Nobel Prize Conversations
“I don’t write about heroes, I write about small people”
Abdulrazak Gurnah’s books often touch on the fate of the refugee and effects of colonialism. In this conversation, conudcted in June 2022, he speaks about his interest in how people cope with traumas or problems in their lives – and are able to retrieve something from them.
Gurnah also speaks about what literature gives the writer and the reader: ”We are learning something. We are told something we didn’t know before.” He also offers insights into his writing: how he explores thoughtful silences and lifts the small struggles that play out in otherwise mundane lives and settings.
Last but not least, Gurnah talks to us about moving to the UK from Zanzibar as a teenager, and how his home country Zanzibar went through a big change during the revolution in 1964.
Interview, April 2022
“There are certain moments I think that never, never go away”
Carin Klaesson, Content Manager of Public Programs at the Nobel Prize Museum, sat down to talk to 2021 literature laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, Sweden on 28 April 2022. In a wide ranging conversation they spoke about his journey to the Nobel Prize.
Interview, February 2022
“I learned to have pleasure in reading simply because I love stories”
Interview with Abdulrazak Gurnah on 25 February 2022. Gurnah talks about his early days as a reader, the importance of stories and how he sees his work as the same as any other type of job.
Abdulrazak Gurnah answers the following questions (the links below lead to clip on YouTube):
0:03 Where did your passion for reading and writing come from?
1:52 Was Aesop’s Fables your favourite book as a child?
2:16 Do you think books you read as a child can have a big impression on you?
3:08 Did you want to be a writer when you were young?
4:08 How did your upbringing shape you and the writer you’ve become today?
5:53 Who or what inspires you to write?
8:14 Why do you think writing is important?
11:09 How important is diversity in literature?
12:04 Do you think literature is an important way to hear other people’s voices and gain access to other people’s cultures?
13:09 Where do you get your ideas from when you write?
15:26 Is there a particular piece of advice you would give to an aspiring writer?
16:22 What’s your favourite thing about writing?
16:57 Who is your favourite author?
18:24 What do you enjoy doing outside of writing?
18:48 How has life changed for you after being awarded the Nobel Prize?
Five of the 2021 Nobel Prize laureates met digitally on 4 December 2021 for the traditional round-table discussion and TV program ‘Nobel Minds’ hosted by the BBC’s Zeinab Badawi. The laureates discussed their research, discoveries and achievements and how these might find a practical application.
Participants: Klaus Hasselmann (physics), Benjamin List (chemistry), Ardem Patapoutian (medicine), Abdulrazak Gurnah (literature) and David Card (economic sciences).
Telephone interview, October 2021
“It’s the pleasure of getting something across, of giving pleasure, of making a case, of persuading”
Telephone interview with Abdulrazak Gurnah following the announcement of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature on 7 October 2021. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Prize Outreach.
“A kind of miserliness,” is how Abdulrazak Gurnah describes the attitude of some in Europe to refugees. After all, he says, “Europeans streaming out into the world is nothing new” and he suggests those seeking succour also be seen as “talented, energetic people, who have something to give.” In this brief conversation, recorded just after he had heard the news, his surprise at receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature is evident. “I was just thinking ‘I wonder who’ll get it’”, says Gurnah: “I thought it was a prank, I really did.”
Abdulrazak Gurnah: Hi.
Adm Smith: Hello, am I speaking with Abdulrazak Gurnah?
AG: Yes, you are, yeah.
AS: Hi, my name…
AG: I was just watching the announcement on my computer here, who are you please?
AS: My name is Adam Smith, I’m calling from the website of the Nobel Prize. Would you mind speaking, or do you want to watch the announcement? I don’t want to interrupt.
AG: Well, alright, well how do you want to do this then, because there’s no point listening to reporters, ‘cause I’m sure I’ll be listening to them soon.
AS: You will indeed. I think that’s the message isn’t it, that your life is going to change for a short time now. There’s going to be a deluge. How do you feel about that prospect?
AG: Well, I’m still taking it in. Yeah, well I suppose it’s inevitable, it’s such a, it’s such a big prize, but yes, it’s inevitable. Fine, okay, I’m sure I can take it in my stride.
