Epistemology of language with Abdulrazak Gurnah

Alika 7up
14 min readSep 24, 2023
Image captured by me

Sometime ago, I wrote about death. Death came around to pay us a visit, sometime [in May] and of course I started thinking about death, I had to write about it.

I think about death quite often, a quiet departure we turn into a spectacle. In times of deep sadness, I am the subject of this morbid contemplation. My friends say they’re scared of the possibility of me killing myself and I understand, I am afraid too. But I ask myself, is death the worst thing ever? I think not. Sometimes living can be a terrible nightmare only death can dispel.

There are many ways to die.

In the months that followed I thought I was dying a different type of death. I could not remember things, I could not speak about things I could remember, the words died on the way to my tongue. I watched time as it watched me behind a prison. I rose in the morning just to watch and wait for the next day. That was not living and even now I may be dying. I am still holding on to memory like a half-eaten apple. What is living without remembering? What is remembering without witnessing? And what is a writer if not a witness?

For death takes everything, leaves behind no possibilities, save one — which is to remember.
– Aminatta Forna

I don’t know if I want to be a writer anymore. This is a difficult admission for me to make because without writing, what else do I have? So, I keep thinking, how do I graciously quit this thing that has been a big part of my life and personality for the past eight years? Is it even possible to quit writing? How does one go about it?

Why do I want to quit? I’m not sure I have the talent for writing and while that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I have never been a hard and consistent worker which is what writing requires or rather, demands. Or maybe I am not that ambitious. So why waste my time? Right?

Another reason is the disrespectful way writers are treated here and everywhere else. Doubly so for young African writers. The best of us are put through hellish conditions and they still make something out of it. Imagine winning several international awards and you are still struggling to get by? What happens to the rest of us?

Incidentally, this urge to quit is coming at a time when I’m stepping into the next phase of the writing life: new opportunities, fellowships, workshops, opportunities to work and befriend writers I admired for a long time. Is quitting right now self-sabotage? I know I have a talent for that. Quitting and self-sabotage. Do I write a “goodbye to writing essay?” Maybe I’ll just stick to writing solely for myself. It helps me think and I like thinking.

A small porch

For a while, I have been thinking almost obsessively about the idea of smallness: small lives, a lack of what we call ambition, a provincial existence. I must state that this doesn’t mean living in subhuman conditions.

Image captured by me

I travelled somewhere as a child. There I met a few children; we all became pirates and I was selected as their leader and I led them on an expedition. This place was a large expanse of enclosed semi forest and we camped in the built areas with our families but that day we headed towards the line of bushes with our stick swords. We soon arrived at a little stream, to us an unexpected sight in this dense forest.

We were pioneers, we were true explorers, we planted our stick swords in the ground like the flags of the first Antarctic expeditioners and we decided to split, a group will wait for whatever fish we could find and my group will go further into the bush to look for the beginning of this stream and other wonderful surprises. Somebody started skipping stones across the water and others followed. They made a ruckus and we heard a voice from the bushes that told us to get away. Was it a spirit? We didn’t wait to find out, we took to our heels in fear. As we ran, I looked back and saw for the first time, the stone bungalows shaded heavily by trees clustered around the stream.

In the James Bond movie, No Time To Die, Bond’s retirement house in Jamaica reminded me of those houses by the stream. It gave my long-term cacoethes, a tactile form. I want to have a small life, a house by water, in the bush, away from civilization.

As a society, we frown at a lack of ambition so much that it has become a vice. We ask children what they want to be when they know nothing about living as an adult. So much emphasis is placed on the grind, working yourself hoarse to finally afford a decent life for yourself — it is a sensible (even radical) thing to prioritize a career over (biological or chosen) family. We know that the grind culture is a sham and the world is stratified into various degrees of the haves and have-nots. What we may not know is, the rate of upward mobility in this societal order is not as much as the rate of downward mobility.

