Published: 11:24, April 2, 2024 | Updated: 17:01, April 2, 2024
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Nobel winner cherishes hometown memories
By Fang Aiqing

China visit first by literature laureate since pandemic, Fang Aiqing reports.

The 2021 Nobel literature laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah and his wife (right) try carving seals in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, on March 8, 2025. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Memories of home, the smell of the sea lingering in the town he was born and raised in Zanzibar, and the sea horizon as seen from there, remain with Abdulrazak Gurnah, the 2021 Nobel literature laureate.

Having moved to the United Kingdom from Tanzania at 18, he has preserved a sense of nostalgia and keeps refreshing impressions of home as part of his inspiration, while infusing his observations as an outsider in British society and reflections on his displacement into his books.

From March 5 to 12, the 76-year-old writer visited Shanghai, as well as Ningbo in East China's Zhejiang province, and Beijing, and shared his life and career experiences with Chinese readers and writers in a variety of activities. It was Gurnah's first trip to China.

Notably, as the last public event of this trip, Gurnah was a guest on a nighttime livestream show on short video platform Douyin on March 12, where he interacted with English teacher-turned-influencer Dong Yuhui and netizens.

At its peak, there were more than 550,000 viewers watching the show at the same time.

After around 90 minutes, nearly 100,000 copies of Gurnah's novels were sold, generating revenue of more than 4 million yuan ($550,000). That figure grew to 110,000 copies later that night.

The Tanzanian-born British novelist was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for his "uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents", according to the Swedish Academy that gives the award.

Among the 10 novels Gurnah has written, Paradise, published in 1994, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize that year.

Apart from writing, Gurnah was also a professor of English and post-colonial literatures at the University of Kent, until his retirement in 2017, and is now emeritus professor at its School of English.

Gurnah shares his life and writing in an open dialogue with writer Sun Ganlu (second left) in Shanghai on March 7, 2024. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

During his time in China, Gurnah was often asked about his African roots and their influence on his thinking and writing.

He said in his first speech in Shanghai on March 6 that for him, the discontent he grew up with concerning the historical narrative of the colonial presence and its activities and how this narrative requires the simplification of his people's complex culture was one of the impulses that led him to writing.

"I left my country in some turmoil when I was 18 years old, and that experience of departure and wanting to retrieve my knowledge and understanding of what I have left behind was the other impulse," he adds.

The writer revealed to readers the multicultural backdrop he was immersed in during childhood and how these memories have influenced the way he looks at things.

In Shanghai, Gurnah mentioned Zheng He (1371-1433), the great Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) admiral, mariner and diplomat who set off on seven voyages between 1405 and 1433, the farthest being one to East Africa.

"I grew up with stories of the many connections between us and places across the ocean. A walk on the beach on parts of the coast would deliver shards of celadon pottery, first made in China, and part of the debris left behind by Admiral Zheng He's expedition. There were stories of Chinese people who stayed behind after the armada sailed away.

"Many such stories of the connection across the ocean would have seemed like legends or myths if I had not seen the evidence of this varied humanity every year and just outside our doorstep," says Gurnah, a keen observer who used to live near the port, which like ports all over the world, served as an aggregator of stories brought by travelers from afar. One of those he assumed was Zheng, who was carried by the seasonal monsoon to Zanzibar.

Gurnah talks with English teacher-turned-influencer Dong Yuhui during a nighttime show on short video platform Douyin. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

In Beijing, Gurnah talked about the fact that his mother tongue is Swahili, and he was born to a Muslim family, and recalled the small town he grew up, where different languages can be heard, multiple religions are practiced, and celebrations, weddings and funerals are held in different forms.

"I was living in a place where it was almost inevitable that you have to be aware of difference — different cultures and different ways of doing things — not only aware of but tolerant to that. People were used to that," he says.

He adds that he later experienced and witnessed how increasing numbers of immigrants have changed the once predominantly monocultural British society and won acknowledgment by struggling to retain aspects of their own cultures.

The acknowledgment never comes easily, he says.

