Tanzanian Abdulrazak Gurnah, Nobel Prize, anti-colonialist, anti-racialist

Tanzanian Abdulrazak Gurnah, Nobel Prize, anti-colonialist, anti-racialist

Abdulrazak Gurnah, Tanzanian writer Nobel Prize for Literature 2021, saw in his youth the damage of both colonialism and “racial politics”. They shaped him as a novelist.

Passing through Paris, this Tanzanian and British author, lifted from a certain anonymity at the age of 72 by the prestigious award given in Stockholm, willingly lends himself to a rapid promotion of his novels, translated by Denoël editions.

His adult life in England is well known, depicted in his novels through other characters: his arrival in this cold country as an asylum seeker, the poverty, and the rise through education.

But his youth on his native island of Zanzibar, in the Indian Ocean? He had mentioned, in his Nobel acceptance speech, the schoolboy eager to read and write who foreshadowed the novelist.

“On my father’s side, they were Yemenis. On my mother’s side, they are people from Mombasa, from the coast,” he says when asked about his origins.

– Considered a foreigner –

Abdulrazak Gurnah is the nephew of a wealthy trader (in fish, dates, spices, etc.) whose business employed the whole family under the British protectorate in Zanzibar, which lasted until 1963. He describes himself as coming from the mean.

But in 1964, a revolution of Marxist inspiration, Cuban, was going to lead to expropriations and persecutions against the population originating from the Arabian peninsula.

“It was a difficult time for everyone, especially people the government considered foreigners. It was part of a process of racialization, which was completely unfair,” he told AFP.

Without a future on his island, nor in the new state of Tanzania on the mainland, he left for Great Britain, where he experienced poverty, and rose thanks to his studies. He became an academic before becoming a writer, publishing his first novel at the age of 39.

His work is crossed by questions of racism, colonial heritage, exile and identity, through other characters of African immigrants like him.

When he received the Nobel, very few Tanzanians knew him. After rejoicing, they wondered why? Did they read enough? What damage had the 1964 revolution done?

– “All Zanzibarites” –

“The Arabs also celebrated me as a Yemeni writer. I said: fine, that’s fine with me, if you want. That’s not how I feel, but that’s fine with me,” he notes. .

“Above all, I see myself as a Zanzibarite”, insists the writer. He remembers the adhesion of his family to the Nationalist Party of Zanzibar, whose leitmotif was “We are not Indians, Arabs, Africans, we are all Zanzibarites. (…) We do not want to be racialized. Of course the racial policy won, but I still want to adhere” to this ideal, he underlines.

The other pillar was anti-colonialism. It still animates the novelist.

In his Nobel speech, he asserted: “We, those of our generation, were children of colonialism in such a way that our parents were not, nor those who came after us”. From school, in English, while his mother tongue was Swahili, and the ancestral culture of Zanzibar was fading.

At the end of long decades of British domination, “we were confronted with the achievements of colonial culture. (…) People like us had to work harder to understand and define their relationship with colonial culture”, considers Abdulrazak Gurnah.

Today, he understands the younger generation who want to tear down the statues of settlers, British or otherwise: “The symbolism is good. And it provokes all these right-wing people who come out of the woodwork and start bleeding, crying, whining. Good. That means the question is kept alive.”


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