Abdulrazak Gurnah is this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. His work predominantly explores postcolonial themes including, war, migration and belonging. Originally from Tanzania, Gurnah came to the UK as a refugee in the 1960s during the Zanzibar Revolution. Having experienced racism first-hand, he recalls how unwelcoming the South of England can be towards foreigners. 


A Refugee Looking for a Home

As a Zanzibari refugee, Gurnah knows what it means to escape one’s homeland and try to adapt to a new society. Although the British Empire presided over and interacted with a wide range of peoples worldwide, they privately remained convinced of their nation’s superiority. One of the issues Gurnah’s books address is that of integration, or lack of it, as experienced by immigrants in the UK to this day — particularly since Brexit.

In his 1996 novel Admiring Silence, Gurnah tells the story of a Zanzibari moving to England in the 1960s where he settles down and marries an Englishwoman. The novel is about his personal struggle between the British and Zanzibari cultures. The book’s protagonist makes an effort to integrate with his new society but ultimately feels he is betraying his native culture for a place that is unfriendly and racist towards him. Eventually, he feels neither Zanzibari nor English.

The theme of identity is an important one to this day. People often confuse the word ‘integration’ with ‘assimilation’; the first term implies enriching your native culture with a new one, while the second refers to the replacement of your native culture with a new one. Too often, those who come to the UK have to pretend that their culture doesn’t exist, just to be socially accepted. And this phenomenon brings with it isolation and confusion.

In fact, this is a topic particularly dear to me. When I was 21, I moved to Canterbury for an Erasmus experience without speaking much English. I was glad to study at the famous University of Kent where Gurnah has taught until 2017 (the year of my Erasmus exchange). And although I was European and white, I still felt completely disconnected from local society. I experienced this from the first moment when I moved to my new house and asked my British flatmates to help me get to grips with recycling and paying the bills. Suffice to say, I never got much help. When it came to my new university, the students were mostly divided into national groups. I did try to speak with other people, but always had the feeling that they preferred to keep me at a distance. I was never invited to join them for outings or parties.

For the longest time, I thought there was something wrong with me. I felt I was a failure. However, I wasn’t prepared to go back to Italy and say: ‘living abroad is not my thing’. Though the feelings of isolation and rejection have fluctuated throughout my years of studying and working in the UK, they have always remained to some degree.

Brexit Britain

In an interview with the Guardian, Gurnah recalls that in the 1960s people were not afraid to tell black people ‘words that we now consider to be offensive’. He further argues that:

‘things appear to have transformed [but] then we have new rules about detention of refugees and asylum-seekers that are so mean they seem to me to be almost criminal. And these are argued for and protected by the government. This doesn’t seem to me to be a big advance to the way earlier people were treated’.

I believe this problem goes back to Brexit and what started it. Certain segments of British society disliked the fact that the UK’s foreign residents benefited from its welfare system. The Conservatives, in turn, instead of facing such problems as racism, marginalisation of foreign communities, discrimination and inequality, took these social issues as a sure sign to proceed with the Brexit referendum. The EU was subsequently and conveniently blamed for all of the UK’s problems. Following the 2016 Brexit referendum, the country literally split into two ideological halves (Leave vs Remain). Ever since that ominous voting day, the Conservatives have pursued a strategy of rebuilding Britain. We now have even tighter immigration rules of questionable value.

Abdulrazak Gurnah’s win (making him the fourth black writer to be nominated for the prize in 120 years), is an occasion to reflect on two things. Firstly, why Britain arguably continues to remain hostile to foreigners. And secondly, the importance of critiquing the effects, still largely pervasive, of British colonial rule.

The idea of a ‘global Britain’ post-Brexit is a hopeful one. But given the ongoing measures against migrants, it remains a threatening vision to many foreign communities living in the UK who struggle with integration.