Toni Morrison – Bibliography
|The Bluest Eye. – New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970|
|Sula. – New York: Knopf, 1973|
|Song of Solomon. – New York: Knopf, 1977|
|Tar Baby. – New York: Knopf, 1981|
|Beloved. – New York: Knopf, 1987|
|Jazz. – New York: Knopf, 1992|
|Paradise. – New York: Knopf, 1998|
|Love. – New York: Knopf, 2003|
|A Mercy. – New York : Knopf, 2008|
|Home. – New York : Knopf, 2012|
|Dreaming Emmet (performed 1986, but unpublished)|
|Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. – Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: Harvard University Press 1992|
|Remember: The Journey to School Integration. – Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004|
|What Moves in the Margin : Selected Nonfiction / edited and with an introduction by Carolyn C. Denard. – Jackson : Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2008|
|For children, with son Slade Morrison|
|The Big Box. – New York: Hyperion/Jump at the Sun, 1999|
|The Book of Mean People. – New York: Hyperion, 2002|
|The Lion or the Mouse?. – New York: Scribner, 2003|
|The Ant or the Grasshopper?. – New York: Scribner, 2003|
|The Poppy or the Snake?. – New York: Scribner, 2004|
|Peeny Butter Fudge. – New York : Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2009|
|The Tortoise or the Hare. – New York : Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2010|
|Little Cloud and Lady Wind. – New York : Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2010|
|Please, Louise. – New York : Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2013|
|Reference works (selected)|
|Rice, Herbert William, Toni Morrison and the American Tradition: a Rhetorical Reading. – New York: Lang, 1998|
|Mori, Aoi, Toni Morrison and Womanist Discourse. – New York: Lang, 1999|
|Duvall, John Noel, The Identifying Fictions of Toni Morrison: Modernist Authenticity and Postmodern Blackness. – Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001|
|The Toni Morrison Encyclopedia. Edited by Elizabeth Ann Beaulieu. – Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2003|
|Toni Morrison and The Bible : Contested Intertextualities / edited by Shirley A. Stave. – New York : Peter Lang, 2006|
The Swedish Academy, 2013
Toni Morrison – Banquet speech
Toni Morrison’s speech at the Nobel Banquet, December 10, 1993
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I entered this hall pleasantly haunted by those who have entered it before me. That company of Laureates is both daunting and welcoming, for among its lists are names of persons whose work has made whole worlds available to me. The sweep and specificity of their art have sometimes broken my heart with the courage and clarity of its vision. The astonishing brilliance with which they practiced their craft has challenged and nurtured my own. My debt to them rivals the profound one I owe to the Swedish Academy for having selected me to join that distinguished alumnae.
Early in October an artist friend left a message which I kept on the answering service for weeks and played back every once in a while just to hear the trembling pleasure in her voice and the faith in her words. “My dear sister,” she said, “the prize that is yours is also ours and could not have been placed in better hands.” The spirit of her message with its earned optimism and sublime trust marks this day for me.
I will leave this hall, however, with a new and much more delightful haunting than the one I felt upon entering: that is the company of Laureates yet to come. Those who, even as I speak, are mining, sifting and polishing languages for illuminations none of us has dreamed of. But whether or not any one of them secures a place in this pantheon, the gathering of these writers is unmistakable and mounting. Their voices bespeak civilizations gone and yet to be; the precipice from which their imaginations gaze will rivet us; they do not blink nor turn away.
It is, therefore, mindful of the gifts of my predecessors, the blessing of my sisters, in joyful anticipation of writers to come that I accept the honour the Swedish Academy has done me, and ask you to share what is for me a moment of grace.
Toni Morrison – Photo gallery
Toni Morrison – Nobel diploma
Toni Morrison – Other resources
Links to other sites
University of Minnesota – Toni Morrison
On Toni Morrison from Pegasos Author’s Calendar
Toni Morrison – Nobel Lecture
Nobel Lecture December 7, 1993
Listen to an audio recording of Toni Morrison’s Nobel Lecture
“Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind but wise.” Or was it an old man? A guru, perhaps. Or a griot soothing restless children. I have heard this story, or one exactly like it, in the lore of several cultures.
“Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind. Wise.”
In the version I know the woman is the daughter of slaves, black, American, and lives alone in a small house outside of town. Her reputation for wisdom is without peer and without question. Among her people she is both the law and its transgression. The honor she is paid and the awe in which she is held reach beyond her neighborhood to places far away; to the city where the intelligence of rural prophets is the source of much amusement.
One day the woman is visited by some young people who seem to be bent on disproving her clairvoyance and showing her up for the fraud they believe she is. Their plan is simple: they enter her house and ask the one question the answer to which rides solely on her difference from them, a difference they regard as a profound disability: her blindness. They stand before her, and one of them says, “Old woman, I hold in my hand a bird. Tell me whether it is living or dead.”
She does not answer, and the question is repeated. “Is the bird I am holding living or dead?”
