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Afterlives by Abdulrazak Gurnah 

‘Writing became the art of the process of learning to live’; Abdulrazak Gurnah speaks on narratives of colonisation, the importance of having a voice, and his 2020 novel Afterlives

Abdulrazak Gurnah sits, comfortable and composed, on the stage of the Cambridge Literary Festival. 35 years since the publication of his first novel, and the well-deserving recipient of a Nobel prize in literature (2021), he has every right to be as confident and at ease as he appears. 

Picture credit: Waterstones

His novel Afterlives (2020) provides a searing account of the cost of war, both to individuals and whole communities, and the devastating consequences of colonialism. This captivating yet heartbreaking story recounts the German army’s exploits in what is now Tanzania, in the lead up to what ultimately becomes the First World War, as seen through the eyes of several of the countless individuals impacted. 

Gurnah presents these issues with intelligence and passion, noting the relevance that foreignness and feelings of estrangement have to both his life and his writing. He cites the beautiful but complex nature of writing multiple narratives with disparate perspectives, highlighting that things are always more complicated than they first appear (particularly, he clarified, in terms of narratives of colonisation), and stating that ‘novels are complicated artefacts… they’re not just about one thing’. This is certainly true of Afterlives, a novel about terrible violence but also first love; about family but also devastation, where first love is set against the backdrop of catastrophic loss. 

After acknowledging that a large part of the reason why he started to write was the realisation that it is impossible to ever fully know what is going on in someone else’s life, Gurnah expounds upon the countless things that can be learnt from engaging with other people. He also discussed the importance of having a voice, and not allowing others to force you into silence. These themes are similarly important to Afterlives, where both the resonance of silence and the power of speech are recurring themes. 

Ultimately, estrangement and dislocation are central to both the novel’s focus and the racism that the author faced. Gurnah stated that he was ‘more scared of leaving than arriving (on his migration from a Zanzibar in turmoil to the UK, aged 18), but that upon his immigration to the UK, he faced ‘The force of other people’s hatred… for no reason’, and the ‘humiliation of being disliked’. 

This thought-provoking novel and fascinating talk, both of which raise salient political questions, acts as educative as to the German rule in East Africa in the first part of the twentieth century, as well as raising unavoidable questions about contemporary politics.

Abdulrazak Gurnah’s novel Afterlives is available to purchase. Additionally, this talk (Abdulrazak Gurnah in conversation with the literary critic Alex Clark) is available to view through the Cambridge Literary Festival website.

Written by Hannah Shakespeare