In Afterlives (Riverhead, Aug.), Nobel laureate Gurnah portrays ordinary Africans against the backdrop of European colonialism and war.
Your work generally features refugees or people living in exile and dealing with a sense of displacement. Could you share how Afterlives adds to your concerns about these themes?
I was interested in the idea of retrieving something after trauma. The title reflects this—another life that comes after a traumatic experience—and this is something I admire, the way people who go through violent times collect themselves and retrieve what’s left of their lives.
I’m also interested in people who are small, who are not heroes or powerful, and how they carry on living their lives even when the circumstances around their lives make things difficult, which is what small people normally do.
I wanted to show that in their own aspirations and desires, European nations insert themselves into people’s lives in a destructive way—and how people cope with the destructive results of colonial interests.
There is a supporting character, Khalifa, who remains central in his role as an observer. What inspired you to include such a character?
Khalifa is not only an observer but also a participant. He indicates the generous spirit that exists within a community—how people look after each other and the willingness to help—but he does it with a self-deprecating aggression. Khalifa represents how people don’t wish to be taken for granted or taken advantage of, but behind that lies a willingness to care, to take on people’s problems.
Your work has been described by the Nobel Prize committee as “an unending exploration driven by intellectual passion.” What, to you, is the main question you are drawn to explore in your writing?
You want to write about things that matter to you, or about injustices, or something striking in the way people relate to each other, but you also want to write in a way that pleases and engages the reader. Literature is not just about news and knowing things, but also taking pleasure in what you’re doing. I could read a history book if I wanted to know about colonialism, but I want to be drawn into people’s lives.
With Afterlives, do you feel you are closer to an answer?
I don’t think I’m any closer to an answer. Each time I finish a book I think I have nothing else to write about, but there are always things to dig into. It can be an ordinary thing, such as a betrayal or a family secret, but nuance arises all the time. There is always a new way to ask a question.