Still she doesn’t answer. She is blind and cannot see her visitors, let alone what is in their hands. She does not know their color, gender or homeland. She only knows their motive.
The old woman’s silence is so long, the young people have trouble holding their laughter.
Finally she speaks and her voice is soft but stern. “I don’t know”, she says. “I don’t know whether the bird you are holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands.”
Her answer can be taken to mean: if it is dead, you have either found it that way or you have killed it. If it is alive, you can still kill it. Whether it is to stay alive, it is your decision. Whatever the case, it is your responsibility.
For parading their power and her helplessness, the young visitors are reprimanded, told they are responsible not only for the act of mockery but also for the small bundle of life sacrificed to achieve its aims. The blind woman shifts attention away from assertions of power to the instrument through which that power is exercised.
Speculation on what (other than its own frail body) that bird-in-the-hand might signify has always been attractive to me, but especially so now thinking, as I have been, about the work I do that has brought me to this company. So I choose to read the bird as language and the woman as a practiced writer. She is worried about how the language she dreams in, given to her at birth, is handled, put into service, even withheld from her for certain nefarious purposes. Being a writer she thinks of language partly as a system, partly as a living thing over which one has control, but mostly as agency – as an act with consequences. So the question the children put to her: “Is it living or dead?” is not unreal because she thinks of language as susceptible to death, erasure; certainly imperiled and salvageable only by an effort of the will. She believes that if the bird in the hands of her visitors is dead the custodians are responsible for the corpse. For her a dead language is not only one no longer spoken or written, it is unyielding language content to admire its own paralysis. Like statist language, censored and censoring. Ruthless in its policing duties, it has no desire or purpose other than maintaining the free range of its own narcotic narcissism, its own exclusivity and dominance. However moribund, it is not without effect for it actively thwarts the intellect, stalls conscience, suppresses human potential. Unreceptive to interrogation, it cannot form or tolerate new ideas, shape other thoughts, tell another story, fill baffling silences. Official language smitheryed to sanction ignorance and preserve privilege is a suit of armor polished to shocking glitter, a husk from which the knight departed long ago. Yet there it is: dumb, predatory, sentimental. Exciting reverence in schoolchildren, providing shelter for despots, summoning false memories of stability, harmony among the public.
She is convinced that when language dies, out of carelessness, disuse, indifference and absence of esteem, or killed by fiat, not only she herself, but all users and makers are accountable for its demise. In her country children have bitten their tongues off and use bullets instead to iterate the voice of speechlessness, of disabled and disabling language, of language adults have abandoned altogether as a device for grappling with meaning, providing guidance, or expressing love. But she knows tongue-suicide is not only the choice of children. It is common among the infantile heads of state and power merchants whose evacuated language leaves them with no access to what is left of their human instincts for they speak only to those who obey, or in order to force obedience.
The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek – it must be rejected, altered and exposed. It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language – all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.
The old woman is keenly aware that no intellectual mercenary, nor insatiable dictator, no paid-for politician or demagogue; no counterfeit journalist would be persuaded by her thoughts. There is and will be rousing language to keep citizens armed and arming; slaughtered and slaughtering in the malls, courthouses, post offices, playgrounds, bedrooms and boulevards; stirring, memorializing language to mask the pity and waste of needless death. There will be more diplomatic language to countenance rape, torture, assassination. There is and will be more seductive, mutant language designed to throttle women, to pack their throats like paté-producing geese with their own unsayable, transgressive words; there will be more of the language of surveillance disguised as research; of politics and history calculated to render the suffering of millions mute; language glamorized to thrill the dissatisfied and bereft into assaulting their neighbors; arrogant pseudo-empirical language crafted to lock creative people into cages of inferiority and hopelessness.
Underneath the eloquence, the glamor, the scholarly associations, however stirring or seductive, the heart of such language is languishing, or perhaps not beating at all – if the bird is already dead.
She has thought about what could have been the intellectual history of any discipline if it had not insisted upon, or been forced into, the waste of time and life that rationalizations for and representations of dominance required – lethal discourses of exclusion blocking access to cognition for both the excluder and the excluded.
The conventional wisdom of the Tower of Babel story is that the collapse was a misfortune. That it was the distraction, or the weight of many languages that precipitated the tower’s failed architecture. That one monolithic language would have expedited the building and heaven would have been reached. Whose heaven, she wonders? And what kind? Perhaps the achievement of Paradise was premature, a little hasty if no one could take the time to understand other languages, other views, other narratives period. Had they, the heaven they imagined might have been found at their feet. Complicated, demanding, yes, but a view of heaven as life; not heaven as post-life.
