Q&A with Abdulrazak Gurnah about latest novel ‘Afterlives’: “These stories have been with me all along…”

By AiW Guest: Judyannet Muchiri.

AiW note:This dialogue for AiW below is one in a series introducing Afterlives, in the run up to an Africa Writes Exeter Book Club event on March 30th 2021 (see registration and ticket details below)…

C. Mark Pringle

Abdulrazak Gurnah was born in Zanzibar. Other than Afterlives, his novels include Memory of DeparturePilgrims WayDottieParadise (shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Whitbread Award), Admiring SilenceBy the Sea (longlisted for the Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Book Award), Desertion (shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize) The Last Gift and Gravel Heart.  

In her review of Afterlives for AiW published yesterday, Judyannet Muchiri’s titular and thematic phrase comes from a central character in the novel, Hamza, who wakes from a dream of “such noise and screams and blood”. This is a lament that echoes through the review as one encapsulating the resounding afterlives of colonialism and the First World War in East Africa, of its violence, conflicts and losses, and those living them – who all people Gurnah’s novel with deep humanity and in their interrelationships. As she says:

“For me, this is the key point of interest: what communal loss meant then, what it means now, and what we as people do with that loss. Does collective vulnerability, we are asked to ponder, become a productive resource for regeneration? […] In this ever changing world we live in, we find ourselves in times that are often bleak and uncertain, echoing over again with so much noise, screams, and blood. But what we can know for sure is that there will also be so much love and relief from family and community with whom we share our leaps and losses.”

Read the review, “Such noise and screams and blood”, in full at this link.

In her partner piece – the interview with Gurnah here – Judyannet expands on her review, asking about writing out and through these redemptive and tender possibilities, the power of collective memory and community, and also picking up on Gurnah’s “other” job as a scholar, previously Professor of Literatures at the University of Kent (UK), where his main academic interest was in postcolonial writing and in discourses associated with colonialism, especially as they relate to Africa, the Caribbean and India. 

Judyannet Muchiri: This is a heavy story and yet there are moments of stillness, joy, love, and tenderness, if you will. I wonder how it is for you as a writer to capture this human existence in its totality as you have done in Afterlives

Abdulrazak Gurnah: My interest was not to write about the war or the ugliness of colonialism. Instead I want to make sure the context in which war and colonialism happened is understood. And that the people in that context were people with entire existences. I want to show how people who are wounded by the war and by life itself cope in these circumstances. Using the unexpected kindnesses in the story, I wanted to show that there is potential for kindness in people and sometimes circumstances can draw such kindness from us. 

JM: As a postcolonial scholar, what did writing Afterlives ask of you? What did it take to dig into a difficult time in history to bring the characters alive and tell their story?

AG: I kinda grew up with these stories. I was surrounded by people who experienced these things firsthand and would talk about them. These stories have been with me all along and what I needed was time to organize them into this story. My scholarly work has also shaped these stories.  I did find that although this particular historical period is not in the popular imagination, there is a lot of scholarly work on it and reading that work was also helpful. 

JM: What does memory in the context of war, displacement and unrest enable, and how do we cultivate and preserve this collective memory?

AG: You have to have a community first to have a collective memory. The history of colonialism is sometimes claimed as if it is a homogenous account yet there is so much more to it, there is a lot of local knowledge and details to it. Countries encountered colonialism in unique ways because of the contextual factors. It is important to hang onto this and pay attention to the details. Therefore, I am a bit hesitant to use collective memory in this regard. A regional sense of cosmopolitanism, however, is a good way for people to talk to each other about some of these things and their context specificities.

JM: In Afterlives themes of belonging, community and home are prominent. How do you envision home and how does this idea of home translate in the book?

AG: There are different ways of experiencing belonging and unbelonging. How do people perceive themselves as part of a community? How are some included and some excluded? Who does the community belong to? These are all themes I explore a lot in my work in general and questions I ask in Afterlives.

JM: What do you hope this story does? How do you hope for it to travel?

AG: In general, I write about these things because this is what engages me, this is what I care about.

Judyannet Muchiri is a gender equality advocate whose work sits at the intersection of gender, youth, and digital advocacy. She is also a creative writer who does short fiction, flash fiction and verse. Judyannet writes with the hope that her words will bring someone home to themselves when days are long and dark. Her work has appeared on Down River RoadThe MagungaWill This Be A Problem, and AzizMola. She’s into indie bookstores, poetry, and dessert.

Judyannet’s AiW review of Gurnah’s Afterlives can be found here.
We also have a linked review in the Africa in Words ‘Book Club’ series around the novel from Florian Stadtler, (Senior Lecturer in Postcolonial Literatures in the Department of English and Film at the University of Exeter):
A Reckoning with East Africa’s Colonial Histories

Abdulrazak Gurnah will be in conversation about his most recent novel Afterlives (Bloomsbury 2020) on March 30th in the third Africa Writes Exeter Book Club event, 4-5pm. Register for the event on the link below:

Gurnah will be in conversation with Novoyu Rose Tshuma, author of House of Stone. Our review of her novel by Ranka Primorac, ‘Zimbabwe’s substitutions, or: what difference would a good or bad past make? Novuyo Rose Tshuma’s ‘House of Stone’ (2018)’ is here.

“House of Stone is a story of bemusement and horror; hilarious subterfuge with tragic undertones. Reading it feels like being punched in the stomach and tickled at the same time. 

www.africawrites.org | @AfricaWritesUK | #AfricaWritesExeter



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