Abdulrazak Gurnah: “My comfort reading is cricket reports” | Abdulrazak Gurnah

My earliest reading memory
Undoubtedly the Koran. I grew up in Zanzibar and started there Chuoniwhich we called the Koran school, at the age of five and only entered the state school a year later, at which point I was sure that I had read the short film Suras. Pretty early in government school, one of our teaching texts was a Kiswahili translation of Aesop’s Fables, with illustrations of the fox making a vain leap for the grapes and the hare lounging on the side of the road while the tortoise rolls past. I can still see those pictures.

My favorite book growing up
A Swahili translation of abridged excerpts from Alfu Leila u Leila (One Thousand and One Nights) in four slim volumes. It was there that I first read the story of Kamar Zaman and Princess Badoura, which has stuck in my memory ever since. The translator and everyone thanked in the foreword are colonial officials, but the language leads me to believe there were a native informant or two who provided nuanced details. Until I was about 10 years old the only books I read in English were comics and a school prize. Its title was People of the World, and I read that over and over for a year or two. However, Zanzibar was not mentioned in it.

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The book that changed me as a teenager
This is difficult. I remember lying on a mat in my uncle’s modest home in Mombasa, reading from a run-down edition of Anna Karenina. I don’t know how it ended up there; my uncle was not a reader. I was probably 13 and couldn’t understand much of it, but I still cried and sobbed the whole time. Our reading was random based on what was available in the school library: mostly donations from outgoing colonial officials. I was 15 when I read James Baldwin’s Another Country and I remember how exciting it was. Our teacher also loaned me VS Naipaul’s The Mystic Masseur, which I think is the first novel I’ve read that saw people I knew in real life.

The writer who changed my mind
I was 18 when I read William Saroyan’s The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and it had a tremendous impact on me. I loved its tone of freedom and openness. I could not find this tone in any of his other writings.

The book that made me want to be a writer
When I thought of writing a novel, I read American authors: Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and especially Baldwin. I still have my battered Penguin paperback from The Fire Next Time. I’ve also read a lot of Joseph Conrad and DH Lawrence and Nadine Gordimer and Wole Soyinka, so I don’t know if I can tell which of those reading experiences did the trick.

The author I returned to
As a schoolboy I had to memorize and endlessly rehearse an excerpt from Bleak House: the passage of the Circumlocution Office. The headmaster had entered me into a recitation competition; I didn’t know what the passage was about or where it came from. After that, for a long time I could not stand the sight of a Dickens book, but later I came to love his novels and taught them.

The book I read again
Waiting for the Barbarians by JM Coetzee, for the precision of his language and the clarity with which he depicts human cruelty.

The book I could never read again
Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. I admired the perfection of his speech, but now it makes me wince. I think I’m ashamed of the people whose vanities are so mercilessly exposed.

The book I discovered later in life
Every day brings new discoveries; I want to celebrate the tremendous production of writers from Africa lately. Soyinka, Nuruddin Farah and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o have been producing excellent results for decades. Contemporary authors Damon Galgut, Maaza Mengiste, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, NoViolet Bulawayo and Nadifa Mohamed are all brilliant.

The book I’m reading right now
Knut Hamsun’s Mysteries.

My comfort reading
Cricket reports and memories, also when it comes to Australian victories.

Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Afterlives is published by Bloomsbury.

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