Abdulrazak Gurnah wins the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature

Brisbane Writers Festival 2011

In exciting news Abdulrazak Gurnah has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I was ‘in conversation’ with him at the 2011 Brisbane Writers Festival. He had been nominated for the Booker Prize for Paradise by then (and also the Whitbread) and we discussed his new novel (at the time), The Last Gift (published Bloomsbury) in particular. We discussed changing attitudes to immigration, cultural identity; the idea and place of ‘home’, and the role of stories in finding answers.

I never guessed I was in discussion with a future Nobel Prize for Literature winner.

I distinctly recall our conversation about Zanzibar, which is the birthplace of both Abdulrazak and his protagonist Abbas. We discussed jackfruit or fenesi, an unattractive-looking fruit, which Abbas describes to his wife, Maryam as a “rubbery green bag with sweet, soft, sticky flesh inside”. Abbas was surprised to find it in other countries when he thought it unique to Zanzibar. The author uses jackfruit as a metaphor for the uniqueness of a place (here Zanzibar) but it also suggests that some things that make a place special can also be found elsewhere. Although feeling displaced, Abdulrazak has been able to find some of the ‘treasure’ he experienced in Zanzibar in Britain, where he has lived for many years.

We discussed the difficulty of being an immigrant or refugee and whether it reduces someone’s capacity to call somewhere else ‘home’ and if somewhere else could ever really be ‘home’.

One of the characters in The Last Gift talks about photos and mementos: “I wonder if it could ever be true, that you would reach a time when the mementos of your life would say nothing to you, when you could look around you and have no story to tell. It would feel as if you were not there with these nameless and memoryless objects, as if you were no longer present among the bits and pieces of your life, as if you did not exist.” This led to discussion about the significance of mementos in the lives of those who leave home for a new place, and subsequently to how much of the past could be in our present and future. How are traces of the past in us?

Sometimes I’m struck with amazement when I consider exactly how I’ve found myself here. but then I suppose many people can say that about their lives. It may be that events constantly take us by surprise, or perhaps traces of what is to become of us are present in our past, and we only need to look behind us to see what we have become, and there is no need for amazement. (The Last Gift)

Abbas in The Last Gift grasps that “Everyone has stories. I had not thought of that before.” Abdulrazak Gurnah’s stories have finally brought him the treasure of this significant award. My lasting impression of Abdulrazak was a gentleman of intelligence. He is certainly a fine writer and deserving of a Nobel Prize.

On a side note, Abdulrazak and I hadn’t been told beforehand that the session was being filmed by, I recall, ABC Brisbane. I remember talking to his wife in the flurry of activity during the sound checks and unexpected set up of cameras. We were all discombobulated and happily surprised before launching into the interview.

The other Booker Prize shortlisted author I’ve chaired at a writers’ festival is Michael Collins. I wonder if he is a future Nobel contender … But of course, as Australians, we are all hoping that Gerald Murnane takes the mantle next time.

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