During his talk, writer Ge Fei marveled at the broad scope of time and space in Gurnah's work, as well as the breadth of social life in them.

"A world map pops into my mind when I read Gurnah's novels," he says.

Mo Yan, also a Nobel literature laureate, said in his dialogue with Gurnah on March 11 in Beijing, that it's likely that a novelist's work constitutes his or her autobiography. Mo Yan took Gurnah's book Desertion as an example to analyze a novelist's talent for "going through a narrow door into the wider world".

Mao Jian, a professor at the School of International Chinese Studies, East China Normal University in Shanghai, listed several words of high frequency in Gurnah's writing: "Pain" alone appears 27 times in By the Sea; "suffer", "distress", "torment" and "agony "appear 70 times.

In Gravel Heart, "pain" is used 31 times, and 53 times in Afterlives, his most recent book, published in 2020.

For Gurnah, the pain — of memories and the mistakes one has made — becomes an intense feeling, rather than something like an ache in the back, as a reflection of age.

"It's a natural thing that the more time passes, the more memories accumulate and the more painful it is to live with them," he says.

Yet, the calm, delicacy and accuracy of his portrayal of individuals stuck between the cracks of different cultures — and clear conveyance of complexity that leaves no room for ambiguity — impresses writers such as Ge Fei, Sun Ganlu and Huang Yuning.

According to Gurnah, writers need to be more honest about themselves and their characters to talk about these experiences in order to be original.

Gurnah and his wife enjoy a dragon dance and pose for a photo with primary school pupils at the Qing'an Guildhall, Ningbo, on March 8, 2024. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Connections found

As an unexpected winner — Gurnah himself believes as much — it wasn't until he won Nobel recognition that Chinese readers and publishers, like many of their foreign counterparts, got to learn about him.

According to Huang, who is also deputy editor-in-chief of the Shanghai Translation Publishing House, her company managed to get the copyright for all of Gurnah's work shortly after the Nobel announcement. They published Chinese editions of five of his novels — The Last Gift, Paradise, Afterlives, By the Sea and Admiring Silence — within 10 months.

His other five novels were published in Chinese last July.

Gurnah is about to publish a new book next year and Huang's publishing house has already taken on its translation.

Nevertheless, it's not hard to discover the many connections between the writer and Chinese readers.

In his livestream show, Dong managed to relate Gurnah's life and writing to the numerous Chinese readers living and working far from home — Dong being one of them — who not only feel uneasy about fitting into their new environment, mostly in big cities, but also find it difficult to return home.

After all, as Gurnah says: "Homesickness is not about being away from home. It's about losing home."

Chinese versions of the writer's books. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

When he visited Beijing's Jingshan Park on March 11, where he was able to get a bird's-eye view of the Palace Museum, or the Forbidden City, he showed interest in the lives of feudal emperors and asked about what they did and how they lived in the palace, as well as about royal family relationships, according to a report in Sanlian Lifeweek magazine.

Walking in the hutong alleys around Baita Temple, he was curious about life in siheyuan (courtyard dwellings), which turns out to share similarities with what he writes about in Afterlives and Gravel Heart, according to the magazine.

Coincidentally, Huang has been particularly touched by the intertwined family relationships described in Gurnah's work, which are intermingled with humor and tragicomic expressions. The tensions and resolution between members of big families can easily find resonance in Chinese family structures.

Even Gurnah's career choice — treading the fertile soil of literature both to study and write his own works, rather than being a lawyer, a doctor or an engineer — finds a counterpart in the household story of luminary modern writer Lu Xun's choice to give up medicine and turn to writing to inspire his countrymen.

Gurnah expressed hope that more Chinese literature will be translated and introduced to the British book market.

It's been a while since world-famous writers like Ian McEwan, Svetlana Alexievich and Amos Oz visited China. Gurnah is the first Nobel literature laureate to have visited China since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Huang says that she and her colleagues appreciate Gurnah's empathy and consideration during his visit and look forward to more foreign writers coming to meet their Chinese readers in person.

Contact the writer at fangaiqing@chinadaily.com.cn