His lyrical novels about exile and loss enjoy critical acclaim but modest sales. Now he’s Zanzibar’s second most famous son – and £840,000 richer. The writer talks about racism on British buses, Priti Patel, and why books have to entertain
Abdulrazak Gurnah seems preternaturally calm for someone who has suddenly found themselves in the full glare of the world’s media. “Just very good,” he answers when I ask how he’s feeling. “A little bit rushed, with so many people to meet and speak to. But otherwise, what can you say? I feel great.” I meet the newly minted Nobel literature laureate surrounded by books in his agent’s office in London, the day after the announcement. He looks younger than his 73 years, boasts a full head of silver hair, and speaks evenly and deliberately, his expression barely changing. The adrenaline rush, if he experienced one, is hardly in evidence. He even slept quite well.
All the same, a little over 24 hours ago, he was merely the critically acclaimed author of 10 novels, at home in his kitchen in Canterbury, where he lives after having retired as a professor of English at the University of Kent. Now, a new level of celebrity beckons – albeit of a rarefied kind. The Swedish Academy’s citation referred a little ponderously to “his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents”. Others celebrate the lyricism of his writing, its understated, wistful brilliance.