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Nobel winner Abdulrazak Gurnah’s fiction traces small lives with wit and tenderness
10 October 2021, 3:40 PM

For those of us who have read and reread, taught, and written about the fiction of Abdulrazak Gurnah, the Nobel Prize in Literature committee has confirmed what we knew all along. His superb writing deserves much wider recognition and readership.

Gurnah was born in Zanzibar, the archipelago off the Tanzanian coast, in 1948. Then still a British Protectorate, Zanzibar gained independence in December 1963, only to be thrown into the turmoil and violence of the Zanzibar Revolution of January 1964. These are historical events to which he returns in his fiction repeatedly.

He left for the UK in 1967 and has lived there ever since, except for a short teaching stint at Bayero University Kano in Nigeria in the 1980s. He taught in the English department at the University of Kent in Canterbury until his recent retirement.

Even though he has lived most of life in England, all his novels – except for Dottie (1990), which is set entirely in the UK – are set either fully or partially on the Eastern African Swahili Coast or in Zanzibar. To date he has published ten immensely readable novels and many short stories. These are written in clean and uncluttered prose. It makes him a master storyteller, captivatingly drawing the reader into the experiences and vivid lifeworlds of the characters depicted.

Connecting people and geographies

The work of the imagination to follow the storyteller’s attention creates connections that in their intangibility might seem elusive. And yet any reader will know these to be powerful and potentially transformative. As Ben Okri, a Nigerian writer, reminds us, such threads, which interweave stories and life, are deeply significant. This is because stories “can infect a system, or illuminate a world”. The ambiguity in Okri’s description of the effect of stories captures the way in which stories potentially open up the world and contest narratives that circumscribe and preclude mutuality. It also talks to the danger of stories when they participate in and serve as justification for structures of domination, exclusion and violence.

Gurnah, the storyteller, probes the efficacy of stories to connect people and geographies. Yet at the same time he is acutely attentive to the divisive nature of stories of certainty: of colonial domination, of patriarchal scripts, of racism, of xenophobia towards strangers from elsewhere. His work points to the way in which such certainties furnish people with a belief in the rightness of the violence they wreak on others, in the destruction of other people’s lives which they deem to matter less than their own.

Instead, Gurnah’s work asks the reader to consider stories as provisional accounts that cannot claim closure or complete knowledge. Ambiguity, multiple viewpoints of the same events, complex focalisation, self-reflexive irony and narrative wit are some of the features of his writing. They make his writing so incredibly compelling. It elides narrative certainty. The narrative mode is often oblique. Perhaps we can imagine it like this, or perhaps it happened otherwise. This mode is particularly apt to illuminate the itinerant lives of people who find themselves on the move and who do not seem to belong anywhere.

Migration and other forms of displacement, as Gurnah’s stories suggest, are common occurrences in Africa and across the globe. Therefore, it is important to see others in relation to ourselves, to perceive their right of abode even if they cannot claim national belonging. However, it is precisely the humanity of the stranger that is at stake once the status of citizenship is in question. Hospitality is revealed as conditional in the current hostile immigration climate. The asylum seeker, the refugee and the migrant are hardly afforded the dignity which the recognition of a common humanity would demand.

It is this refusal to recognise the humanity of the other and its terrible consequences that Gurnah’s stories explore in detail. He crafts carefully delineated juxtapositions between hostile, implacable environments in which his characters find themselves with little room to manoeuvre, and pockets of hospitality that gesture towards alternative social imaginaries where kindness and joie de vivre become possible.

In contrast to an essentialist view of a citizen as someone who is described in terms of appearance or ancestry, Gurnah sets the complexity of centuries of intermingling along the East African shores of the Indian Ocean. In this way his stories question ideas of purity and difference. They emphasise the cultural and linguistic heterogeneity of East African coastal regions and their place within the continent, the Indian Ocean world, and the globe in order to stress a common humanity.

Empathetic storytelling

Across his oeuvre, which traverses settings in Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam, Bagamoyo, Mombasa, Lake Tanganyika, Nairobi, Muscat, Bahrain and several locales in England, Gurnah traces a long history of transnational and transoceanic movements. His work references the Eastern African slave trade and indenture, German and British colonial oppression and less legible but equally destructive forms of social exclusion to do with economic precarity and migration. While his characters are often caught in violent and unequal plots not of their own making and beyond their control – since Gurnah’s stories tend to focus on people whose lives are deemed insignificant and small – his empathetic storytelling subtly points to the importance of social connections, however unexpected, that offer reassurance and warmth.

