The first time I encountered Abdulrazak Gurnah was in Prestige Bookshop. On display was ‘Afterlives’, with what looked like a soldier on the blue green cover, but what piqued my interest was the idea that in my hands was an English book about Tanzania’s history. It was the first time I had encountered historical fiction set in Tanzania, written in English and not Kiswahili. I came to appreciate the purchase and followed it up with more titles, less than two months later. Abdulrazak is a writer one can never get enough of. When I posted praises of his writing on Facebook weeks ago, those who had read him came with more recommendations from his vast publications of stories. And yet for a writer who moves those who read him so deeply, Abdulrazak’s works are difficult to review. Even after winning the Nobel Literature prize, people who’ve read him are recommending his works, inviting others to his world of fiction, but for the average reader, reviews or summaries of his works, in popular press, are rare.

The main reason for his is how the Nobel Laureate writes. Abdulrazak Gurnah does not just give his readers a book to read but he bestows upon them a journey to undertake.  A journey into a people whose ways of life, whose histories, are unknown to outsiders.  Gurnah involves not just the mind and heart, but the reader’s whole being.

This was especially vivid in ‘Desertion’. In the book, a white man chances upon a Tanzanian coastal town while in a poor state of health. Those who find him mistake him for dead. Rehana’s family rescue him and try to nurse him back into health before the German colonial officer in the town comes for this Italian. The Italian’s arrival changes the course of life for Rehana, her daughter and her granddaughter, long after tales of the white sickly man are forgotten. Through the few characters, we encounter what colonization was like for the everyday man in Tanzania and other coastal areas. Gurnah doesn’t say this directly though. He simply sits you down by the ocean and as the afternoon breeze cools your body, he paints for you the lives of the main characters. Vividly. Succinctly. Patiently. Until you become one with the characters. By the end of Chapter 1, I was waiting with bated breath to know what happened to the sick white man.

One realizes you can take a coasterian out of Zanzibar, or any coastal town along the Indian Ocean, but you can’t take the Swahili way of thinking out of the coasterian. Gurnah has lived in Britain since 1968, but reading his books, the Swahili influence is unmistakable. It shines through every single word he writes. Not necessarily through the use of Swahili language but through the Swahili way of storytelling.

Abdulrazak uses as few characters as he can get away with. But through them, he paints an encounter with brutal German colonization, a world war fought on its borders and an uninterested British colonization. In ‘Afterlives’, Gurnah takes us to the centuries before present-day Tanzania, before the colonialists came. One encounters communities or macro-nations at war with each other. One meets inland communities that gave the Germans such a hard time, they took 8 years to ever consider returning into those communities’ territories.

Myths about revolutions such as the Maji Maji Rebellion are gently broken with accounts of what happened that markedly differ from colonial accounts. We become soldiers and march in a war that has nothing to do with Africa and yet East Africa paid a high price for it. Thousands of soldiers fought and died in the war. We march in African villages, sing in the military band, and form connections with women in the villages we stop by on our way to the Kenyan border to fight the war. We see our friends die of diseases. We starve as food gets scarce. We consider turning back, but when we remember that our homes are under the rulers of the banners we carry. We march on. Abdulrazak drops us from our soldier days and through Afiya and Hamza’s town’s stay, immerses us into the merchant world of those days. We become a clerk who falls in love. A clerk to a greedy merchant. Yet again we stay, now with a troubled soldier’s past, but a bright future each time we think of Afiya.

When one thinks of any of Abdulrazak’s books, it is not the details that come up, but the journey into that world. The sense of calmness Abdulrazak Gurnah imbues into the reader, from the first page. It is a feeling of having been on an illustrious voyage across the oceans. One remembers the hopes and dreams, the adventures, and is bereft when it ends. A craving only satisfied by another Gurnah book. As one courses through over ten books, reading Abdulrazak easily becomes an addiction.

It is for this reason that my heart skipped in joy when I heard that he is the 2021 Nobel Literature Prize winner. He truly deserves this win! His stories should travel to wider audiences. His storytelling style deserves to be celebrated, globally. He is a little different from celebrated authors from Africa such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Their subject matter, at times, may be similar, such as unfolding the threads of colonization, but their writing styles, are farther apart. None is less deserving than the other. As ‘watu wa bara’ — the inland or upcountry peoples, Gurnah has richly blessed our lives with the treasured cultural and historical heritage of the coastal people, spanning centuries.

I send the warmest congratulations to Abdulrazak Gurnah!

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