Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah urges us not to forget the past

When the Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah won 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature last October, becoming the first Black writer to win the award since Toni Morrison in 1993, his books have made the top of must-read lists. But in the US, as in other parts of the world, the current 73-year-old author’s list of books (10 books published between 1987 and 2020) is largely out of print. American Publishers immediately began bidding for the rights to republish Gurnah’s work, with Riverhead securing the rights to three books, including his popular novel. Afterlife, releasing in 2020 in the UK and slated to arrive in the US this August.
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inside quotes for the Nobel Prize, Gurnah’s work is praised for “his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of refugees in the gulf between cultures and continent”. Those themes are at the heart of Afterlife, a heartbreaking and poignant story focusing on the devastation caused by German colonial rule in East Africa in the early 20th century. In Afterlife, Gurnah began writing a novel about the period in part to bring greater awareness of the atrocities inflicted on people living in East Africa at the time. The story focuses on four characters who are all touched by the war in different ways and consider impact of trauma. Gurnah is very familiar with the setting of this story – he was born in Zanzibar, now Tanzania, and fled the country as a teenager, became a refugee at 18, and moved to England.

TIME exclusively reveals the book’s cover — an intricate and layered design by Grace Han — and talks with the Nobel laureate about winning literature’s greatest prize, his hopes for toxicity. new writers and the problems of seeing 2021 as a “big year” for African literature.


When you win a Nobel Prize, you essentially become a “popular” author overnight. How does that feel?

Honestly, I feel like a celebrity before. I have loyal readers who have been reading my books for years, and I’m pretty comfortable with that. But this is global. People all over the world know about it, whether they are readers or not. What is most astonishing is the number of publishers around the world who want to publish books in their languages.

Read more: The 21 most anticipated books of 2022

What was going through your head the moment you knew you were winning?

I thought, “This is a joke.” But then I found out that this To be very often the reaction of the awardees, because it does not appear. What kind of writer would you be if you got this call and thought, “Oh, good. I have been waiting for this”?

With you winning the Nobel Prize and Damon Galgut Booker victory, some call 2021 “the great year of African literature.“How do you understand that?

That is meaningless. It suggests something more to do with an African phenomenon than the awards that have been awarded for the quality of writing those particular texts. The panels of these awards don’t all come together and say, “Hey, let’s make this Africa year.” They choose writers to write with, not where they come from. It’s okay if you want to make a press case that this is the year of Africa, as long as it doesn’t make it more like a recognition of a certain region than a recognition of the script itself.

Your book Afterlife, to be published in the US in August, it fits many issues: it’s historical fiction, a multi-generational tale, and an epic love story. How do you classify it?

It is really to tell something about a historical episode that has not been given enough attention. I also want to say something about how people deal with survival — how people get their lives back on track after trauma, how people get through it and organize and shape themselves.

Like many of your books, Afterlife dealing with displacement, colonization and loss. What draws you to those topics?

Partly because that’s my experience, but also because it’s a very common phenomenon of the times we live in. Writing about dislocations or strangers finding themselves unwelcome is not about inventing anything. It is to write about what is right in front of our eyes.

What do you hope new readers will miss while reading? After life?

That they will have a better grasp of that historical moment, and that that historical moment is not a single episode, but it is repeated in different parts of the world — and perhaps it is repeated even in our time. Forces can appear suddenly, disrupting, destructive and causing people to find a way to recover on their own. I hope they will remove the ability to speak out against injustices.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah urges us not to forget the past

Aila Slisco

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