She would not want to leave her young visitors with the impression that language should be forced to stay alive merely to be. The vitality of language lies in its ability to limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers, readers, writers. Although its poise is sometimes in displacing experience it is not a substitute for it. It arcs toward the place where meaning may lie. When a President of the United States thought about the graveyard his country had become, and said, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here. But it will never forget what they did here,” his simple words are exhilarating in their life-sustaining properties because they refused to encapsulate the reality of 600, 000 dead men in a cataclysmic race war. Refusing to monumentalize, disdaining the “final word”, the precise “summing up”, acknowledging their “poor power to add or detract”, his words signal deference to the uncapturability of the life it mourns. It is the deference that moves her, that recognition that language can never live up to life once and for all. Nor should it. Language can never “pin down” slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable.
Be it grand or slender, burrowing, blasting, or refusing to sanctify; whether it laughs out loud or is a cry without an alphabet, the choice word, the chosen silence, unmolested language surges toward knowledge, not its destruction. But who does not know of literature banned because it is interrogative; discredited because it is critical; erased because alternate? And how many are outraged by the thought of a self-ravaged tongue?
Word-work is sublime, she thinks, because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference – the way in which we are like no other life.
We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.
“Once upon a time, …” visitors ask an old woman a question. Who are they, these children? What did they make of that encounter? What did they hear in those final words: “The bird is in your hands”? A sentence that gestures towards possibility or one that drops a latch? Perhaps what the children heard was “It’s not my problem. I am old, female, black, blind. What wisdom I have now is in knowing I cannot help you. The future of language is yours.”
They stand there. Suppose nothing was in their hands? Suppose the visit was only a ruse, a trick to get to be spoken to, taken seriously as they have not been before? A chance to interrupt, to violate the adult world, its miasma of discourse about them, for them, but never to them? Urgent questions are at stake, including the one they have asked: “Is the bird we hold living or dead?” Perhaps the question meant: “Could someone tell us what is life? What is death?” No trick at all; no silliness. A straightforward question worthy of the attention of a wise one. An old one. And if the old and wise who have lived life and faced death cannot describe either, who can?
But she does not; she keeps her secret; her good opinion of herself; her gnomic pronouncements; her art without commitment. She keeps her distance, enforces it and retreats into the singularity of isolation, in sophisticated, privileged space.
Nothing, no word follows her declaration of transfer. That silence is deep, deeper than the meaning available in the words she has spoken. It shivers, this silence, and the children, annoyed, fill it with language invented on the spot.
“Is there no speech,” they ask her, “no words you can give us that helps us break through your dossier of failures? Through the education you have just given us that is no education at all because we are paying close attention to what you have done as well as to what you have said? To the barrier you have erected between generosity and wisdom?
“We have no bird in our hands, living or dead. We have only you and our important question. Is the nothing in our hands something you could not bear to contemplate, to even guess? Don’t you remember being young when language was magic without meaning? When what you could say, could not mean? When the invisible was what imagination strove to see? When questions and demands for answers burned so brightly you trembled with fury at not knowing?
“Do we have to begin consciousness with a battle heroines and heroes like you have already fought and lost leaving us with nothing in our hands except what you have imagined is there? Your answer is artful, but its artfulness embarrasses us and ought to embarrass you. Your answer is indecent in its self-congratulation. A made-for-television script that makes no sense if there is nothing in our hands.
“Why didn’t you reach out, touch us with your soft fingers, delay the sound bite, the lesson, until you knew who we were? Did you so despise our trick, our modus operandi you could not see that we were baffled about how to get your attention? We are young. Unripe. We have heard all our short lives that we have to be responsible. What could that possibly mean in the catastrophe this world has become; where, as a poet said, “nothing needs to be exposed since it is already barefaced.” Our inheritance is an affront. You want us to have your old, blank eyes and see only cruelty and mediocrity. Do you think we are stupid enough to perjure ourselves again and again with the fiction of nationhood? How dare you talk to us of duty when we stand waist deep in the toxin of your past?
“You trivialize us and trivialize the bird that is not in our hands. Is there no context for our lives? No song, no literature, no poem full of vitamins, no history connected to experience that you can pass along to help us start strong? You are an adult. The old one, the wise one. Stop thinking about saving your face. Think of our lives and tell us your particularized world. Make up a story. Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created. We will not blame you if your reach exceeds your grasp; if love so ignites your words they go down in flames and nothing is left but their scald. Or if, with the reticence of a surgeon’s hands, your words suture only the places where blood might flow. We know you can never do it properly – once and for all. Passion is never enough; neither is skill. But try. For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul. You, old woman, blessed with blindness, can speak the language that tells us what only language can: how to see without pictures. Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. Language alone is meditation.
“Tell us what it is to be a woman so that we may know what it is to be a man. What moves at the margin. What it is to have no home in this place. To be set adrift from the one you knew. What it is to live at the edge of towns that cannot bear your company.
“Tell us about ships turned away from shorelines at Easter, placenta in a field. Tell us about a wagonload of slaves, how they sang so softly their breath was indistinguishable from the falling snow. How they knew from the hunch of the nearest shoulder that the next stop would be their last. How, with hands prayered in their sex, they thought of heat, then sun. Lifting their faces as though it was there for the taking. Turning as though there for the taking. They stop at an inn. The driver and his mate go in with the lamp leaving them humming in the dark. The horse’s void steams into the snow beneath its hooves and its hiss and melt are the envy of the freezing slaves.
