Literature can tell familiar or unknown histories, but the narrative should be built in ways that develop a writer-reader intimacy, renowned author and Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah said on Friday.
Ultimately, originality isn’t necessarily something that is totally new, but the ability to lend even routine matters a whiff of freshness, the Tanzanian-British novelist noted at the ongoing Mathrubhumi International Festival of Letters (MBIFL 2023) in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.
“One who raises questions isn’t bound to give their solutions. To highlight certain issues can itself be a creative activity,” the 74-year-old academic observed in his talk about the February 2-6 Litfest theme, “Shadows of History, Lights of Future.”
Describing history as a chain of “large catastrophic events”, Gurnah said the tragedies could still be seductive in retrospect.
“The darkness around past events finds its counterpoint in people’s hopes about a bright future. We always believe there’s room for a better world. All the same, we have to live with crises of various kinds,” he said, citing climate change and refuge-seeking migrations as instances in the contemporary world.
“Nations providing hospitality to those fleeing their motherlands can help the displaced retrieve some of their lost belongings,” the writer said.
To a question from the audience at Nishagandhi open-air auditorium, Gurnah said new international borders do curb human movements, unlike in the previous millennium or before.
“If trade flourished between Zanzibar in my part of the world and the Malabar Coast here, it was also because we people could travel to any part of the world those days,” he said, referring to how Indian communities blended with the populations of East Africa during the 19th century.
“Today if you try it, you’ll be caught and put in jail,” he said.
Gurnah agreed to a listener’s viewpoint that the English in his fictional works around Tanzania went beyond the conventional use of the language, but said the absence of translatable words prompted him to retain certain local usages verbatim.
“I wanted to be truthful. I shouldn’t be disturbing the flow of my narration by forcibly going for English equivalents of words that exist in our ethos. If I do it, the word may sound so pompous,” said the author, who won the 2021 Nobel prize in literature “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fates of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”
Having had to settle in alien places can be beneficial too, according to Gurnah, who is of Arab heritage and was forced to leave his country for England when barely out of his teens, four years after the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution. “You belong to there or here, people ask me, and I say, ‘both’. It’s better than being mono-cultural.”
Asked how he felt to be led in a world that had no global leader, Gurnah said, “It isn’t good to be told by someone all the time to do what, when and how. I don’t want any such presence, frankly.”
At the end of the hour-long session, Gurnah unveiled ‘Idam’, a digital youth magazine by Mathrubhumi.