We (not me, but the powers that be) stand on a pinnacle as mankind and we congratulate ourselves on our evolution. We have conquered our environment. Everything we do, we do smug, a sideways grin at the awareness of our power and achievements. We build monuments to ourselves in our ideologies, in what we call justice, our retelling of history, in our language and sadly, in our stories.

A cursory examination of the human condition will expose all this bravado as a fallacy. When we begin to investigate our legacy as a species, we will find tragedy and wickedness we have so dashingly perpetrated on ourselves to come to where we are; evil we continue luxuriate in even to this day. There is something called progressive, probably a derivative from the idea that humanity is moving from barbarity to civility. I don’t believe that, I think it’s another one of our delusions, like the so-called age of enlightenment. History is driven by conflict and we have been weaned off certain types of violence and we have become desensitized to other types of violence. We are not progressing towards some utopia, a specific date where we’ll achieve sustainable development goals. I would opine that we are regressing, losing our humanity. Humanity here isn’t some antiquated goodness but appreciation of the dichotomy that is the singularity and plurality of human experiences. We are not much different from each other. This is why we have stories (in their broadest sense) they are reminders of our similitude; they are witnesses to our evil, our love and tenderness.

Language is humanity’s only collective invention; it is the foundation of everything we’ve ever done and our only unit of exchange. We know that the pinnacle of language is in stories and storytelling. Nothing knows us and holds us more than our stories; if we are blood cells, they are plasma. They are written by us and for us. Even when we write the most absurd poems — mostly personal meditations on perceived contradictions, we only write about the human condition because that is the only thing we can ever know.

So, when our stories begin to believe the lie that we have become gods, what remains?

When our storytellers chase absurdities, muses, escapist fantasies and no longer concern themselves with our failings, how do we remember our humanity?

Racism, homophobia, misogyny and all the schisms in the world today, how have we progressed?

Stories hold up a mirror to our faces and poetry finds and dwells upon the wonder in the mundane; bows down to ordinary human moments, but even our stories are becoming pretensions of what we are not

“Literature allows us — no, demands of us — the experience of ourselves as multidimensional persons. And in so doing is far more necessary than it has ever been.”

— Toni Morrison, “The Foreigner’s Home”

I am thinking about western philosophy from the time of the Greeks, their metaphysical inquiry, how it continues to influence English literature and how English literary tradition has become a rotting edifice that careens on itself. A caricature that caricatures itself and us and we in turn make caricatures of what makes caricatures of us and we forget that there is no usefulness of language beyond human beings.

An idea is useless if it cannot live in an everyday human body.

— Chris Abani

It takes only two people to produce language, that is always as it has been.

Two people made love and there was language.
A lover died and there was language.
A baby was born and there was language.
A child was lost and there was language.
A father lost his sight and there was language
A woman lusted in vain and there was language

And all these coalesced to become
Homer and Sappho
To become Ovid
To become Chaucer and Milton
To become Dickens and Dickinson
To become Rimbaud and TS Eliot
To become Baudelaire
To become Plath
To become Farrokhzad and Qabbani

Whatever their greatness, they are miracles of language and belong to the same oeuvre as
The forlorn poetry of a teenage girl in colonial Mombasa,
Narratives of a Bende warrior exiled to the Pitakwa creeks,
The tales of a shopkeeper in 19th century Aden, or
The diary of a housekeeper in Ecuador.

Small lives. Small stories. This is everything.

Abdulrazak Gurnah

No one writes about small lives better than Abdulrazak Gurnah. From his first novel in 1987 to his most recent novel Afterlives, he has with quiet grace, held up a mirror to humanity with his oeuvre of ten novels, each one containing breathtakingly beautiful stories about small people living their small lives through unprecedented events. His prose is like listening to a sad song when you are lonely at night. The song opens old wounds and soothes it simultaneously. He is a special type of storyteller, stepping back to invite you into a world just outside of what you know. He unobtrusively presents existential questions and philosophical dilemmas that echo the questions in your mind. You will recognise parts of yourself in his stories and you will not remain the same. His writing is very simple and accessible but it belies the beauty and complexity of the stories that are told. A retired professor, he employs pedantry without lapsing into the laborious aspects.

