A forest

Book Review by Radiyah Manjoo

I knew as soon as it was announced that I would do a piece solely in homage of 2021 Nobel Literature Prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah. Let me hit you with a shocker: this brings us to a grand total of 5 Nobel Literature prizes for Africa.
5 out of 118 in total.

Doing a piece on African literature, I could not simply omit mention of Mr Gurnah’s win. I reflected on this and what the intention of this project was. I wanted to just speak about African literature – I felt that there is scarcity when it comes to representation and availability, and I hoped to encourage further exploration into the sphere. As mentioned before, being exposed to a different voice when I was younger (but quite late) allowed me some comfort in my reading and I had hoped that others would find something as well. Also, that authors would get more (rightfully deserved) recognition. Abdurazak Gurnah, especially, holds a special place in my heart. In a way, it’s wonderful that the last piece I write on this year is on the author that set me on the path.
I’ve mentioned in my first piece that there was one book, by an author of colour, that changed everything for me, it changed how I read and ultimately changed me as a person. It was indeed a book by Mr Gurnah that did this. Let me tell you a story of my own.
I live with my family – I read but no one else really does besides my younger sister (shout out to Rabia). It was my first long varsity holiday and I had exhausted all reading options in my home. I had even exhausted the reading options at my cousin’s and neighbour’s homes. The library was being revamped and not an option either. So, I walked about my house aimlessly, as one does. I went into Rabia’s room, and she had a single shelf on which she would keep a book she was involved in (or 2). I saw a book there, looking neglected, a few times on entering her room. I realized she wouldn’t realise it was missing as it seemed untouched.
I began reading the book and I couldn’t put it down. While reading it I thought, hey, I feel like this sometimes. No one else has said these things. I can relate. And I finished the book in a very little time – I also didn’t want my sister to notice it missing. Before I returned it, I googled the author and saw that he was Tanzanian (it was a significant point with regards to the book) and I saw that there were many other books by him, but absolutely none available to buy here. So, I returned the book. When I entered her room following the return, it was no longer there.

Every time I went into a shop, I searched and every South African online store, I searched – to no avail. I once found one of Abdulrazak Gurnah’s books at a South African online store for a price that is too ridiculous to even mention. And I resigned myself to never being blessed with the fortune of reading another of his books. But I never forgot it.

Years later, I was speaking to someone, and I was mentioning this book, and my little sister was sitting with us. I chose this moment to confess – “I took your book and never told you. I am so sorry that I did it but I’m also so glad that I did”. My sister told me it was not her book, and she had no idea what I was talking about – she had never seen or heard of this book. We never figured it out – I asked everyone in my household about it and no one knows anything. It is just one of those strange occurrences. I’m sure that there is a very logical explanation to this, but I like to think of it as magical somehow.

And that is how I discovered Abdulrazak Gurnah.

I did struggle to read all in time for this, but I have prepared reviews on his books I have been able to read. (Yes, the university library had them all along, no – I never thought to look there).
I would recommend reading every book of Mr Gurnah’s that you can. You will not regret it.

The Last Gift
The book that changed my life. A story about a family, relationships with family, and with oneself. Explores identity and meaning in it.

My favourite – I will come out and just say it. The story is so beautiful and has so much depth to it. There are parallels to a variety of things and so many facets to the tale. It is an adventure and an exciting read. This has taken my spot for “favourite book of the year”. I could never describe this book fully, just read it.

Gravel Heart
Beautifully written. So many parts of this book cause you to pause and think about the human condition.

Pilgrims Way
I especially enjoyed the supporting characters of this book. It paints such a vivid picture of the people we come to know and the ways of us.

You could change a few details in this book, and it could be as if it was written about the UK today. It was so entertaining to read this book and for the things we know so well to be said so bluntly. This book follows the life of a woman in England.

It was all destined I think, in the end. These books all have so much in them but “layered” is not the right term. I would rather describe each of these stories as a house, with many many beautiful rooms. Each book has doors that you are led into with more to explore and dwell on. I thoroughly enjoyed them all. Thank you for your work, Mr Gurnah, thank you for writing.
What Mr Gurnah has done as well, is just write. He did not hold back. Some of his words could make one uncomfortable but that didn’t stop him. He put forth his work brazenly and truthfully. For so long and too often, we hold back and don’t express what bothers us. We don’t speak enough about the injustices we face, and we accept them. But when we put words to it, we acknowledge the existence. If you look at the way history is told and the things we read, we glaze over the suffering and the pain. We know about the terrible conditions of people, and we just continue – glad to be here. And putting words to it means so much. It speaks to the existence of us.

Someone once said to me, “you, South African youth are so angry” and I was taken aback – is us voicing our grievances coming off as angry? Are we not to speak about injustice and pain? I think it has become so unfamiliar to us, as Africa, to speak. To tell stories was always ours and we have barely begun speaking. And it is the reclaiming of our voices and our narratives and our stories that I live to see.

So, thank you for reading. It humbles me to have had this opportunity and I am grateful to Shameelah for the nudge.
Thank you for reading, and remember that there will always be something to read – just go look. And more importantly, there will always be readers, so just write.