“The inn door opens: a girl and a boy step away from its light. They climb into the wagon bed. The boy will have a gun in three years, but now he carries a lamp and a jug of warm cider. They pass it from mouth to mouth. The girl offers bread, pieces of meat and something more: a glance into the eyes of the one she serves. One helping for each man, two for each woman. And a look. They look back. The next stop will be their last. But not this one. This one is warmed.”
It’s quiet again when the children finish speaking, until the woman breaks into the silence.
“Finally”, she says, “I trust you now. I trust you with the bird that is not in your hands because you have truly caught it. Look. How lovely it is, this thing we have done – together.”
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Toni Morrison – Prose
Excerpt from Sula
Excerpts selected by the Nobel Library of the Swedish Academy.
(Pages 56-57 and 134-137)
T hen summer came. A summer limp with the weight of blossomed things. Heavy sunflowers weeping over fences; iris curling and browning at the edges far away from their purple hearts; ears of corn letting their auburn hair wind down to their stalks. And the boys. The beautiful, beautiful boys who dotted the landscape like jewels, split the air with their shouts in the field, and thickened the river with their shining wet backs. Even their footsteps left a smell of smoke behind.
It was in that summer, the summer of their twelfth year, the summer of the beautiful black boys, that they became skittish, frightened and bold — all at the same time.
In that mercury mood in July, Sula and Nel wandered about the Bottom barefoot looking for mischief. They decided to go down by the river where the boys sometimes swam. Nel waited on the porch of 7 Carpenter’s Road while Sula ran into the house to go to the toilet. On the way up the stairs, she passed the kitchen where Hannah sat with two friends, Patsy and Valentine. The two women were fanning themselves and watching Hannah put down some dough, all talking casually about one thing and another, and had gotten around, when Sula passed by, to the problems of child rearing.
“They a pain.”
“Yeh. Wish I’d listened to mamma. She told me not to have ’em too soon.”
“Any time atall is too soon for me.”
“Oh, I don’t know. My Rudy minds his daddy. He just wild with me. Be glad when he growed and gone.”
Hannah smiled and said, “Shut your mouth. You love the ground he pee on.”
“Sure I do. But he still a pain. Can’t help loving your own child. No matter what they do.”
“Well, Hester grown now and I can’t say love is exactly what I feel.”
“Sure you do. You love her, like I love Sula. I just don’t like her. That’s the difference.”
“Guess so. Likin’ them is another thing.”
“Sure. They different people, you know …”
She only heard Hannah’s words, and the pronouncement sent her flying up the stairs. In bewilderment, she stood at the window fingering the curtain edge, aware of a sting in her eye. Nel’s call floated up and into the window, pulling her away from dark thoughts back into the bright, hot daylight.
/- – -/
Every now and then she looked around for tangible evidence of his having ever been there. Where were the butterflies? the blueberries? the whistling reed? She could find nothing, for he had left nothing but his stunning absence. An absence so decorative, so ornate, it was difficult for her to understand how she had ever endured, without falling dead or being consumed, his magnificent presence.
The mirror by the door was not a mirror by the door, it was an altar where he stood for only a moment to put on his cap before going out. The red rocking chair was a rocking of his own hips as he sat in the kitchen. Still, there was nothing of his — his own — that she could find. It was as if she were afraid she had hallucinated him and needed proof to the contrary. His absence was everywhere, stinging everything, giving the furnishings primary colors, sharp outlines to the corners of rooms and gold light to the dust collecting on table tops. When he was there he pulled everything toward himself. Not only her eyes and all her senses but also inanimate things seemed to exist because of him, backdrops to his presence. Now that he had gone, these things, so long subdued by his presence, were glamorized in his wake.
Then one day, burrowing in a dresser drawer, she found what she had been looking for: proof that he had been there, his driver’s license. It contained just what she needed for verification — his vital statistics: Born 1901, height 5’11”, weight 152 lbs., eyes brown, hair black, color black. Oh yes, skin black. Very black. So black that only a steady careful rubbing with steel wool would remove it, and as it was removed there was the glint of gold leaf and under the gold leaf the cold alabaster and deep, deep down under the cold alabaster more black only this time the black of warm loam.
