‘Sometimes it takes a long time for ideas to reach maturity’, says writer Abdulrazak Gurnah

By Ben East

It barely seems believable in our 21st-century, always-connected culture, but when Abdulrazak Gurnah’s mother died, the Zanzibar-born, Booker Prize-shortlisted author did not find it out for days.

By the time someone was able to get hold of him, she had already been buried and the ceremonies completed, in accordance with the Islamic custom.

“It felt dramatically wrong,” he says. “I should have been available to return to Zanzibar, to grieve properly. But this was a time before mobile phones, I was away in England somewhere, so until I got home nobody could tell me.”

These feelings eventually percolated into Gravel Heart, Gurnah’s latest novel which, like many of his previous eight books, explores the immigrant experience, cultural identity and disparate families.

It’s interesting that it has taken so long for this painful period in Gurnah’s life – “many years ago” is as specific as he cares to get as to the exact date of his mother’s death – to come into sharper focus, even though the similar way in which the protagonist and narrator of the story, Salim, learns of his mother’s death is actually only a small moment in a novel based around a destructive family secret.

“That’s how writing novels works,” says Gurnah with a laugh. “Sometimes it takes a long time for ideas to reach maturity. I started writing Paradise – my novel that was shortlisted for the Booker – 10 years before it was published. In the meantime I’d published three other books. Gravel Heart began as a short story about a mother’s death and then I realised there was more to explore, turn over in my mind. Read more

Source: The National