Immigrants continue to be at the receiving end of cruelty: Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah

He says while there has been a change in how people talk about migrants, what remains unchanged is the kind of panic the issue creates and the way the media presents it.

“As if they are swamping and targetting the native population,” says the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature winner, Abdulrazak Gurnah.

Criticising the utterances of ministers of the UK government, ironically many of whose members, including the Prime Minister are of Indian descent, this Tanzanian-British novelist says it is shocking how anyone could speak in such a cruel way. Priti Patel, who served as the Home Secretary from 2019 to 2022, had floated a controversial plan to push back refugees crossing the Channel in boats.

“One wonders how anyone can talk in such a monster-like way,” says this second black African to win the award whose works explore the refugee experience, and who moved to the UK in the 1960s as a refugee during the Zanzibar Revolution.

Talking about receiving the Nobel Prize, the author, who is attending the ongoing Jaipur Literature Festival being organised by Teamwork Arts, says that he is happy to find himself in the company of writers whose works he greatly admires.

Remembering that as a student, while studying Ernest Hemingway’s ‘The Old Man and the Sea’, the book cited that he was a Nobel awardee, Gurnah, the author of ‘Paradise’ (1994), ‘Desertion’ (2005), and ‘By the Sea’, says, “Of course, we knew what it was, but really did not have a clue what it meant. People across the world know about this honour and read books by those who have won this. And that is great for any writer.”

Smiling that it is not tough for him to stay ‘normal’ after receiving such an honour, Gurnah is enjoying meeting people than he ever did and visiting major events across the world.

“Of course, it does get a bit tiring.”

Stressing that there is no increased pressure to write (“I am mostly replying to emails nowadays”), the author, talking about his writing schedule, says that under normal circumstances, he gets up at 6 a.m. and writes the entire day till he is tired.

“Except of course when there are chores to do,” says Gurnah, who enjoys gardening and cricket.

Stressing that the exponential increase in literature festivals across the world have opened things up for readers and authors, he feels each festival offers exposure to different kind of writers, and local language writers get a great boost.

“It regenerates a different kind of culture of reading and writing, which is not always celebrating big names,” says this former professor of English and post-colonial literature at the University of Kent who also taught Indian writers like Anita Desai and Arundhati Roy.

Optimistic about the future of politics and culture in Tanzania and wider East Africa, he opines the elections there are getting more reliable and there is greater tolerance.

“Tolerance doesn’t have to be that you transcend, it’s just that you tolerate. You just have to obey the law and treat each other with courtesy.”

Talking about Brexit, the Nobel laureate feels that the campaign was quite confused and several claims were duplicitous.

“Many people insist that if the referendum was to be held again, it might go the other way. There was a perception of Europeans taking jobs away. Now when one reads newspapers, there seems to be a sense that it was not the right decision.”

Gurnah says that the interaction is just a show, and in reality, he is quite a “miserable figure” most of the time.

“While speaking to people, one opens up in many ways, but writing for me is extremely serious business. While doing that, I may not come across as very cheerful as my entire focus is on that.”

Young writers, he feels, are not really in a position to make big demands during the start of their careers.

“You work out a relationship with an editor. It doesn’t come naturally but you work on it,” he concludes.

(Sukant Deepak can be reached at sukant.d@ians.in)

20230121-064202

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