But what was this? Albert Jacks? His name was Albert Jacks? A. Jacks. She had thought it was Ajax. All those years. Even from the time she walked by the pool hall and looked away from him sitting astride a wooden chair, looked away to keep from seeing the wide space of intolerable orderliness between his legs; the openness that held no sign, no sign at all, of the animal that lurked in his trousers; looked away from the insolent nostrils and the smile that kept slipping and falling, falling, falling so she wanted to reach out with her hand to catch it before it fell to the pavement and was sullied by the cigarette butts and bottle caps and spittle at his feet and the feet of other men who sat or stood around outside the pool hall, calling, singing out to her and Nel and grown women too with lyrics like pig meat and brown sugar and jailbait and O Lord, what have I done to deserve the wrath, and Take me, Jesus, I have seen the promised land, and Do, Lord, remember me in voices mellowed by hopeless passion into gentleness. Even then, when she and Nel were trying hard not to dream of him and not to think of him when they touched the softness in their underwear or undid their braids as soon as they left home to let the hair bump and wave around their ears, or wrapped the cotton binding around their chests so the nipples would not break through their blouses and give him cause to smile his slipping, falling smile, which brought the blood rushing to their skin. And even later, when for the first time in her life she had lain in bed with a man and said his name involuntarily or said it truly meaning him, the name she was screaming and saying was not his at all.
Sula stood with a worn slip of paper in her fingers and said aloud to no one, “I didn’t even know his name. And if I didn’t know his name, then there is nothing I did know and I have known nothing ever at all since the one thing I wanted was to know his name so how could he help but leave me since he was making love to a woman who didn’t even know his name.
“When I was a little girl the heads of my paper dolls came off, and it was a long time before I discovered that my own head would not fall off if I bent my neck. I used to walk around holding it very stiff because I thought a strong wind or a heavy push would snap my neck. Nel was the one who told me the truth. But she was wrong. I did not hold my head stiff enough when I met him and so I lost it just like the dolls.
“It’s just as well he left. Soon I would have torn the flesh from his face just to see if I was right about the gold and nobody would have understood that kind of curiosity. They would have believed that I wanted to hurt him just like the little boy who fell down the steps and broke his leg and the people think I pushed him just because I looked at it.”
Holding the driver’s license she crawled into bed and fell into a sleep full of dreams of cobalt blue.
When she awoke, there was a melody in her head she could not identify or recall ever hearing before. “Perhaps I made it up,” she thought. Then it came to her — the name of the song and all its lyrics just as she had heard it many times before. She sat on the edge of the bed thinking, “There aren’t any more new songs and I have sung all the ones there are. I have sung them all. I have sung all the songs there are.” She lay down again on the bed and sang a little wandering tune made up of the words I have sung all the songs all the songs I have sung all the songs there are until, touched by her own lullaby, she grew drowsy, and in the hollow of near-sleep she tasted the acridness of gold, left the chill of alabaster and smelled the dark, sweet stench of loam.
Published by permission of International Creative Management, Inc.
Copyright © 1973 by Toni Morrison.
Toni Morrison – Facts
Toni Morrison – Biographical
Born Chloe Anthony Wofford, in 1931 in Lorain (Ohio), the second of four children in a black working-class family. Displayed an early interest in literature. Studied humanities at Howard and Cornell Universities, followed by an academic career at Texas Southern University, Howard University, Yale, and since 1989, a chair at Princeton University. She has also worked as an editor for Random House, a critic, and given numerous public lectures, specializing in African-American literature. She made her debut as a novelist in 1970, soon gaining the attention of both critics and a wider audience for her epic power, unerring ear for dialogue, and her poetically-charged and richly-expressive depictions of Black America. A member since 1981 of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she has been awarded a number of literary distinctions, among them the Pulitzer Prize in 1988.
This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and first published in the book series Les Prix Nobel. It was later edited and republished in Nobel Lectures. To cite this document, always state the source as shown above.
Toni Morrison died on 5 August 2019.
Transcript from an interview with Abdulrazak Gurnah
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.
Abdulrazak Gurnah, such a pleasure sitting here together with you in this grand hall belonging to the Swedish Academy. You are very welcome to Stockholm.
Abdulrazak Gurnah: Thank you very much.
It is actually in this room that the permanent secretary every year comes out, he enters the room from those doors in front of you and he announces the new Nobel laureate in literature. In October, 2021, it was your name that was announced. I believe that he called you just in advance just to let you know before everyone else knew. Do you remember that call?
Abdulrazak Gurnah: Of course, yes. I was just coming in from the garden. It was around about lunchtime just before lunch. I guess I was about to make myself a cup of tea and kind of debating what was there to have for lunch, and the phone goes, and these days, and I’m sure you have the same thing here, we get a lot of these cold calls. I found that I don’t … I’m not saying this is a revolutionary discovery or anything like that, but I’ve found that if you don’t speak, then the other end hangs up as you were, because I guess it’s computerised or something like that. So I didn’t speak, and eventually somebody very softly says my name, and I said, “Who are you?” He said his name, but of course it didn’t mean anything.
