Putting the reality of Africans’ lives into Fiction

By Anouk Pardon

“Clouds of dust rising and rising, churned up by tramping feet. Trees glare hard-headed at the noon sun. Tortured by the power of the heat, the sea turns and turns and wastes and evaporates, and turns into mist and vapour, coagulating in the chill that follows the sun. Hassan Omar stares at the horizon and feels the salt wind from the sea brush his skin. He tries not to think of his family at home and the growing pain in his chest as he quietly listens to the breaking waves.” (Memory of Departure, Gurnah, 1987) 

Memory of Departure tells the story of young Hassan Omar, who decides to escape poverty and misery in search of a better life. Published in 1987, it was one of Abdulrasak Gurnah’s first novels. Like many of his stories, it is set on the coast of East Africa and focuses around the ambiguity of belonging, feelings of alienation, the aftermaths of colonialism and the meaning of “home”

Born in Zanzibar and arriving as a refugee in the United Kingdom in the late 1960s, Gurnah often pondered these themes. Eventually, it was homesickness, pain, and reflections about his childhood that led him to start writing in his early 20s.

To this day, his work includes numerous short stories and essays, and ten novels. Central to them is his empathetic description of the lives of individual East Africans and the aftermath of European colonialism. 

His latest piece of fiction, Afterlives, published in 2020, is highly praised and reinforces his position as one of the most prominent post-colonial writers. It is one of the many reasons he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 2021 as the first Black African writer in more than three decades.
Abdulrasak Gurnah’s work has been overlooked in the past. Regardless, he crafted fiction that was meant to touch and draw attention to the reality of the many Africans who had to leave their homes and seek a new life in exile. “He is writing stories that are often quiet stories of people who aren’t heard, but there’s an insistence there that we listen.” (writer Naaza Mengiste). Even though Gurnah has not yet had the chance to turn his own life story into fiction, he touches upon the lives of many others whose stories had been unheard until now.

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