Arts & Entertainment

Gurnah: Writers on Africa must grapple with consequences of colonialism

By Irene Escudero

Cartagena, Colombia, Jan 30 (EFE).- Broadening readers’ perspectives on the world and countering the hegemonic order through his writing has been the life mission of Tanzanian-born British novelist and academic Abdulrazak Gurnah, recipient of the 2021 Nobel Prize in literature.

During his participation in the just-concluded Hay Festival Cartagena, a literary event in this northern Colombian city that is one of the most important of its kind in the Hispanic world, the 74-year-old author of the novels “Paradise” and “Afterlives” spoke to Efe in an interview about his work, the enduring impact of the European colonial period and the current migratory phenomenon that is a direct byproduct of that era.

Question: Did you always want to be a writer?

Answer: No, I didn’t. Because it seemed to me too high an ambition to aim for. We were growing up – me and people of my generation – at a time of decolonization. And everybody was telling us – our teachers, our parents – that you must do something that’s useful for your society. They’re still saying things like that. And nobody ever said writing a book was useful for anybody. So we all thought we should do things like engineering or medicine or law or whatever.

So it was never, ever in my sights that this could be a career for both reasons: one because it seemed too big an ambition, and secondly because you think, well, perhaps I could be doing something more immediately needed. Well, of course, what I did realize is that we need literature as much as we need everything else.

Q: What drives you to keep writing?

A: I’ve got the hook. It’s like anything. Once you start, when you invest in something, when you give your whole existence to it, whether it’s football or making money or writing, whatever, these things become things that you do. This is what your life is about. So what keeps me writing is simply the need to do so, the necessity to talk about the things that I see and that need to be said, that need to be written about. But I expect it’s really just that, that once you do these things seriously, these things like writing or like playing football, then you do them until you can’t do them.

Q: In a world that’s always moving, where there are exiles, refugees, migrants, has rootlessness become a universal sentiment?

A: Well, in our time, our contemporary times as it were, this is one of the major events, I think, globally. It’s not because it’s new, because migration is part of human history, people moving around all the time, moving forward, moving in this (direction or another). What is new – or relatively so, in the last 50 to 100 years – is the movement is coming from the south, from formally colonized territories into prosperous societies in the north.

Of course, the 19th century was millions of Europeans going to the rest of the world and taking it over. And the reason they did that is because they were in need and they had the power to do so. And nobody could resist them. What’s happening now is a totally different kind of migration, with powerless people saying “there’s prosperity there and we want some of it” or “our lives are in danger, we want to escape to somewhere safe, and the safest place we can think of are those places where people are living quiet, prosperous lives. And we want to go there.”

So there’s nothing immoral about it. There’s desire for safety, there’s desire for self-improvement, and all of these kinds of things, the very reasons why millions of Europeans went elsewhere. So, what is behind this panic? It’s race is what is behind this panic. It’s because these are people who are not Europeans, and they’re going to come here, greedy bastards, to steal our prosperity and to ruin our lives. It doesn’t matter if we went and ruined their lives or even killed them. That was our right. We were powerful. It’s this kind of stupid lack of understanding of the meaning of these movements of people that have been going on for centuries.

Q: Is it possible for writers on Africa to sidestep the theme of colonialism?

A: Yes, you can. You can. If you choose, you can talk about, I guess, different issues … which might be historical. Or it might be more intimate. People write romantic stories and love stories and so on, which don’t mention all these other things. You can choose to do so. But you can’t miss the consequences of colonialism when you think about African states, because they were made by colonialism. All these territories that became nations, and the difficulties that they have in truly becoming nations, are a result of the arbitrary way that the world was divided up to suit colonial convenience. EFE


Related Articles

Back to top button