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Nobel Prize-winning author Abdulrazak Gurnah releases new novel 'Afterlives'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A new novel takes us inside the lives of those who are often overlooked in literature and history. They are not kings, queens, warriors, writers or religious leaders, but people trying to get by in that part of East Africa now known as Tanzania during and after the period in which German colonizers owned the industries and coffee farms that exploited native peoples and often quelled uprisings with brutality. "Afterlives" is Abdulrazak Gurnah's first novel published in the U.S. since he won the 2021 Nobel Prize for literature. His previous books include "Paradise" and "By The Sea." Mr. Gurnah joins us now from Canterbury, England. Thank you so much for being with us.

ABDULRAZAK GURNAH: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

SIMON: I think we can stipulate that British, French, Belgian, Italian and, for that matter, American corporate colonization in Africa could be cruel. But was there just something distinctly brutal about German colonization?

GURNAH: There was something. With many of the other colonization movements, they often started from a position of relative weakness either because they were mercantile expeditions, various kinds of attempts to corner a market here and there, whereas the German entry into African colonialism was very, very late in the 19th century and was entirely a military operation. It had a different character. And so its whole attitude, I think, to the people that it was declaring to be their subjects was if you don't obey, we will punish.

SIMON: Tell us about the ensemble of characters who are at the center of this novel. Khalifa begins the novel as a bookkeeper.

GURNAH: So I think I was interested to begin with the story of Hamza, the young man who joins up, who becomes a soldier in the colonial army...

SIMON: In the German army, yes.

GURNAH: ...Starting off with that story as the core story. But then, I began to think about the other people that he would know, that community in which he returns, in which he finds himself. Then, I thought of this figure Khalifa, who becomes both a mentor but also somebody who offers us as readers, I think, another kind of consciousness, or point of view, that allows us to see the things that some of these figures do but from a different angle - gender inequalities because of the way he marries or the young girl that he looks after and nurtures. He occupies a sort of position of a kind of sanity even though it's gruff and impatient and difficult.

SIMON: Here I am complimenting a Nobel laureate. But, I mean, I appreciated how artfully that was done because it made the point that although Hamza becomes, I think it's safe to say, the major character in many ways for much of the novel, there's no telling where and how who makes a contribution to the lives that we wind up connecting with.

GURNAH: That's OK. You can pay as many compliments as you like to the Nobel laureates.

SIMON: (Laughter) All right. Why does Hamza become part of the German army?

GURNAH: This is interesting. Why did so many - I mean, most of the people fighting in those wars in Africa, in that particular place, location that I write about in "Afterlives," but also in other parts - in the Cameroons, in North Africa, etc. - were Africans fighting other Africans for this side or that side? It's ironic. You wonder, why are they fighting each other for the pleasure as well of seeing who it is that would colonize them? I think partly it's to do with a certain way of thinking of themselves - not as Africans because the idea of an African identity would probably not have been present at that time, but of thinking of themselves in their particular ethnic, tribal or whatever it might be - the right word - place where - or people that they belong to, society that they belong to. And so the other society is just an enemy. It doesn't matter that they are also Black. The other thing I think is probably the power and the attraction of the victor. The conquered join the conqueror because of the prestige of the conqueror - and money, employment and perhaps power.

SIMON: Yeah.

GURNAH: Finally, and we must not forget, is that there was a certain degree of coercion, demands made on the leaders or the elders of a society to say, we need 30 from you otherwise. OK. So whether you want to or not, you are volunteered to join up. So there are very many different ways, I think, that people became colonial mercenaries in this way.

SIMON: Hamza has a what I'll refer to as a complicated relationship with a German officer, who exhibits kindness towards him but a kindness that can be suspect.

GURNAH: Yeah. I think - my thought was that many people, when they're given these difficult and cruel duties to perform, either because the ideology of their society requires them to act in certain ways or because of the kind of the social impetus, as it were, of being, say, a soldier and then being required to do certain things - to refuse is very difficult. I'm thinking of colonialism in particular. There would have been many people required to carry out duties that they knew to be wrong, that they knew to be cruel, and to regard those that they were subjecting these cruelties on as less human than they are. And at times, there must have been times when they would have suspected that that was not true. So I think there is a denial, that process that goes on and says, no, no, no, it's not. But nonetheless, those sort of acts of kindness keep creeping in somehow. They cannot be completely suppressed. So that's my idea about the officer, that kind of conflict with kindness and cruelty at the same time.

SIMON: Mr. Gurnah, I don't get a chance to ask many people this question. What is it like to win the Nobel Prize for literature?

GURNAH: It's - well, it's brilliant. It's very nice. It's very good indeed - firstly, of course, because it's a global recognition because of the way the Nobel Prize has this global reach. Secondly, everybody wants to hear from you, and therefore, they want to read your books in their different languages and so on - so new editions. And thirdly, it's just great to feel one of the team, as it were. You see all those writers as eminent people whose work you've admired and so on. And this - what this does is it - OK, now, you are part of the team. Come, come. So that's wonderful. For a writer, you can't be anything better.

SIMON: Do you see a theme in your work? Others, of course, have once you won the Nobel Prize. But I wonder if that's a theme you've consciously tried to wind into your work.

GURNAH: Well, I don't think there is a theme as such. I mean, I know what - many people have asked me about that announcement that the Swedish Academy made about the experiences of refugees and the experience of colonialism. It's not untrue. And people have asked me to say, is that - are you bothered by that? Not at all. Because what they do is they read all the books, they sit and talk about all the books - after all of that, somebody has to produce two paragraphs which says why it is they've chosen this particular writer's work. So really, whatever they come up with is not going to be the full story. It's going to be, at best, what it was that made an impact on them. If that's what made an impact on them and that's the reason they made the award, good on them, I'd say. No problem.

SIMON: I found myself at the end of "Afterlives" thinking that the dramatic tension that pushed it forward was, how do we change the world into which we are born but still find happiness and fulfillment in the lives we have right now?

GURNAH: Yeah, I'll take that.

SIMON: (Laughter).

GURNAH: Yeah, I'll take that. That would be one way of seeing it. Yeah, how do you live, basically, is what I think many of my books are after. How do you live with whatever it is that - you know, circumstances and accidents and life has handed to you? How do you get on and make something of it?

SIMON: The Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah, his new novel "Afterlives." Thank you so much for being with us, sir.

GURNAH: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.