Nobel Prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah shares memories about ‘home’ with Beijing readers
Published: Mar 12, 2024 11:54 PM
Abdulrazak Gurnah, a Tanzanian-born British Nobel Prize winner with Chinese Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan at an event at the Beijing Normal University in Beijing on Monday Photo: Courtesy of Shanghai Translation Publishing House

Abdulrazak Gurnah, a Tanzanian-born British Nobel Prize winner with Chinese Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan at the book sharing event at the Beijing Normal University in Beijing on Monday Photo: Courtesy of Shanghai Translation Publishing House

Writer Abdulrazak Gurnah, a Tanzanian-born British Nobel Prize winner, recently started off a book tour in China, the latest stop of which brought him to Beijing on Monday and Tuesday. 

In 2021, Gurnah won the Nobel Prize in Literature. He writes with honesty and simple words. The diverse stories in his novels have a shared and consistent gist that unveils the author's contemplation of colonial history and its related subjects, such as the cultural identity of immigrants. 

In many of his books, one can often find the profound inner struggles of immigrants through his characters, many of which more or less resonate with Gurnah's own experiences. In the 1960s, Gurnah moved away from his home to the UK as a refugee. 

Sitting together with students at Beijing Normal University on Monday, Gurnah was accompanied by renowned Chinese writer Mo Yan to discuss his way of approaching literature with young fans. The two writers' discussion engaged audiences with topics such as how "home" is depicted in literature. 

Gurnah said that "home" often symbolizes one's "loyalty" about his or her cultural roots. He has also emphasized that depicting the concept in literature is a "sentimental judgment," rather than a rational one. Chinese writer Mo Yan, who also won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2012, shared his view about how "home" in literature can relate to other larger topics such as "homeland," "home town" and "nation." 

Taking Gurnah's 2005 novel Desertion as an example, Mo praised the author's talent in telling a good story by depicting things that, while small, are the "elephants in the room."  

"Novelists do not portray a massive transformation in a comprehensive and three-dimensional manner like historians do. Novelists are better at "going from small to large," entering the broad world through a narrow door," Mo remarked.  

Gurnah is a writer who focuses on ordinary scenes and people. Taking The Last Gift as an example, the author starts off the book by depicting the unpromising health condition of Abbas, a middle-aged immigrant from east Africa who lives in the UK. The author then smoothly brings out Abbas' wife Maryam, a sensitive woman who wants to be supported but fears of people's compassion when sharing life's pain with her husband. 

These novels by Gurnah inspire readers to taste the tangled emotions of the immigrant experience. Their life stories about moving away from home are often blended with regret, hope, fear of being rejected as well as the fear of being an stereotypical subject of people's compassion. 

"Reading Gurnah's novels feel like watching the tide gradually coming closer and closer to me. I don't think he is a dramatic writer, but I can definitely feel the good tension he gives to his stories," a young fan surnamed Zhu told the Global Times. 

At the Monday event, Gurnah and Mo Yan also shared their views on their teaching experiences since Gurnah is also a professor of literature at the University of Kent in the UK. They also exchanged views on the trending debate of "AI vs human creativity."

Mo Yan mentioned that while the development of technology has constantly "alarmed" the field of literature, it has been proven that the field will never be defeated due to the unique styles of writers and their diverse reflections on the world, which will not be replaced by AI. He also humorously noted that both he and Gurnah "will not lose their jobs in future." 

Gurnah's 2024 tour marks the author's very first visit to China even though several of his signature pieces such as Paradise and By the Sea were published in China by the Shanghai Translation Publishing House. 

Prior to the two-day Beijing trip, Gurnah had also greeted fans in Shanghai and Ningbo, East China's Zhejiang Province. In a short video that Gurnah sent to fans in China, the writer mentioned he has long been fascinated with Chinese culture.