Climate crisis: how science fiction’s hopes and fears can inspire humanity’s response


David Menidrey/Unsplash, FAL

Chris Pak, Swansea UniversityYou see the forest of cranes before you reach the coast. In the heat’s haze, machinery resounds in the middle distance, shifting and tamping dirt with earth-shattering force. Beyond the construction site, the sea sparkles under the Sun, traversed by ships old and new. It seems the whole city takes its cue from the coast – there is always so much being built, demolished and rebuilt.


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Those in power push ahead with their enduring programme to reshape the world by building new land. This is a society that is being transformed for a particular vision of the future: to build new worlds able to meet the challenges of a soaring population, more space and new modes of living. But what kind of future is being built, and at what cost?

This isn’t science fiction. This is the real story of land reclamation in 1980s-90s Hong Kong, where I grew up. Land reclamation involves the filling of water bodies with soil to extend land or create artificial islands. Housing and infrastructure on the scale seen in Hong Kong is only possible because of how much land – over 70km² of it – was reclaimed. But this has come at a cost to people, biodiversity and the integrity of wildlife habitats alike.

It was during my childhood in this city, part of which was so recently submerged beneath the ocean, that I first began to speculate about the drastic ways we transform space – and the unforeseen impacts this has.

As a child immersed in science fiction classics such as Frank Herbert’s Dune, I quickly realised that fiction can help us consider, imagine, and work through these unforeseen impacts. And so it is no surprise that climate fiction – or “cli-fi” – has quickly become a recognised genre in recent years. From Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour to Omar El Akkad’s American War, people are clearly interested in imagining possible futures as a way of considering how we are going to get ourselves out of this mess.

If there is something that we can be fairly sure of, it is that the future will be radically different to what we had imagined, and that it will demand adjustment. This is why authors of science fiction are consulted by organisations and governments: to help us think about the risks and challenges of the future in ways inaccessible to other disciplines. As COP26, the delayed 2020 UN climate change conference in Glasgow, approaches we urgently need more of this imaginative impulse.

Science fiction has certainly already played a part in this narrative. Harnessing the Sun’s energy has a long history in science fiction, and Arthur C. Clarke is often credited with coming up with the idea of the solar cell-powered geostationary communications satellite. NASA’s satellite system, meanwhile, is crucial for monitoring climate change and can plausibly be traced back, in part, to science fiction’s capacity for thinking about worlds and systems. And of course, spaceships and space stations – indeed, our expansion into space – is an invention of science fiction.


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Inspired by my early days in Hong Kong, I went on to shape a career researching science fiction with a focus on technical systems that transform the planet we live on: the idea of terraforming and geoengineering. If terraforming is the modification of other planets to enable habitation by life on Earth, geoengineering can be defined as the planetary modification of the Earth – such as the deliberate intervention in the climate system.

As the controversial debate about geoengineering becomes increasingly urgent given the catastrophic failure to curb emissions, science fiction about terraforming and geoengineering can help us imagine possible configurations of solutions to the climate crisis and their implications. A closer look at this particular example will also show why embracing this form of thinking is so crucial for the climate crisis more generally too.

The power of storytelling

Proposals for geoengineering and terraforming are informed both by history and by the stories we tell one another. What science fiction can do is imagine and think through the political, as well as the scientific, implications of the technological choices we make. Science fiction stories speculate on, diagnose and illustrate the experiences and the problems wrapped up in global debates about mitigation and adaptation.

The aim of science fiction is not to solve society’s problems (though specific works of science fiction do offer solutions that we as readers are invited to critique, revise, advocate for, and even adopt); nor is science fiction about prediction. We therefore shouldn’t evaluate science fiction according to its success or failure in this regard. Rather, the role of science fiction is to speculate on possibilities.

Giant Earth globe hangs in modern building.
We need to imagine the future before we can get there.
Romain Tordo/Unsplash, FAL

Science fiction, then, shouldn’t be read in isolation. The fictional space is an imaginative realm for testing ideas and values, and for attempting to imagine futures that could inform our societies now. The genre seeks to push beyond the assumptions of a singular time and place by providing a range of alternative ways of conceiving ideas, contexts and relationships. Science fiction asks to be challenged; it asks for us to hold one story up against another, to consider and interrogate the worlds portrayed and what they might tell us about our stances on crucial contemporary issues.

Reading such fiction can help us to think speculatively beyond the technical aspects of adaptation, mitigation and, indeed, intervention, and to understand the stances that we as people and as societies take toward these concerns.