Then I said, “What do you want?” Like that, thinking a plumber or somebody trying to sell me something. He said, “You’ve just been awarded the Nobel Prize,” and I said, “Oh, come on, get off. What is this? Some kind of a prank or something like that?” But Mats Malm, of course, was the one speaking to me. He then very courteously politely as, you know, his voice and his manner, and just kept saying, “Yes, you have, if you don’t believe me, go to the website,” et cetera, et cetera. I went to the website, it was just before 12, I think by the time I got to the computer and actually logged on and got the Swedish Academy website, he was just coming through those doors and he started to speak in Swedish, but in the middle of this speaking, I heard my name. I thought, well, it must be true, because really until that moment I really was dubious about it. I thought, what is this? But then there was, and then after that, it was impossible not to believe because the phone rang immediately and continued to ring really for another few days. In the end I just unplugged it: “I can’t take this anymore.”
He did say your name. He also said a prize motivation that comes with every Nobel Prize. Kind of a way to summarise or to point out the essence of the achievement or the work. The motivation that followed your name in this room in 2021 was “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents”. On the note that it is hard to compress decades of writing into one sentence, can you find this description adequate?
Abdulrazak Gurnah: This is what the committee wanted to highlight in their reading and understanding of the work and it is accurate. But of course, as you’ve already suggested, it isn’t what I would think of as the complete account of what I’m interested in and what I do. I understand the difficulty, it’s not after all you’re talking about 10 novels and even one novel is difficult to put in one sentence, which is why it’s a book. It’s quite reasonable that if you’re going to make a statement about a lifetime’s work, it’s going to focus on whatever it is that you want to prioritise in your reading. It’s not going to say everything that’s important about, about that reading, but I don’t argue with it. I certainly don’t want to argue with the Swedish Academy for any reason anyway, but I don’t argue with that. It seems accurate enough in what it’s in a part of what I do, I think.
Yes, indeed. Another frequently used theme in your novels is memories, where the characters that bear memories of all kinds. They deal with pain, with loss, memories of another place, another time, other people. How do you remember the place where you grew up?
Abdulrazak Gurnah: How, in what sense? I do remember a great deal in any case. I’ve also been back and have had some of those things prompted by my sisters or friends and so on. But also I think for me as a writer that’s the hinterland of my imagination, if you like, so I go there a lot. Often when you start a train or a trail of memory, other memories also come and so you remember. Something else comes back because you’ve now thought about this. As people often tell you one of the interesting things about being away from Zanzibar for so long that there’s so many other people who are also in the same situation, who’ve been away for many years, and sometimes we meet in another place like Stockholm and then it does become possible. Do you remember we were at school together, something like that? I do, and sometimes I don’t, and that way of prompting each other keeps memories alive, but I think it’s probably because of that writing process, which in some ways rather unfortunately is constantly going back to, for me, my practice, going back to certain events. It’s very hard to forget even if you wanted to because not all these memories are happy memories and not all of them are things, moments to celebrate. They’re not just because I’m thinking of traumatic memories for myself, but also just simply because there are certain things you wish you could not keep remembering.
The environment as such was a very, as you have described it, cosmopolitan environment and just to add to that, you grew up next to a harbour. Can you give us a picture of that house, even street, that close environment?
Abdulrazak Gurnah: From our house upstairs, you could look towards the harbour. You could see the harbour, but you could also see the warehouses of the harbour. You could also see the traffic on one side on this other side, you could see into the old harbour, which usually is sailing boats and fishermen’s crafts and so on. You could also see other warehouses. We lived in literally five minutes to the sea, if that. When a ship was coming in, a flag used to go up on a tower, I don’t really know why, maybe it’s to announce the country of origin of the ship, I don’t know, but from our house, you could see it, think, what ships are coming in? We were very, very close indeed. But in relation to that traffic of people from different parts of the Indian Ocean literal, that I referred to in By the Sea, for example, during the monsoons, then they would pour out of their sailing ships. Most of them, some of them had motor propellers, but most of them were sailing ships. They would just pour more or less literally into the square in front of our house. You would see them as still smelling of the sea, still smelling of the filth they’d been living in on the boat for several weeks as they were sailing or indeed sleeping on the merchandise. You could probably smell that on them as well. It was great for us as growing up as children and youths, it was great to see this great variety of people. In earlier times, my mother’s sister, my aunt, they lived in a different place, of course, but from where she lived, she could see in a different direction down towards the harbor, very close, but she also spoke about this crowd of people in a different way.
At a different time, the presence of all these people was also menacing, in particular as the season was drawing to a close. The season draws to a close, the wind direction changes and begins to blow in the northward direction, which then means these people begin to go away to wherever, to Somalia, to South Arabia, to the Gulf, et cetera, all these places, India. Then it was dangerous because sometimes children were kidnapped. That’s how she recalls it when she was a child, not as this terrific, exciting thing, but that parents told their children to stay indoors as this movement away begins, because sometimes a child would disappear and you can only assume that that child was stolen by one of these and taken away. It wasn’t all fun. There was another side to it, which was, I suppose, the danger of … These are uncouth sailors sometimes, they’re just people on the make, to some extent. I mustn’t romanticise it when I say these things, but they leave things behind, they leave their merchandise, they leave their stories, the knowledge of other places and so on. And that’s what makes it cosmopolitan.
