Abdulrazak Gurnah explores the pain of dislocation, from Zanzibar to England

Abdulrazak Gurnah retraces the story of a fragmented life and country in his novel Gravel Heart.
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Abdulrazak Gurnah's writing explores immigrant life, dislocation, power and shame. His latest novel, Gravel Heart, follows Salim, a timid and troubled child, from his boyhood in Zanzibar through his painful coming-of-age as an immigrant in England. Widely praised for its insight and sensitivity, the novel — Gurnah's ninth — has been called a "quiet masterpiece." 

Gravel Heart reflects Gurnah's own story. Born in Zanzibar in 1948, he left the island — off the coast of East Africa — in the midst of political turmoil and violence in the late 1960s. He arrived in Canterbury, England, where he pursued engineering, then switched to English literature, and eventually started writing.  

Abdulrazak Gurnah spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from the University of Kent in Canterbury, where he still lives.

What letters home cannot say
"When I started to write Gravel Heart, I wanted to capture why it feels so bad to be living so far away from people you care for. I was thinking of the ongoing conversation that Salim, the protagonist, was having with his mother through their letters. Their relationship is potent, and he hasn't forgotten about her. But there are things he cannot write about because of the distance, which can create room for misunderstanding, room for upsetting her. There's a reticence that comes out of sorrow — when people are sad, they don't always know how to speak about it. He continues writing. Maybe he's also confiding to himself; maybe he's doing that thing that people do when they write in a journal." 

Respecting sorrow

"There is a way in which sorrow is misunderstood as a kind of self-indulgence. I use what we call homesickness. At some point Salim says that, for years, he has felt homesick. Now, a general reaction would be to say it's an adolescent thing. And, if you're in your sixties like me and you say to people 'I feel homesick,' they look pityingly at you. It's not something that is understood as a serious and deep longing, which people in their very last breath probably still feel if they're dislocated. There are certain kinds of sorrows which you are not supposed to feel — sorrows that you should outgrow."

Migration today is different — up to a point

"When you go to London, you notice it's a multicultural city. In other cities you see the same thing. Visibly things look different. But the language with which outsiders are spoken of and the language which the state treats outsiders is actually, in some cases, worse. The register has simply evolved into something else rather than becoming more humane. I'm afraid something still needs to be done — people still need to be saying things and campaigning and persuading and so on —  when it should be perfectly obvious that we should be past these inhumane and obnoxious, confused notions of privilege and race."

Abdulrazak Gurnah's comments have been edited and condensed.