Author Abdulrazak Gurnah channels personal anguish into new book, Gravel Heart

Abdulrazak Gurnah drew on his experience of not being able to see his mother one last time before she died for his new novel

Author Abdulrazak Gurnah's ninth novel, Gravel Heart, is based on the African immigrant experience.
Author Abdulrazak Gurnah's ninth novel, Gravel Heart, is based on the African immigrant experience.PHOTO: MARK PRINGLE

Finding out too late about the death of his mother is an anguish that has been lodged in Zanzibar-born author Abdulrazak Gurnah's memory.

He was in Britain, where he has lived for most of his life since moving there as a 17-year-old refugee, when his mother died in Zanzibar. It was several days before he found out.

"I was surprised by how profound a thing it felt," says the 68-year-old over the telephone from his home in Canterbury.

Many years later, the emotion of not being able to see his mother one last time would become the genesis of his new novel, Gravel Heart.

In it, a young man named Salim grows up in a broken family in 1970s Zanzibar, with his mother constantly disappearing with another man and his father moving out with no explanation.


When given the chance, he leaves with his uncle to study in London, where he struggles to get by and grows more estranged from his family until the death of his mother, when he could not be reached in time for the funeral.

Gurnah, a literature professor at the University of Kent who is married with four children, gets irritated when people assume his works are autobiographical, although the parallels between Salim's experiences and his are there.

Like Salim, he was born on the island of Zanzibar off the coast of East Africa. He fled for Britain when he was 17 on a student visa, three years after a violent revolution in 1964 upended his birthplace into chaos.

"It was a great, terrifying transformation," he says. "Schools were being shut, there was a lot of death.

"There was no further schooling beyond O levels, no future except some minor government job. You knew there was nowhere else to go."

What had not occurred to him at the time that he left was that he would not be able to return. At the time, the government had begun to punish those who tried to fly the coop or came back after leaving. These people would disappear and not be heard from again.

"When you are young, everything looks like forever," he says. "You think, I will never be able to go back. You think, what have I done?"

Gravel Heart, which draws its title from a line from William Shakespeare's play Measure For Measure, is the ninth of Gurnah's novels, all of which deal with the African immigrant experience.

He has been shortlisted for the Man Booker prize for his novel, Paradise (1994), about the slave trade in East Africa, and longlisted for By The Sea (2001), about asylum-seekers and the condition of exile.

Gurnah, who arrived in Britain with little money and no friends, was stunned at the casual hostility with which someone of his race was met. "At the time, the disregard with which people from Africa were treated was quite shocking to a naive young man like me," he says.

There is a troubling echo of that time in Brexit, he says, in which the push for political change was fuelled by anti-foreigner sentiment that somehow became extrapolated from Europeans to anyone remotely foreign. "There is a deep xenophobic sense in the English culture that responds to that."

Literature has a powerful role to play in this era of division and crisis, he would argue. In Gravel Heart, Salim writes in a letter to his mother: "What is the point of literature? I think that the person who asks that question will not find my answer convincing anyway."

Nevertheless, Gurnah attempts to make a case for the subject he teaches. "Literature brings us news of things we don't know. It gives us pleasure, makes us think and takes our understanding of things an inch or two further."

Key to this push for literature, he believes, are digital books. "I know I'm losing money on it, but some of my books are on university curricula in Africa and, in such places where buying books is a difficulty, if you can get four or five copies electronically for the library, your course is viable and it makes it possible for your students to read."

•Gravel Heart ($29.95) will be available at Books Kinokuniya from next Thursday.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 25, 2017, with the headline 'Heart of anguish'. Print Edition | Subscribe