This is the idea behind my book, in which I survey the history of stories about terraforming, geoengineering, space and climate change. What science fiction teaches us is that technologies are not simply technical systems. Science is not simply a theoretical and technical endeavour. Rather, the practice of science and the development of technologies are also fundamentally social and cultural. This is why many researchers use the word “sociotechnical” to describe technological systems.

A geoengineered planet

In the real – policy – world, fictions inform the imagination. Some imagine a future world covered by machines sucking CO₂ out of the air and pumping it into the porous rock below. Others imagine one powered by a portfolio of vast wind and solar farms, hydroelectric and geothermal plants. Some imagine business largely continuing as usual, with only moderate changes in how we produce and use energy, and little to no change to how we organise our economies and our lives.

And some suggest we send planes into the stratosphere, pumping out particulates that will reflect sunlight back into space and turn the sky white.

It is this last vision, solar radiation management (SRM), that has been the subject of particularly intense debate. SRM involves controlling the amount of sunlight trapped in Earth’s atmosphere. A number of scientists, including Ken Caldeira and David Keith (sometimes referred to as the “geoclique”) advocate for further research into SRM, but they are strongly opposed by various pressure groups.

Bill McGuire, a patron of Scientists for Global Responsibility and Emeritus Professor of Earth Sciences at UCL, recently wrote a science fiction novel, Skyseed (2020), which imagines the terrifying failure of a nanotech-based approach to solar radiation management. This novel describes the impossibility – given our current state of knowledge – of foreseeing the consequences of this speculative technology.

Proposals for solar radiation management vary enormously, but the most common forms involve brightening marine clouds or injecting particles into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight away from the Earth. Doing so, it is proposed, would help to cool the Earth, though it would do nothing to remove carbon and other carbon equivalent gases from the atmosphere, nor would it address ocean acidification.




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More extravagant ideas include building sunshades in space and placing them in various orbital configurations. If this idea sounds like it comes straight out of a science fiction novel, that’s because it does: such orbital mirrors feature in James Oberg’s 1981 work New Earths and Lois McMaster Bujold’s 1998 novel Komarr.

Transforming planets

But what can terraforming tell us about geoengineering and Earth? The idea of transforming places beyond Earth – planets or other spatial bodies – to make them more amenable to human life has been a mainstay of science fiction for decades. The necessity of maintaining life support systems in space habitats and spaceships draws on the same science that underpins technologies for addressing climate change. Such stories pose many pertinent questions that we should heed as we consider next steps on Earth – or beyond it.

In its broadest sense, terraforming refers to transforming other planets or cosmic bodies so that life from Earth can live there. Entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, have brought terraforming and the colonisation of Mars to our imagination through an ambitious project to put people on the planet within the decade. Musk is not alone: other entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic) and Jeff Bezos (Blue Origins) are also competing to exploit space and get humankind out there.




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Contemporary visions of terraforming Mars must contend with recent assessments that show it is not possible to terraform the planet with present day technology, given the lack of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that would enable an atmosphere to be created on Mars. But scientific research into terraforming continues to carve out a space for its future possibility.

A man in a spacesuit walks across a Martian landscape.
Will humanity ever terraform Mars?
Nicolas Lobos/Unsplash, FAL

Although it is the subject of current scientific research, the word “terraforming” was in fact coined by science fiction writer Jack Williamson (writing as Will Stewart) in the 1942 short story, Collision Orbit, set on a terraformed asteroid. The story describes terraforming technologies that include a “paragravity installation” sunk into the heart of the asteroid, which provides some gravity. Oxygen and water, meanwhile, are generated from mineral oxides, a process that releases “absorptive gases to trap the feeble heat of the far-off Sun”.

In the story, the greenhouse effect is harnessed to make other cosmic bodies habitable. What makes terraforming possible here are new ways of manipulating atomic matter. But Williamson is also concerned with the unintended consequences of new inventions and new ways of generating energy. New energy systems make terraforming feasible for small groups and large institutions alike, promising a re-configuration of power throughout the solar system by the story’s end.

Lessons from fiction for the future

I’ve focused here on the ideas of geoengineering and terraforming because they represent the most outlandish theories or proposals when it comes to potential “solutions” to the climate crisis. But of course, everything I’ve written applies just as much to thinking about less grandiose proposals.

The questions and speculations offered by science fiction are endless, and it would be a fool’s errand to attempt to outline those that are the most pertinent, or important, or relevant to COP26. So instead I’d like highlighting those books that have stayed with me the most in my time working in this area, and explain why I think they might prove fruitful food for thought for anyone attending, debating, or simply following COP26.

1. Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest (1972).

This short novel by science fiction heavyweight Ursula K. Le Guin describes a forest world, populated by an indigenous society, that early on in the novel is occupied and aggressively deforested to provide Earth with wood. This is not simply a technical project. It is also social because it involves the complete transformation of the indigenous society, who are violently gang-pressed to provide a freely exploitable labour force. It is also social insofar as this supply chain is oriented to the demands and desires of those on Earth.

We might see echoes of this story in James Cameron’s film Avatar (2009); only, in Avatar the target for extraction is “unobtainium”. In Herbert’s iconic novel Dune, it’s a substance called “geriatric spice mélange”. It’s not important what these resources are, but that they are scarce and valuable in the stories’ worlds.

Portrayals of extensive afforestation and deforestation are a form of terraforming or geoengineering because they transform the planet’s ability to regulate its climate. This isn’t addressed directly in Le Guin’s novel; but Le Guin does explore the issue of terraforming in her 1974 novel The Dispossessed, which focuses on the political and economic relationship between an anarchist state on a moon called Anarres and its historical home planet, Urras. This novel explores what life might look like on a Moon that has long been undergoing terraformation.

What these examples tell us is that, in some contexts, afforestation or deforestation that transforms societies and their environments function as a form of terraforming or geoengineering. We must recognise prior claims to the land and work with communities to develop an ethics of care for these environments that resist aggressive exploitation.

2. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy (1992-1996)

Perhaps the author who has most consistently explored contemporary debates about climate change is Kim Stanley Robinson.

Named the 2008 TIME “Hero of the Environment”, Robinson addresses climate change politics in works set on Earth and the solar system. I’ve written extensively about Robinson’s work, which speculates on a portfolio of sciences and technologies to supplement the creation of new ways of living centred on social and ecological justice. Most importantly, Robinson ties these technologies to the communities being portrayed, and traces the struggles and injustices that such developments risk.

Robinson imagines the terraformation of Mars in his trilogy Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1993) and Blue Mars (1996). A host of technologies appear, including orbital mirrors, referred to as solettas, technologies for engineering soil and biologically engineered lichens to transform the atmosphere, among many others.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Mars trilogy is the consistent reflection on the vision for transformation: for whom is the planet being transformed? Corporate interests on Earth, or the entirety of the Martian population? And what relationship does the transformation of Mars bear for the peoples on Earth?

As one of the key members of the terraforming project on Mars, the scientist Sax Russell’s technocratic, top-down approach to the terraformation of Mars undergoes a sea change after a traumatic brain injury during a Martian revolution. This injury prompts him to reflect on language and communication and leads him to understand that the technical approach that he had thus far adopted — an approach that erases the perspectives and experiences of his fellow Martians — is insufficient for building a truly open society. In his own imperfect way, he begins to move toward an understanding of science as a firmly sociotechnical system, and to realise that the human element cannot be ignored.

The fictional adventures of Russell might as well inform our own response to climate change. By hearing only the voices of specialists and politicians, other avenues for addressing climate change might be overlooked. Worse, we may inadvertently lock ourselves into a technological system that cannot hope to address the effects of climate change, or which may exacerbate the precariousness of many peoples across the globe.

Science fiction offers ways to discuss speculative technologies without presenting them as ready made technological fixes, enabling wider public deliberation about our approach to climate change. Fiction asks crucial questions, revises and reconsiders aspects of science and society in relation to their contemporary moment. But it also transmits a way of thinking – it identifies our assumptions about the worlds we want to live in and challenges dominant narratives about climate change. Most importantly, it offers a range of possible technological solutions, which could and should inform our response to the climate crisis.

3. Ian McDonald’s Luna Trilogy (2015-2019)

McDonald considers the exploitation of resources and people, along with the extension of financial speculation to all aspects of life on the colonised Moon in his trilogy Luna: New Moon (2015), Luna: Wolf Moon (2017) and Luna: Moon Rising (2019).

In this story of power and the exploitation of the Moon’s resources, families who control key industries on the Moon struggle for dominance against the backdrop of an Earth that is adapting to climate change. The trilogy imagines and interrogates the extension of the logic of development outward to the solar system and encourages readers to think about the inevitable economic and political clashes this will bring.

Science fiction can help us think about our own stories of climate mitigation and adaptation. Such stories are experiments in envisioning future possibilities and creating solutions to future problems. Central to many of these visions is an emphasis on social and ecological justice, and an awareness of the dangers of erasing populations from the story.

