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.
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