Abdulrazak Gurnah: I wanted to write and be an academic

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In the early 1980s, while completing his doctorate at the University of Kent, Abdulrazak Gurnah spent three years teaching at the University of Bayero in Nigeria. He had fled his native Zanzibar to come to England after the 1964 revolution and had never set foot on African soil again.

“I had a rather romantic idea of ​​’going back to Africa’, he recalls, and I discovered a completely different place. Of course, I didn’t expect to see another Zanzibar, but I was surprised at how different it was from what I expected. Challenging and enriching our images of Africa has proven essential both for his academic work – he retired from Kent as Professor Emeritus of English and Postcolonial Literatures in 2017 – and for the 10 Powerful Novels. which earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature this year “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the plight of refugees in the chasm between cultures and continents”. He is due to receive him at a ceremony in Stockholm on December 10.

So why did Professor Gurnah pursue these dual careers and how did he keep them side by side?

Even as an undergraduate student, he replied, “he was considering both postgraduate studies and starting to write. Once I started I wanted to do both things. At various times, one or the other became the most dominant activity, at least in terms of time, but not in terms of motivation or desire… I was already writing before I became a full-time scholar, so I just accommodated one to the other. ”Things got easier when he took on higher roles as head of department and director of research, as he found that administrative responsibilities were less of one. “Toll to the mind” than the constant burden of teaching, correcting and preparing for lessons.

His research initially focused on African writing, continued Professor Gurnah, because “certain types of criticism made me angry and I wanted to engage with them.” He is particularly wary of “normative or nationalist” approaches which tend to treat literature “as something from a platform”. In teaching, too, he has always been committed to examining how each text had “its own integrity and its own concerns and concerns, which you must bring out for students to see and engage in.”

In graduate school, Prof Gurnah reflected, “You often start from an opposing position and want to work things out, then you see the bigger picture.” His own subsequent work moved beyond Africa to postcolonial Caribbean and Pacific literatures, but also to Romanticism and Modernism, all linked by what he described as “a whole web of connections. literary and intellectual that you can fruitfully study and enjoy. ”.

In novels like paradise (1995) and Beyond (2020), Professor Gurnah takes us to the largely unknown world of East Africa at the start of the 20th century, where the few European figures are only frightening presences. Anyone writing a historical novel set in Victorian London or Weimar Berlin, for example, can turn to dozens of academic texts. But what sources are available for Tanzanian social history?

Academic material was limited, Professor Gurnah admitted, but he was able to draw on childhood memories of “people in their sixties and so on, who would have existed at the turn of the century and lived it themselves. . My grandfather was conscripted into the German army during World War I. There were still living people talking about these things, even though the books weren’t there yet.

Today, however, according to Professor Gurnah, “the scholarship over this period is developing well”, with academics in Africa, the United States and the United Kingdom often working collaboratively, now producing “much more research. wealthy, using material objects or oral evidence. to help us understand more deeply the cultural practices ”of the time and place.

Asked about the arguments for decolonizing the curriculum, Professor Gurnah said it was “a question of formulation.”

Although “the current way of speaking is much more difficult and perhaps aggressive,” he explained, “what people who defend the idea of ​​decolonizing the school curriculum are looking for is not very different from what people are looking for. that people in my college generation were trying to do. What’s on offer – including more of the kind of work they champion, ensuring that critical positions aren’t so focused on the supremacy or centrality of British writing – is nothing new… I won’t get mad at the name of that name. process is given. This is the process that interests me – the continuing process of expanding what we look at when we talk about literature.

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