Abdulrazak Gurnah at Border Kitchen in The Hague

At the Theater aan de Spui in The Hague, BorderKitchen hosted an hour-short conversation with Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah, which I was privileged to attend. The Tanzanian-born novelist won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021 for his ‘uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.’ A hush fell among the guests as Abdulrazak Gurnah quietly made his way on stage towards a bright red chair which he would then occupy self-assuredly throughout the question-and-answer session. His slow, yet purposeful steps resemble the meticulous precision of words found beneath the covers of each of his critically acclaimed novels that explore the tough themes of exile, displacement, identity, and colonialism.

   The audience was treated to a comprehensive analysis of his notable work of historical fiction, Afterlives, as well as a fascinating meditation on the intertwined themes of reading, writing and existence. During his childhood in Tanzania, books were scarce, often obtained through exchange with others. It wasn’t until he moved to the United Kingdom in the 1960s during the Zanzibar Revolution that Abdulrazak finally found the freedom to indulge in the extensive reading of whichever book he desired. Through doing so, he found lack. “Why don’t more people know about this?” he would often question in reference to the home he was forced to flee as a refugee. As a result, Abdulrazak began to document his experiences of life in Tanzania after a fit of homesickness left him meandering through his mind, and the rest is history… literally.

    Except, exile was not the only hurdle that Abdulrazak had to confront. The literary tradition in Tanzania has given rise to relatively few writers and works, especially for Tanzanian authors who write in English, like Abdulrazak. When he expressed to a close family member his desire to be a writer he was taunted and teased and told “Ha, well I want to be an Opera singer!” A remark that drove him to enrol in evening classes to pursue a degree in Literature. It is important I mention that he did not share this so that the audience could scorn at such an impolite quip. Rather, he used the incident as an anecdote for persevering with his writing.

    In his own words, Abdulrazak expressed that it “takes time and possibly some stumbling to get to the right place.” This quote perfectly sums up the essence of a man possessing a rare and compassionate intellect, who despite confronting the lingering effects of trauma from war, colonialism, and displacement on a daily basis, continues to embody a beacon of hope. It was a blessing to be in his presence.  Eva Lakeman  10th April 2024