In this way, his novels also cautiously celebrate the polyglot cosmopolitanisms and generous forms of accommodation that emerged on the Swahili coast within broader structures of ambivalent encounter in the monsoon trade and imperial conquest. In a passage in By the Sea, Gurnah’s sixth novel, published in 2001, seven-year-old Saleh Omar, one of the protagonists and narrators, describes his first encounter with a map of an Africa embedded in the wider world of the Indian Ocean:

As [the teacher’s] story developed, he began to draw a map on the blackboard with a piece of white chalk: the coast of North Africa which then bulged out and tucked in and then slid down to the Cape of Good Hope. As he drew, he spoke, naming places, sometimes in full sometimes in passing. Sinuously north to the jut of the Ruvuma delta, the cusp of our stretch of coast, the Horn of Africa, then the Red Sea coast to Suez, the Arabian peninsula, the Persian Gulf, India, the Malay peninsula and then all the way to China. He stopped there and smiled.

This moment of the unbroken chalk line is pivotal, not just in relation to this particular novel, but perhaps to Gurnah’s oeuvre as a whole. It makes visible the ocean on which so many of his stories float. And I suspect that this teacher’s smile is also the soryteller’s. It is the subtle humour which suffuses his writing that give his stories a lightness of touch, despite the harrowing aspects of the narratives. It contributes enormously to the pleasure of reading.

There is the acerbic sarcasm which exposes racial aggression and renders it absurd. And there is the self-deprecating humour of the migrant in the face of an immovable and indifferent environment, which staves off self-pity and sets in motion processes of disalienation. The dry wit of the narratives allows Gurnah to forge a bond with readers, who come to appreciate it as a mode of interaction that can liquefy ossified social categories by opening up spaces of irony and ambiguity and remind us of the fragility of the human condition we all share.The Conversation

Tina Steiner, Associate Professor in the English Department, Stellenbosch University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Former Justice Edwin Cameron among the voices in the Constitutional Hill LGBTQI+ catalogue
10 October 2021, 3:07 PM

Miss South Africa Shudu Masina, gay rights activist and former Justice of the Constitutional Court Edwin Cameron and Miss Tasha, an openly transgender woman, are some of the powerful voices that are part of the Constitution Hill’s LGBTQI+ Pride Catalogue titled 31 Voices for 31 Years of Pride in South Africa.

The 31 Years of Pride Catalogue consist of 31 voices from the members of the LGBTQI+ community and allies. It is the brainchild of multi-award-winning transgender activist and reality TV Star Yaya Mavundla.

Mavundla shares more on the catalogue:

Thousands protest against Tunisian leader
10 October 2021, 3:00 PM

Thousands of Tunisians protested in the capital on Sunday against President Kais Saied’s seizure of almost total power as the growing numbers taking to the street in recent weeks have raised the risk of the political crisis unleashing unrest.

A week after thousands demonstrated in support of Saied, the growing numbers raise the possibility of Tunisia’s political divisions spiralling into street confrontations between rival camps.

“We will not accept the coup. Enough is enough,” said Yassinben Amor, a protester.

A very heavy police presence stopped any march down Habib Bourguiba Avenue in central Tunis, but despite some protesters throwing plastic bottles, there were no clashes.

Interior Ministry spokesman Khaled Hayouni said the police would deal with protesters from both sides in the same way.

“The Tunisian police is a republican police and it does not intervene in any political side,” he said.

Saied dismissed the prime minister, suspended parliament and assumed executive authority in July in moves his foes call a coup. Last month he brushed aside much of the constitution, which he said he would appoint a committee to amend, adding that he could rule by decree.

His intervention appeared popular after years of economic stagnation and political paralysis, but it has cast into doubt the democratic gains made by Tunisians during a 2011 revolution that triggered the Arab Spring uprisings.

“We are against the coup… We reject the speech of division,” said Jaouhar Ben Mbarek, a prominent activist and main organiser of protests against Saied, saying they must be loyal to those killed in the 2011 revolution.