It is true that attempts to imagine the future are the product of utopian thinking – but don’t imagine for a moment that utopian in this sense equates to a naive idealism. Rather, utopian thinking is a commitment to working through the difficulties and impasses of our contemporary moment without losing sight of the possible futures that we imagine and would like to create.

What makes science fiction valuable in our efforts against climate change is that it does not offer us a final word, but rather invites an open ended exploration and experimentation with stories and ideas. Science fiction encourages us to build worlds and to question the worlds that we are building. It asks us to choose a future from a range of possibilities and to put in the work to create it. Science fiction was crucial in helping me make sense of the radical transformations of 20th century Hong Kong and the UK, and it led to my engagement with the politics of climate change. This is precisely the work of public deliberation and engagement that is crucial as we move toward and beyond COP26.


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Chris Pak, Lecturer in English Literature, Swansea University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Abdulrazak Gurnah: what you need to know about the Nobel prize-winning author


Alamy/Bloomsbury

Melanie Otto, Trinity College DublinAbdulrazak Gurnah has been awarded the 2021 Nobel prize for literature. The Tanzanian novelist, who is based in the UK, was awarded the prize for his “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents”.

Migration and cultural uprooting along with the cultural and ethnic diversity of east Africa are at the heart of Gurnah’s fiction. They have also shaped his personal life.

Born in Zanzibar in 1948, Gurnah came to Britain in the 1960s as a refugee. Being of Arab origin, he was forced to flee his birthplace during the revolution of 1964 and only returned in 1984 in time to visit his dying father. Until his retirement, he was a full-time professor of English and postcolonial literatures at the University of Kent in Canterbury.

Gurnah has written ten novels to date, including the Booker-nominated Paradise in 1994 and By the Sea in 2001. His most recent novel, Afterlives, was described by the Sunday Times as “an aural archive of a lost Africa”, and indeed the opening pages of this and many of his other works take the reader directly into the realm of oral storytelling.

Afterlives is set against the backdrop of German rule in east Africa in the early 20th century. It tells the story of a young boy sold to German colonial troops. The novel was shortlisted for the 2021 Orwell prize for political fiction and longlisted for the Walter Scott prize for historical fiction.




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Gurnah’s work is attentive to the tension between personal story and collective history. In particular, Afterlives asks readers to consider the afterlife of colonialism and war and its long lasting effects, not only on nations but also, and perhaps mainly so, on individuals and families.

Influence and style

His writing is heavily influenced by the cultural and ethnic diversity of his native Zanzibar. Shaped by its geographical location in the Indian Ocean off the coast of east Africa, it was at the centre of the major Indian Ocean trade routes.

The island attracted traders and colonists from what was then known as Arabia (modern-day Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the UAE), south Asia, the African mainland, and later Europe.

Gurnah’s writing reflects this diversity with its many voices and its range of references to literary sources. Most of all, it insists on hybridity and diversity in the face of Afrocentrism, which dominated the east African independence movements in the 20th century.

His first novel, Memory of Departure, published in 1987, is set around the time Gurnah left Zanzibar. A coming-of-age story in the form of a memoir, it follows the protagonist’s attempts to leave his birthplace and study abroad.

Consequences of colonialism

His novel Paradise is similarly conceived as a coming-of-age narrative, though set earlier in time, at the turn of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, when Europeans were beginning to establish colonies on the East African coast. Paradise also addresses domestic slavery in Africa, with a bonded slave as the main character.

Above all, Paradise highlights the great diversity of Gurnah’s literary repertoire, bringing together references to Swahili texts, Quranic and biblical traditions, as well as the work of Joseph Conrad.

A narrow street in Zanzibar, Tanzania, where Gurnah was born.
Alamy

Gurnah’s work, with its diverse textual references and its attentiveness to archives, reflects and touches on wider concerns in postcolonial literature. His novels consider the deliberate erasure of African narratives and perspectives as one major consequence of European colonialism.

In highlighting conversations between the individual and the record of history, Gurnah’s work has similarities to Salman Rushdie – another postcolonial writer who is equally attentive to the relationship between personal memory and the larger narratives of history. Indeed, alongside his novels, Gurnah is also the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Salman Rushdie, published in 2007.

Gurnah’s books ask: how do we remember a past deliberately eclipsed and erased from the colonial archive? Many postcolonial writers from diverse backgrounds have addressed this issue, from the aforementioned Rushdie to the Jamaican writer Michelle Cliff, both of whom pitch personal memory and story against a collective history authored by those in power.

