Dubai: The 2021 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Abdul Razak Gurnah, was almost convinced he was not a good writer after being rejected by publishers for 12 years, he told the Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF).
His first book, Memories of Departure, published in 1987, almost never came to be, Gurnah, now 73, told a large audience during his talk at SIBF at Expo Centre Sharjah.
“A series of rejections from publishers over the course of 12 years made me come pretty close to saying ‘I am not good’,” said the Nobel Prize winner, who initially thought the Swedish Academy’s call to announce his win was a joke.
Tales of trauma
Gurnah, whose universal tales of the trauma of exile, loss and uprooted lives has resonated with readers around the globe, said: “My goal is to speak as truthfully and clearly as possible to get the right feel. I can ‘hear’ it in my head if the wording is wrong.”
The UK-based writer had left the shores of Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania, as an 18-year-old in search for a more fulfilling life.
The Nobel winner has published 10 novels and numerous short stories, many of which deal with themes of migration and assimilation.
Gurnah’s Paradise was shortlisted for the 1994 Booker Prize and presents a portrait of East Africa on the brink of epic change as seen through the eyes of a 12-year-old. Meanwhile By the Sea, longlisted for the 2001 Booker Prize, explores the migrant experience.
Experiencing cultures through books
On Wednesday (the first day of SIBF), Kuwaiti novelist Taleb Al Refai, who is the ‘Cultural Personality of the Year’ for SIBF 2021, said it was a 1906 Russian novel about revolutionary factory workers that first opened his eyes to the world of other people’s lives and cultures.
Al Refai was honoured for his body of work spanning six collections of short stories, three novels, one play, and several literary studies that are widely seen as a bridge between Arab and Western cultures.
Al Refai revealed how Maxim Gorky’s novel Mother forced him to think beyond the immediate world he was growing up in. “I see another world through [the novel]. It was an eye-opener. It shook my boat on the river of life. It made me realise that there are other lives and other cultures too,” he said.
“The best way to learn about other people and their lives is by reading about them. It was an Arabic translation of Mother that started the process for me.”
Al Refai’s session was part of the several cultural activities and author interactions lined up throughout the 11-day book fair.
On Thursday, Sheikh Sultan bin Ahmed Al Qasimi, Deputy Ruler of Sharjah, visited SIBF.
He went on a tour of the book fair, visiting a number of pavilions representing publishers and cultural entities, during which the officials representing their respective pavilions spoke about the highlights of their participation encompassing the titles, rare manuscripts and cultural programmes they are showcasing.
During a visit to the Sharjah Broadcasting Authority (SBA)’s pavilion, Sheikh Sultan was offered an insight into the efforts of the SBA officials and teams who are handling various duties to air the book fair’s activities on SBA’s TV, radio and digital channels, as well as the programmes, interviews and live coverage that have been designed exclusively to bring SIBF to Sharjah and the UAE.
He also visited the Canadian pavilion and was briefed on the details of Canada’s participation in the event, and the opportunity that the SIBF offers to Canadian publishers to boost the outreach of Canada’s books in Sharjah and the region.
During the tour, Sheikh Sultan also visited the Emirates Publishers Association’s pavilion, exploring the entity’s initiatives and programmes dedicated to raising the profile of Emirati publishers globally, in addition to its local activities and efforts to further the publishing industry at the national level.
He then continued the tour, visiting the pavilions of several other entities.
Sheikh Sultan was accompanied by Ahmed bin Rakkad Al Ameri, Chairman of the Sharjah Book Authority on the tour, which also included Mohammed Hasan Khalaf, Director General of the Sharjah Broadcasting Authority; Tariq Saeed Allay, Director General of the Sharjah Government Media Bureau; Hassan Yaqoub Al Mansouri, Director General of the Sharjah Media Council, other officials and members of the press.