Abdulrazak Gurnah laments Europe’s contradictions towards refugees

At the beginning of last October, the Swedish Academy received the spotlight from around the world to declare the failure of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature to the Tanzanian writer Abdulrazak Gurnah for his “uncompromising and compassionate insight into the effects of colonialism and the fate of refugees in the abyss between cultures and continents”.

At the time of the announcement, the editorial catalog available in Spanish of the first African Nobel Prize for Literature in more than 30 years was limited to three titles whose physical copies were discontinued in the large chains and electronic commerce platforms; if anything, the most accessible was the catalog of digital books.

Today it is possible to find in stores and platforms two elegant editions in our language of a couple of his most emblematic novels: “Paraíso” (nominated for Booker in 1994) and “Ashore del mar”, a moving story about exile and memory, both published by the Salamandra label.

This Tuesday, Gurnah, a Tanzanian refugee in the United Kingdom since the 1960s, linked up with almost a hundred Spanish-language media to present the reissue of “Ashore del mar”. Two recurring questions were anticipated and happened: what do you think when you look at the displacement of millions of Ukrainians forced by the invasion of their country? And, what power does literature have in the face of realities like the one that afflicts us?

“I feel compassion. What else can anyone feel when they see something that is undoubtedly a cruel and malevolent attack on the homes of many people? (…) one can only feel sadness to see how, once again, these people are forced to flee their countries and lose their loved ones”, highlighted the 2021 Nobel Prize winner.

He applauded the hospitality with which many European countries offer refuge to displaced Ukrainians, however, he said: “although it is not surprising, it is sad that this kind of hospitality is not always extended to Afghans, Syrians or Iraqis … in some parts , especially from Europe, there is a certain reticence towards strangers and it is nothing new (…) and the reticence responds to racism. In some countries, these movements of people are spoken of as if they were criminals, as if they were people who are here to harm us, to steal our prosperity or ruin our comfortable lives.”

literature against tyranny

Gurnah reflects that it is not that there is no literature on the colonialist arrival in different regions, especially in the global south, as is the case of the European arrival in East Africa, in Zanzibar (a theme on which the novel “Paradise” is based). ), but considered that “there is a gap between what academics, historians or anthropologists do and popular knowledge”.

Instead, literary work has the ability to fill those empty spaces, he pointed out, and humanizes academic knowledge for a better understanding of the world. “That’s what happens with literature, it connects us with things we don’t know, but in a way that makes them accessible and allows us to enter those experiences in a way that the academic world can’t always offer.”

Then, he was asked about the role that intellectuals should play when the tyranny of states leads to wars like the one Russia is holding against Ukraine.

“You can’t throw a book at a tank to stop it. Literature cannot intervene against tyranny in this way, through force. But the scripture can make things clear to us so that later we have to fight, if we wish to do so. I don’t think an authoritarian person reads a book and changes to be nicer to people. What literature can do is inform the rest of us so we don’t allow tyrants to abuse us.”

The Nobel Prize for Literature was asked what it means to be the first black African author to win the award in more than 30 years.

Abdulrazak Gurnah replied: “rather than a black person, I am the first African in 30 years. If we look at the history of the award, the decisions are generally European. How many Indians have won the Nobel, how many Chinese or people from other places have won it? The question must be: why have people always been of European origin? And I think the answer is obvious: that expresses the narrowness of the values ​​that are given to non-European literary productions, that they are given a very small value, but we cannot go back”.

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