Whenever I listen to a person that talks about his or her childhood you can always look at it as upon chapters, and I tend to do that with my own life, different chapters. It’s a construction and not true, but it’s maybe helpful. I don’t know. I’m thinking of when you are 18 and you are forced to leave Zanzibar, I imagine that is another chapter that starts coming to another different country in every possible way. How was that?
Abdulrazak Gurnah: You talked a moment ago about memory. Now that’s an episode that I can recall pretty much step by step, almost day by day as it was, because it wasn’t just get on a plane and go with the various things that one had to do to get the paperwork sorted out, to hide this, to hide that, to find money and so on. It took a few days to actually make that. I can recall that in great detail. This is what I meant about that there are certain moments I think that never, never go away. It was generally speaking exciting and relatively trouble free. My brother and I traveled together and when we got to London the immigration officer looked at our passports, said what are you here for? We said “Just visiting, tourists” because we didn’t have anything else to say. We didn’t have an educational institution or something like that, it should have been another thing, say we’re students or whatever, but no, we’re just tourists. There was something like you had to have 400 pounds to be allowed in as a tourist, you had to show that you had enough money, you can’t just say I’m a penniless tourist, because they don’t want you if you’re a penniless tourist, so we had borrowed, we’d been told that this was a requirement.
We had had to borrow 400 pounds from a relative just to be able to say, yes, we have 400 pounds and the guy pulled us out and took us into a room and asked us more questions. I don’t remember the questions asked of me, but then I was probably too excited to take everything in. Then he said, “Yes. Okay.” Boom, boom. You’re in. It’ll be different now of course, so in some respects, I think it was a kinder time in that respect, in the sense of immigration, even though there was another panic going on. I didn’t know that, but there was another panic going on about immigrants. This time from mostly Asians from east Africa, Asians as they were called. People of Indian ancestry from east Africa who had been I don’t know how… The British in their hubris, I think, as they were decolonizing various places, particularly Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Tanganyika, rather as it then was, offered them the opportunity of retaining British passports.
I guess not suspecting that they would need to use them to go to the UK, but that they would use these British passports to travel around or something like that. Anyway, as a result of various policies of post-colonial governments in all these three states, the Indian community, the Asian community started to panic. Very quickly, as you might suspect, the government’s going to close this down, the rumors start, and great numbers of them begin to leave and they arrive in the UK with their British passports, and there’s no way of saying no to them. We don’t want you, but there’s no way of saying no. There was this great panic going on to do with that, but I didn’t know that. I arrived, I think at a moment of racial panic of this kind, which is regular in the UK and regular in other parts of Europe, but so regular in the UK. In the UK the target changes a little bit. It was West Indians. Then it was Asians, Pakistanis. Then it was Zimbabweans at the moment, of course, Afghanis and Kurds and Syrians. But there is, it seems to me, this regular outbursts of panic about immigrants. I arrived in the midst of that, which was news to me. I didn’t fully understand it at the time, and it was quite hurtful to somehow be included in this hostility. But on the other hand it was an adventure. It was a new place, it was things to see, understand, learn and also painful in other ways, because of being away so far away from home, so there was a mixed thing.
18 is not a child, but you were a very young man.
Abdulrazak Gurnah: 18 is very young. Especially I think an untraveled 18. Some 18-year-olds these days have been around the world. But I think, we were just sort of coming out of a little island off the coast of Africa.
After you arrived to UK, your writing starts. You start to write perhaps not to become a writer in the beginning, but eventually.
Abdulrazak Gurnah: Yes, it did rather good isn’t it, it sort of worked out.
Very practical. Yes. It worked out fine.
Abdulrazak Gurnah: I think at some point when I finally did begin to study literature, which was maybe about four or five years from when I arrived until I was actually finding myself, I thought at that point I was then writing. I was also studying literature and I thought what I would like to happen in my life is to have an academic career to teach in an institution like this, where I was studying. Not necessarily like this one, because I like this one so much, but an academic career. I also would like to be able to have a career as a writer, to write. It was great to be able to say it worked out.
Yes, it definitely did. Did you know, from the beginning what you wanted to write about?
Abdulrazak Gurnah: I had an idea that I wanted to write about where I had come from. The place I had come from, thinking about various dimensions of it, like for example as things came back and thinking, why did we live like that? Or why was it that we chose to do things in that way? Why were some parents – so this is not my story – but why were some parents so brutal to their children? Why was there this kind of unkindness within families sometimes? And of course, also the horribleness of the terrorist state that I had been living in, I wanted to think about that and to write about that. I think I say in the Nobel Lecture that there were several things that it seemed to me it was necessary to do if I was going to write.
