Q&A with Abdulrazak Gurnah

Q&A with Abdulrazak Gurnah

The Orwell Prizes for Political Writing and Political Fiction 2021 shortlists, released last month, highlight the finest politically engaged books published in 2020. Throughout June, we will be sharing Q+As with the shortlisted writers from both lists, here on our blog. To see the lists, visit our website here.

Today we hear from Abdulrazak Gurnah; his novel 'Afterlives' is set in German-occupied East Africa in the early years of the twentieth century, and gently leads the reader through the lives of ordinary, decent people who are harried and harassed by colonial history. Our judges called the prose “subtle and limpid”: “the narrative interweaves the lives of characters at the mercy of the destructive forces unleashed by colonial struggles for supremacy but determined to grasp what happiness their troubled times will allow them.”

Afterlives focusses on a curiously little-known part of history, in this country at least – German colonialism in Africa. Why do you think that is?

Quite a lot of `African colonial history` is `forgotten` in the popular British imagination, with a few exceptions: the Boer Wars, David Livingstone, Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa. Some historical episodes are known for their notoriety without detailed attention to the causes and consequences. The Mau Mau emergency is a good example. How has the history of the war in East Africa slipped through the popular British memory of WW1? Part of the answer is probably that there was not very much British glory to report. Few British-born troops were involved. It was a dogged hit-and-run guerrilla war which the German-led troops probably had the better of.  Most of the soldiers and all the carriers were Africans. The worst casualties were not among the troops but among the people whose land they trampled over and plundered and laid waste. It is not known for certain how many died from starvation and disease. No one bothered to count. Nor did anyone bother to keep an accurate count of how many of the carriers died but many more of them perished than the troops. For Africans in that region, it was a terrible and devastating war and not at all forgotten. Nor is this period ignored by historians of colonialism who continue to investigate and record its outcomes.

What are the politics, or political questions, you feel your novel is exploring?

The political meaning of writing about such events is to make them known, to prompt further reflection and investigation, and to see them in a broader context of suppressed histories of colonial brutality. It is also to affirm that the victims of such violence found means to survive.

What role do you think fiction has, or should have, in the telling of history?

Writing on a historical moment can sometimes intensify our understanding of an episode or a time that we know in outline or as a simple factual account. Fiction can help us imagine fully the conditions and circumstances they depict. Historical writing does this as well, and I often find that when I have read a novel about a period I did not know about, I want to read historical accounts to deepen my understanding of what I have read. I think the two kinds of narratives inform and enrich each other.

Were there any particular books you turned to, fiction or non-fiction, while researching and writing your novel?

I was born and grew up in Zanzibar at a time when we were still colonised, so the first impulse towards writing about these events came from my own experience. Much of the novel covers the period before I was born, but stories of that earlier time were around us as we grew up, some of them told by relatives who had been part of the war. The additional `research` accumulated over the years, from my reading and in my work as an academic, and from the usual writerly luck, when a detail comes out of the blue and sticks.

Buy Afterlives from Bookshop.org here.

Image credit: Mark Pringle

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