In two fascinating talks over this past week, the Program of African Studies at Northwestern University was treated to the prose and reflection of Abdul Rahzak Gurnah, one of the foremost writers in the United Kingdom as well as a Zanzibari exile who writes about East African history, migration, and postcolonial identities in Zanzibar and the UK. In his talks, Gurnah emphasized how two of his major books--Paradise and Admiring Silencewere written after traveling. Traveling, according to Gurnah, unlocks a kind of knowledge different from other kinds of knowledge. In Paradise, which Gurnah wrote the ending to first and then finally finished ten years (and one other novel) later, he wanted to understand what had been lost on the Swahili coast through colonialism, and how his parents' generation might have experienced it. This becomes especially pertinent to Gurnah as a Zanzibari because of the kinds of connections the Zanzibar Revolution celebrated (inter-African). The Revolutionary discourse consigned Zanzibar’s ‘Indian Ocean’ history (its ‘outside’ history) to forgetfulness and shame.
Gurnah, on the other hand, wants neither to celebrate the Omani presence in Zanzibar nor to set it aside, but to see it through the historical framework in which it emerged: the Indian Ocean. What was it like to be young at the end of the nineteenth/beginning of the twentieth century in East Africa? It was to be part of an Indian Ocean world. Gurnah's novel Paradise is a vivid work of historical imagination which is remarkable not only for its intimate portrait of coastal culture but for the silences it acknowledges--the characters on the caravan trail in the interior, speak openly about the barbarism of those they encounter. The main character is a slave of a coastal merchant, and Gurnah writes about slavery on the coast with great subtlety--showing its various hierarchies and subtle gradations of subservience.
Gurnah's characters are not helpless but often powerless. Their way of moving through the world is a different style than open resistance. It is a kind of stoicism, a gracious accepting, a recognition that your way of living is itself a kind of integrity, even in passivity.
Scholars of Kiswahili debate whether a novel like Paradise is properly an English or a Swahili novel, and this is high praise in its own way, because it shows the degree to which Gurnah is able to use English with the rhythm of Swahili, to transform English into something suiting the picture he is trying to paint. The art of storytelling...and reading a Gurnah novel, you are in the hands of a master.