AS: And how did the news actually reach you?
AG: He rang, I’m sorry, what’s the name of the permanent secretary?
AS: Mats Malm.
AG: Yep. He just rang me about 10 minutes, 15 minutes ago, and I thought it was a prank. I really did. Because, you know, these things are usually floated for weeks beforehand, or sometimes months beforehand, about who will the, you know, who are the runners as it were, so it’s not something that was in my mind at all. I was just thinking ‘I wonder who’ll get it’.
AS: Indeed, indeed. And okay, you took some convincing. How did he convince you?
AG: Well, he kept talking quietly, and I… and I… then he told me about the… the website, the Swedish Academy website, and I said well ‘I’ll go and check in a minute, but just tell me some more’. So he just kept talking calmly, and I suppose in the end I was still thinking ‘I’ll wait until I see it, or hear it’. And that’s what I came up here to do. So…
AS: Well, there it is. It’s real.
AG: Yes, indeed. Yes, indeed it is, yeah.
AS: You know… I just… the Nobel Prize…
AG: I’m sorry, but the calls are coming in.
AS: Of course they are, that’s why I tried to get you so quickly. I hope you don’t mind. If you could just stay with me for a couple of minutes it would be lovely.
AG: Can I just say something to this person?
AS: Of course you can, of course.
AG: Hi there, can I… you’ve just heard the news I guess? This is the Swedish Academy, that I’m talking to, call me back in 5 minutes, alright bye bye. Hi, are you still there? I think that was the BBC.
AS: Yeah, of course, they will want to talk to you, and everybody will want to talk to you. But, the citation speaks about the way that you deal with the ‘fate of refugees’ and the ‘gulf between cultures and continents’. It’s obviously a particular moment now – we’re in the middle of a refugee crisis. But can you just say how do you see the divisions between cultures? There are so many ways of characterising things.
AG: I don’t see that these divisions are either, you know, permanent or somehow insurmountable or anything like that. People, of course, have been moving all over the world. I think this is a… this phenomenon of particularly people from Africa coming to Europe is a relatively new one, but of course the other… Europeans streaming out into the world is nothing new. Centuries of that we’ve had. So I think the reason it’s so difficult for Europe to kind of, for a lot of people in Europe, for European states, to come to terms with it is perhaps a sort of… well, to cut a long story short, a kind of miserliness, as if there isn’t enough to go around. When many of these people who come, come out of first need, and because quite frankly they have something to give. They don’t… they don’t come empty handed. A lot of them are talented, energetic people, who have something to give. So that might be another way of thinking about it. You’re not just taking people in as if they’re, you know, poverty-stricken nothings, but, yeah, think of it as you’re first providing succour to people who are in need, but also people who can contribute something.
AS: Thank you very much indeed. And one more thing – the Nobel Prize every year links scientists and artists with this week of announcements. The scientists tend to describe their work as being play, as just the joy of exploring. Is that how you feel when you write?
AG: Well, I feel joy when I’ve finished! [Laughs] But, yeah, a lot of it is obviously something that is compulsive, compelling, something that, you know, writers keep going for decades – you can’t be doing that if you hate it. But it is… I suppose it’s both the, the pleasure of making things, crafting, getting it right, but it’s also the pleasure of getting something across, of… of giving pleasure, of making a case, of persuading, and all of those kind of things.
AS: Thank you very much indeed. I must say you’re being remarkably lucid under fire from everybody trying to reach you at this moment, so thank you.
AG: Okay. Alright, thank you. Bye.
AS: I hope we’ll have the chance to speak more another time, but for the moment, congratulations and thank you.
AG: Well, thank you, thank you very much. Thank you.
AS: Good luck with the day.
AG: Bye, bye.
Did you find any typos in this text? We would appreciate your assistance in identifying any errors and to let us know. Thank you for taking the time to report the errors by sending us an e-mail.
See the full schedule
Curious about 2021 literature laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah but can’t decide which of his books to start with? Here three members of the Swedish Academy give their recommendations.