One of those was to write about where I had left or indeed why I had left in a way. It’s not so much about me, but to reflect on that and to kind of fictionalise that, which is what I do I think, I hope, in Memory of Departure, but I was also by then, and it took a long time for that book to be published. In the meantime, I was also living in the UK and experiencing UK and coming to understand that and the complexity of that and the complexity of being a stranger in another place. Not just sort of hostility in whatever, but a variety of other things and how you live with your imagination and your memory of another place. So, if you said, what did I know what I wanted to write? I knew I wanted to write about those things. I wanted to write about the other place first and I wanted to write about being in England and working there. It had been such a full experience of working, of living and of living with things that were unforgettable, that there was no problem about what to write about, really. The problem was writing it, but not what.
In literature, there are heroes and there are gods and there are kings and superpower, protagonists. The characters in your novels, they are not like that. Are they?
Abdulrazak Gurnah: No, they’re not, no. They’re little people on the whole, which is not to say there are people without ambition or aspiration. So yes, it wasn’t necessarily an intention from the beginning that I would focus on small lives as it were and how people cope with trauma and with disappointment. But I think I admire that resilience in the human spirit, as it were, to do so. To recover, to reconstruct, to retrieve something meaningful out of traumatic experience or out of, as I said, disappointment or bad luck or whatever. I think I don’t write about heroes because I think there is something quite predictable or almost a cliche about celebrating heroes. They’re already heroes. But I think there is also something heroic in small lives in a way. That’s why I find myself ending up there often with writing about ordinary people coping with … I like this phrase retrieving a life out of after trauma, which is precisely … Because that’s what I’ve written about in Afterlives. I think that’s the most recent formulation, as it were, that I have of this idea of retrieving something,
Being a writer is also being a reader. And now you have joined the crowd of 120 years of Nobel Prize awarded writers. Are there any precious literature laureates that you like to read and perhaps return to in reading?
Abdulrazak Gurnah: Yes. It’s great to join this team. Yeah. It’s very nice. It’s very nice. It’s also because so many of the more recent of these writers whose work I’ve taught and admired in some cases the writers I have met and have known and still read.
I know that you have been writing about Wole Soyinka and Naipaul as well.
Abdulrazak Gurnah: Yes, I admire those writers. J. M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Walcott. Those are writers whose work I taught as well because of my special interest in postcolonial literature, but they are amongst them also writers whom I haven’t taught, but whose work I admire, too. Ishiguro, Toni Morrison, Seamus Heaney etcetera. They’re all there. They’re great. Good. There are one or two odd ones, but now I’m not going to mention these.
We’ll focus on the ones you like to read. If we go back to the motivation, the prize motivation. The word compassionate is mentioned and as a reader of your novels, I do find, even though the brutality and discrimination and pain of all sorts of different levels are present, compassion is also present. What do you put into that word? What does it mean to you?
Abdulrazak Gurnah: I think what I referred to a short while ago to what I admire about the resilience of the human spirit, as it were. I think one of the more important things about that human spirit is our capacity for kindness. I know we also have an enormous capacity for cruelty and unkindness, and we can’t do anything about that. Seems to me that there is a kind of monstrous dimension of the way we are, but there is also this other possibility, always there, of people being helpful and kind to each other, of people being perhaps not as straightforwardly reprehensible as we think they are, even when they’re in the process of perhaps doing those monstrous things. So this is not to forgive anything or to say it’s alright, we’re all human beings, we all make mistakes or anything like that, but it’s also to understand that, in thinking again of Afterlives and perhaps the German officer in there, that it’s also at times very difficult for an individual to allow the expression of that kindness or sense of wrongness at injustice, because of the way they’re compromised by their state or by their society or by the sanctions that rule their lives. But I like to think underneath that people know when they’re doing those monstrous things and when an opportunity arrives, maybe they might be capable of doing the kind thing. I guess that’s what compassion means.
We spoke about chapters earlier and maybe being a Nobel Prize laureate is a new chapter.
Abdulrazak Gurnah: I haven’t done it before, no.
Exactly. So how’s it going? Do you enjoy it?
Abdulrazak Gurnah: Oh, it’s great. We’ve just been talking a moment ago about joining this team. I mean, that’s great. It’s a wonderful recognition, as it were, of the work that I’ve been doing. To be told, yes, we think you’re doing fine. It’s a great honour in that respect. It is, of course, it makes my life very busy, but I hope this will only be for a while and that it will then settle down to something less busy. I understand that. It’s not something that that irks me at all, and I think this is what it means. This is a global prize, a global recognition, and people want to know you and to hear from you and indeed most wonderful of all to read you or to read your work. So that’s fine. I’m going along okay. But of course the body is what it is, if you are working it more than it likes, then you get tired or something like that. But aside from that, in my mind I’m quite happy to meet and to speak with people.
We appreciate immensely that you are here. You’ve said that something like stories help us to understand the world that we live in. That goes with good stuff and the bad things. I want to thank you so much Abdulrazak Gurnah for talking to us.
Abdulrazak Gurnah: It’s a pleasure.
It’s a pleasure.
Abdulrazak Gurnah: Thank you.
Thank you so much.
Watch the interview
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