer to me in England, not because I encountered people who clarified them to me in conversations or in the classroom, but because I gained a better understanding of how someone like me figured in some of their stories of themselves, both in their writing and in casual discourse. In the hilarity that greets racist jokes on the TVs and elsewhere in the unforced hostility, I met in everyday encounters in shops, in offices, on the bus.

I could not do anything about that reception but just as I learned to read with greater understanding so a desire grew to write in refusal of the selfish-assured summaries of people who despised and belittled us.

But writing cannot just be about battling and polemics, however invigorating and comforting that can be. Writing is not about one thing, not about this issue or that, or this concern or another.

And since the concern is human life in one way or another, sooner or later cruelty, and love and weakness become a subject. I believe that writing also has to show what can be otherwise, what it is that the hard-domineering eye cannot see, what makes people apparently small in stature, feel assured in themselves, regardless of the disdain of others.

So I found it necessary to write about that as well and to do so truthfully so both the ugliness and the virtue come through, and the human being appears out of the simplification and stereotypes. When that works a kind of beauty comes out of it.

And that way of looking makes room for frailty and weakness, for tenderness amid cruelty and for capacity for kindness in unlooked-for sources. It is for these reasons that writing has been for me a worthwhile and absorbing part of my life. There are other parts, of course, but they are not our concern on this occasion.

A little miraculously, that useful pleasure in writing that I spoke of at the beginning is still there after all the decades.

Let me end by expressing my deepest gratitude to the Swedish Academy for bestowing this great honour on me and on my work. I’m very grateful!

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