Gurnah concerns us with human beings and their stories, he writes unflinchingly about us but he does it with great empathy, his stories aren’t didactic or polemic even though they do have their high points of instruction and rhetoric. They are about human beings presented in all complexity and simplicity.

He has written about love, desire, despair, and rootlessness. Retrieving something — maybe beauty, maybe wisdom, or some kind of utility — from trauma.

“Happy families are all alike” Tolstoy declared, famously and dismissively, at the beginning of Anna Karenina; “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Gurnah goes further to invite us as we observe the idea of family, and interrogate how it fails the preconceived notions we all have of it. This opens up an avenue to reconcile the macro relationship we have with the world with the intimate relationship of family. Are children an oppressed class? Many will agree but will be at a loss to illustrate just how children can be wronged by people who love and protect them from external danger but often inflict damages of their own. How does it mirror our relationship to many of our failed states? How does the contestation of children in these oppressive settings mirror our refusal or lack of refusal to accept state sanctioned oppression. Gurnah shows us, again and again.

His writing is about everything — big things, small things and the space between them. While his work has been sadly ignored by mainstream scholarship, the little writing done on his work has tried toto pigeon-hole his writing into, some say the enduring effects of colonialism, some say migrant experiences. But these are snapshots of a kaleidoscope of a thousand colours. I would say Gurnah’s stories are some of the most beautiful testimonies of the human experience, if an alien wanted to understand human beings, I would give them a book by Gurnah.

Gurnah has always pushed against that type of categorization of his work and you too will notice the predictability of the reception of African writers. It is either about the effects of colonialism or the brutality of their own pseudo nation states or racism or reclaiming culture or lately, the diasporan experience. African writers have always had this overwhelming expectation to speak for Africa and tackle big subjects with their writing. While advocacy and activism are important, it is reductive to expect a handful of people to be mouthpieces for billions of people. For decades now, we’ve been expected to write in reaction to assumptions of people that don’t know better. That assumption forms the basis of mainstream representation politics and those who do not perform, for example black rage, are not platformed. Little wonder that a writer like Gurnah — who refuses to fit into a box proscribed by the western literary tradition — has until very recently remained in obscurity.

The way of the world is power and the preservation of power. The story of the hunt always glorifies the hunter, even when he returns with an empty basket. This is why the solution to a system of indignities against a people is the genius innovation called representation. It often feels like they are playing a prank on us. You know, careening caricatures. Rewrite a Disney story to include a black celebrity and when dimwit nobodies get upset, resurrect the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr and make us believe this is nadir of the civil rights struggle but power remains firmly lodged, like a faulty barometer needle, where it has always been. And it befuddles the best minds. All these gestures, what do they mean? What do we do with them?

We do know that structural inequality exists and is divided across racial and gendered classes but we often don’t know who to blame. Not because of a lack of culprits, even though casting blame is redundant. The mainstream has co-opted the language of liberation and all the proponents of oppression are putting on an amenable face to get with the times but oppression is very evident.

I am reminded of an inauspicious scene from the aforementioned Bond movie, where M said,
“Before you used to be able to get into the room with the enemy and look him in the eye. Now you don’t even know who the enemy is.”

A book written about the impact of British colonialism in a colonized country is listed on the British crown’s best books of the year list and a book showing the damaging effects of American warmongering history is included in Obama’s summer reading list. It’s all about how it looks now. A caricature of reality. A checklist of inclusiveness which I think is still racism. I see a hijabi in a Netflix movie as a supporting character or just a background act and I ask who are you? Are you from Ilorin or Sokoto or are you from Yemen or Zanzibar or Morocco? Because these contexts matter, it’s never just about what it looks like and when you hold it up to scrutiny, it falls apart and shows you what a mega pretence it was. Gurnah’s writing and the complexity of his characters have made it impossible for his work to be a token of inclusiveness.

