Gurnah, Abdulrazak 1948-

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Gurnah, Abdulrazak 1948-

(Abdulrazak S. Gurnah)

PERSONAL: Born in 1948, in Zanzibar. Education: Ph.D.

ADDRESSES: Home—Brighton, East Sussex, England. Office—School of English, Rutherford College, University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent CT2 7NX, England; fax: (01227) 827001. E-mail[email protected].

CAREER: Novelist, short story writer, and critic. Rutherford College, University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent, England, professor in English and Postcolonial literatures and head of the School of English; Wasifiri (journal), editor. Also worked as a hospital orderly.

AWARDS, HONORS: Paradise was shortlisted for the 1994 Booker Prize; By the Sea was longlisted for the 2001 Booker Prize.



Memory of Departure, Jonathan Cape (London, England), 1987.

Pilgrim's Way, Jonathan Cape (London, England), 1988.

Dottie, Jonathan Cape (London, England), 1990.

Paradise, New Press (New York, NY), 1994.

Admiring Silence, New Press (New York, NY), 1996.

By the Sea, New Press (New York, NY), 2001.

Desertion, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 2005.

Contributor of short fiction to Okike.


(Editor and contributor) Essays on African Writing 1: A Re-evaluation, Heinemann (Oxford, England), 1994.

(Editor and contributor) Essays on African Writing 2: Contemporary Literature, Heinemann (Oxford, England), 1996.

Contributor of book reviews to the Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement.

WORK IN PROGRESS: Editing a collection of essays on writer Salman Rushdie.

SIDELIGHTS: Abdulrazak Gurnah brings his experiences as a resident of both Africa and Europe to his written work. The author was born in eastern Africa and received his education in Africa and in England, where he has lived since 1968. Gurnah's first novel, 1987's Memory of Departure, introduces themes that recur in his later fiction. A contributor to the Encyclopedia of World Literature described the common thread within Gurnah's work as "the clash of two worlds in which the alienated protagonist lives, and that protagonist's need to find emotional fulfillment." In Memory of Departure, protagonist Hassan Omar gets the chance to leave his squalid hometown and live with a wealthy uncle in Kenya. While the young man realizes that his new hometown has as many problems as his birthplace, he also embarks on a brief love affair.

Both Pilgrim's Way and Dottie delve deeper into the social clashes that mark Gurnah's work, as the author addresses racial issues. Pilgrim's Way revolves around an East African emigrant named Daud who experiences racism in England. While a bleak story, Daud's optimism and sense of humor help to offset some of the novel's darker aspects. In Dottie the title character holds a family of mixed heritage together, even while family members deal with racism, crime, and poverty.

Gurnah's 1994 novel Paradise contains plot similarities to Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness. According to an Encyclopedia of World Literature contributor, the works also share a "lyrical voice and mythic vision." Gurnah's Paradise centers around the trading relationship between the colonized coast of Africa and the unexplored interior of the continent before World War I. The protagonist is Yusef, a twelve-year-old slave who is owned by an Arab merchant. Paradise was a finalist for the prestigious Booker Prize.

In Admiring Silence, the narrator of the novel leaves Zanzibar in the 1960s to receive an education in England. While the main character encounters racism, he nonetheless tries to join his new culture. He falls in love with a young woman named Emma, the daughter of upper-middle-class whites. While the narrator fabricates stories for Emma's family that positively portray colonization, he carefully omits any mention of Emma or their daughter in his letters to his relatives in Africa. When the narrator is able to return to his birthplace, he realizes that he no longer belongs in Zanzibar. Upon his return to England, he finds himself alienated from English culture, but begins to make plans to help others in Africa.

Reviewing Admiring Silence, a Publishers Weekly contributor observed that the author "writes with remarkable sensitivity," as Gurnah displays an "incisive grasp of cultural issues." Booklist contributor Joanne Wilkinson called the novel a "long, mournful dirge on the dislocation of the immigrant" enlivened by black humor and "a curiously hopeful" ending. Laura Winters, reviewing Admiring Silence in the New York Times Book Review, noted how the author "skillfully depicts the agony of a man caught between two cultures, each of which would disown him for his links to the other."

In his sixth novel, By the Sea, Gurnah tells the stories of two families. The story unfolds as Saleh Omar seeks asylum in Great Britain and is interviewed with the help of another Zanzibari expatriate, Latif Mahmud, who immigrated to England years earlier and is a successful academic. As the two men look back, the readers learn of the dark days after the British departure from the island in 1964 and the ongoing political and social strife that followed. Peter Whittaker, writing in the New Internationalist, noted the novel's "great depth and subtlety." A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote that the novel is "dense, accomplished and sharply conceived." Donna Seaman, writing in Booklist, commented on the "nuanced inquiry into racism, imperialism, and the corrupting nature of power."

In Desertion, Englishman Martin Pearce is traveling in 1899 Africa when he is robbed and beaten by his African guides. Pearce survives and is nursed back to health only to fall in love with the beautiful Rehana, a shopkeeper's daughter. The novel then jumps to the 1950s in Zanzibar and tells the stories of two brothers and sisters. In the process, the author weaves a tale of immigration to Great Britain that eventually merges with the story of Rehana and Pearce. Francis Henry King, writing in the Spectator, commented that "Gurnah etches with biting incisiveness the experiences of immigrants exposed to contempt, hostility or patronizing indifference on their arrival in Britain." Laurie Sundborg commented in Booklist that the author "once again provides a window into East African postcolonial culture and adds more luster to his literary credentials." Prudence Peiffer, writing in the Library Journal, noted that "this novel gives a solid showing."



Encyclopedia of World Literature, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1997.


African Business, January, 2006, review of Desertion, p. 64.

Booklist, October 1, 1996, Joanne Wilkinson, review of Admiring Silence, p. 322; June 1, 2001, Donna Seaman, review of By the Sea, p. 1841; June 1, 2005, Laurie Sundborg, review of Desertion, p. 1754.

Essence, November, 2005, Luke Collins, review of Desertion, p. 94.

Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 2005, review of Desertion, p. 558.

Library Journal, October 1, 1996, p. 126; June 1, 2001, Ellen Flexman, review of By the Sea, p. 214; May 1, 2005, Prudence Peiffer, review of Desertion, p. 72.

Nation, September 26, 2005, Laila Lalami, review of Desertion.

New Internationalist, March, 2002, Peter Whittaker, review of By the Sea, p. 31.

New Statesman & Society, March 4, 1994, Robert Carver, review of Paradise, p. 40.

New York Times, July 31, 2005, Anderson Tepper, review of Desertion.

New York Times Book Review, October 20, 1996, Laura Winters, review of Admiring Silence, p. 22.

New Yorker, September 12, 2005, review of Desertion, p. 101.

Observer (London, England), May 15, 2005, Adam Mars-Jones, review of Desertion.

Publishers Weekly, September 16, 1996, review of Admiring Silence, p. 69; June 18, 2001, review of By the Sea, p. 57; June 6, 2005, review of Desertion, p. 41.

Review of Contemporary Fiction, spring, 1997, Paul L. Maliszewski, review of Admiring Silence, p. 204.

Spectator, May 14, 2005, Francis Henry King, review of Desertion, p. 65.

World Literature Today, winter, 1995, Charles P. Sarvan, review of Paradise, p. 209; summer, 1997, Charles P. Sarvan, review of Admiring Silence, p. 640.


Contemporary Writers, (February 23, 2006), brief biography of writer.

University of Kent, School of English Web site, (February 23, 2006), faculty profile of author.