Saied has appointed Najla Bouden Romdhane as prime minister, but she has not yet named a government, an important precursor to any efforts to resolve Tunisia’s looming crisis in public finances, though Saied said on Saturday she would do so soon.

Saied said he would initiate a dialogue with Tunisians over the future during a meeting on Saturday with interim interior minister Ridha Gharsalaoui.

Any dialogue that does not include major political parties or other established elements of civil society, such as the powerful labour union, would likely prompt more open opposition to his moves.

Western donors, needed to avert a collapse in Tunisia’s public finances, have called for an inclusive process to end the crisis period, along with a clear timeline.

With the political manoeuvering over Tunisia’s future moving very slowly, Saied has pointed to the street mobilisation to support his position.

Last week more than 8 000 demonstrators rallied in Tunis in support of Saied, Reuters journalists and the state news agency said.

The next day, Saied said 1.8 million people had come out to back him.

Russian plane carrying parachutists crashes, 16 killed
10 October 2021, 2:37 PM

A plane carrying a group of parachute jumpers crashed after takeoff in the Russian region of Tatarstan early on Sunday, killing 16 people and injuring six, the Emergencies Ministry said.

At a height of 70 metres, the pilots reported that their left engine had failed and attempted an emergency landing near the city of Menzelinsk, trying to turn the plane leftward to avoid an inhabited area, the regional governor said.

But the aircraft’s wing hit a Gazelle vehicle as the plane landed and it overturned, Tatarstan’s governor Rustam Minnikhanov said.

The aircraft had been carrying 20 parachutists and two crew members. Six people were in a serious condition, the Health Ministry said.

The Let L-410 Turbolet twin-engine short-range transport aircraft was owned by an aeroclub in the city of Menzelinsk. The aeroclub declined to comment, citing a law enforcement investigation into the incident.

Cosmonauts use the area for training and the aeroclub has hosted local, European championships and one world championship, the club’s director Ravil Nurmukhametov said, according to TASS.

The Investigative Committee, which probes serious crimes, said it had opened a criminal investigation into a suspected violation of safety regulations.

The state-run Cosmonaut Training Centre has suspended its ties with the aeroclub pending an investigation, TASS cited a source as saying.

Photographs of some of the parachutists on board posing in kit or with a plane were circulated on the REN TV channel and on social media.

Russian aviation safety standards have been tightened in recent years but accidents continue to happen, particularly in remote regions.

An ageing Antonov An-26 transport plane crashed in the Russian far east last month killing six people. All 28 people on board an Antonov An-26 twin-engine turboprop died in a crash in Kamchatka in July

England name strongest available squad for Ashes
10 October 2021, 2:23 PM

England on Sunday named their strongest available squad for the Ashes tour to Australia as all-rounders Ben Stokes and Sam Curran missed out but seamer Stuart Broad was included despite the calf injury he picked up in the Test series against India.

Stokes was unavailable as he continues his indefinite break from cricket to focus on his mental health, while also recovering from a second operation on a broken finger. Curran was omitted due to a stress fracture in his lower back.
There were no uncapped players in the 17-member squad that included recalls for batsman Zak Crawley and spinner Dom Bess.

Fast bowler Jofra Archer was also unavailable after he suffered a recurrence of a stress fracture in his elbow and Olly Stone was ruled out with a back injury.

The series had been in doubt following concerns over touring conditions in a country where international arrivals have to isolate in quarantine hotels for 14 days, regardless of COVID-19 vaccination status.

England players had expressed concerns about the tour due to “bubble fatigue” and because their families would not be able to travel with them due to Australia’s strict COVID-19 protocols, but the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) gave conditional approval for it to go ahead on Friday.

The first test is due to begin in Brisbane on December 8, followed by a day-night match in Adelaide from December 16 before the traditional Boxing Day test in Melbourne.

Sydney will host the fourth match and the final test will be in Perth starting on January 14.

Australia retained the Ashes when the teams last met in 2019 in England after a 2-2 series draw.

Squad: Joe Root (captain), James Anderson, Jonathan Bairstow, Dom Bess, Stuart Broad, Rory Burns, Jos Buttler, Zak Crawley, Haseeb Hameed, Dan Lawrence, Jack Leach, Dawid Malan, Craig Overton, Ollie Pope, Ollie Robinson, Chris Woakes, Mark Wood

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