His stories show us that while we are undoubtedly affected by the politics of the big things, the big bad things like capitalism and other structural forces of our world. We are more affected by our immediate environment; our small worlds and we affect it as well. Colonialism is the air we breathe so we might as well just be honest with ourselves about what we want to do about it. Personally, I believe, the constant rage at injustice that we are wont to do is like taking a strong axe and attacking despoiled air. Living in a constant state of rage is a scary prospect.

Being victims of evil and understanding this while accepting it also feels like what James Baldwin will say about being a collaborator in our own oppression but Gurnah’s stories show us a way out. They prove that it is possible to have a small and a happy life and choosing a small life filled with love is the most radical act of resistance in our age of globalization and hyper speed.

Writing for the unheard

I believe the best writers are writers that write accurately about the bewildering experience of being a child, see Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Gurnah excels at this too. His stories talk about the cruelty of children, little boys especially. The tyranny by which they uphold the structure and system in their little universe. It’s a world not understood by grownups but influenced by them. Gurnah traces each boy’s journey as they grow to be young men prone to silence, to cruelty; young men as cowards aware of their cowardice; young men rudderless and unmoored from home. Many young men are directionless and attempting to find themselves in a way that isn’t immediately understandable by society and it often results in unmitigated disaster for them. But this can be often traced to the desolation of their boyhoods.

Something about Abdulrazak Gurnah’s writing that appeals to me is his very honest and humane way of writing about the desolation of boys, especially poor young men. Nobody pays you attention unless you are a threat and then there’s a long list of things they do to threats. This is something that is often not discussed anywhere, or if it’s discussed, it’s discussed wrongly and out of context (problematic teenage boys) but this is something that happens to everyone and is unique to each individual boy. I remember when I was first seen as a threat. It made me so sad for days but I understood how that kind of thing can affect young boys, if people’s eyes always harden at seeing you, when it’s only fear and distrust you see. It can become something you slip into, that braggadocio, those risks you take to elicit that reaction and oh with that perpetual and subtle messaging of an ideal man who inspires fear but is never afraid, it’s so easy, too easy to wear a wolfskin if your heart goes unnoticed and untended. Like I said this experience varies for every boy and even the well-adjusted ones have grappled with something like this and how they made it out is miraculous. There’s almost no way to talk about it because we may have been gaslit into not seeing a problem. No words for it amongst your peers and the men who you look up to cannot help you. It’s a private but necessary demon for all boys.

It’s so sad watching your joy being taken away from you by a society that has failed you and yet for nobility or decency, has conspired with you to uphold your silence because it has also failed women and young girls, has failed others even worse than you. You may begin to think, at least your case isn’t too bad. For poor boys it’s worse. Nobody needs your humanity, only your masks; maybe you’ll be man up to take up adult responsibilities; maybe you’ll be a useless stubborn goat who is not loved but either way, you have assumed a role. You are no longer yourself and everything you do must be be subservient to your mask. Even when boys play among themselves: ‘police and thief,’ football, anything at all. They have to be something they’re not. The coolness, the suave ways they play cards or games, the nicknames which are unending, the ways in which they outrightly avoid saying goodbye or i miss you. They have to wear a mask amongst themselves to play. They do not remember what it means to be just exist without wearing something else. I’m grateful that Gurnah understood his own experience enough to give it a language in stories. He was able to fragment his share of collective desolation as a boy in that town by the coast of Zanzibar and his own personal and private desolation as a young man on the British lsles. Maybe escaping to England gave him some insight, maybe it didn’t. Maybe growing up did but I wonder how much irreparable damage will be done to men who never came to grips with the desolation of their boyhoods.

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