Gurnah’s work continues this conversation about the long shadow of colonialism and employs a diversity of textual traditions in the process of commemorating erased narratives.The Conversation

Melanie Otto, Assistant Professor in English, Trinity College Dublin

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Foundation: an introduction to five major themes in the work of science fiction writer Isaac Asimov


Mike Ryder, Lancaster UniversityBased on the award-winning novels by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, the new Apple TV series Foundation follows a band of exiles on a mission to rebuild civilisation after the fall of a galactic empire.

Asimov, for the uninitiated, is one of the most important figures in science fiction and is often regarded as one of the “big three” authors, along with Robert A Heinlein and Arthur C Clarke. Together they helped bring about the so-called “golden age” of science fiction in the mid-20th century.

As a writer, Asimov was remarkably prolific over his 50-year career. In that time he wrote 40 novels, 383 short stories and 280 non-fiction books. Once you finish watching Foundation you might want to delve into some of these. With such a vast body of work, it’s hard to capture it all in a single short article. So instead, here are some of the most important themes in his work to look out for when Foundation has given you the itch to discover more of his stories.

Sometimes, the rules don’t work

Asimov is perhaps most famous for his book I, Robot (1950), a collection of short stories that introduce us to Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics”. These are a set of rules designed to protect humans from harm and ensure peaceful coexistence between humans and machines:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Plus the zeroth law: “A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.”

Picture of Asimov.
Issac Asimov was a scientist and one of the greatest science fiction writers of his age.
Everett Collection Historical/Alamy

These laws have become so ubiquitous in science fiction over the years, you may have heard of them without realising where they came from.

However, as the I, Robot stories go to show us, the Three Laws of Robotics don’t actually work. This is because any rule, when applied fully and to the letter, cannot ever work as intended in all cases.

A blurring of genres

One of the things that makes science fiction so compelling for its fans is the way that it can so seamlessly shift between genres, and incorporate many different ideas in a single form. Asimov was one of the first great proponents of this blurring of genres. This can be seen in early works such as The Caves of Steel (1953), which blends science fiction with the detective story.

Book cover of The Caves of Steel.
The caves of steel doubleday cover.
Wikimedia

Many of our most loved science fiction TV series owe a great deal to Asimov and his pioneering work blending genres. It’s thanks to him that we can now enjoy such madcap concepts as wild-west-in-space (Firefly) and the isolating madness of being trapped three million years in the future with only a robot, a hologram and a creature descended from a domestic cat for company (Red Dwarf).

Science is important

It may seem a strange thing to say about a science fiction writer, but Isaac Asimov did place great weight on the importance of science in his work. When he wasn’t writing award-winning short stories and novels, he published widely in the non-fiction scene, including the likes of Isaac Asimov’s Guide to Earth and Space (1991).

Of course, all this work in the realm of science fed into his fiction work too. His books abound with talk of quasars and quarks, and ponderings on the nature of the strong nuclear force. You’re also likely to find thinking about how such developments might impact upon society and what effect new technologies might have on the way we live our lives.

Sustainability, the environment and other problems

Asimov is perhaps underrated for his work in this area, but his 1974 Nebula Prize-winning novel The Gods Themselves gives a fascinating insight into a world of over-consumption, where the solution to the energy “problem” is to simply pump it in from elsewhere using a device known as an Electron Pump.

Unfortunately, the “elsewhere” in this case happens to be another dimension where a race of intelligent beings starts to suffer the consequences of a cooling universe. Meanwhile, it transpires that the device used to pump in the so-called “free” energy is also altering the laws of physics in our world as well – with the inevitable consequence that it will soon cause the sun to explode – and destroy Earth with it.

This is but one example of many in Asimov’s work where he warns against the dangers of hubris, and extrapolates real-world problems – and their perceived solutions – and takes them to their absurd and often terrifying conclusion.

Where next for humanity?

Of course, no discussion of Asimov would be complete without mention of his famous Foundation series, which features some of his most ambitious and important novels.

The series follows mathematician Hari Seldon and his followers as a galaxy-spanning empire goes into decline. Seldon has developed a theory of psychohistory, a mixture of history, sociology, and mathematical statistics, which he uses to make general predictions about the fate of future populations. While the decline of civilisation is impossible to stop, Seldon devises a plan to deflect the onrushing events with incremental changes in the present which have big effects in the future, lessening the impact of the worse parts of his prediction.

What makes Foundation so compelling is just how familiar some of the themes feel even today, some 70 years after the first novel’s publication. Partly, this is due to Asimov’s deep understanding of science and the potential consequences of where certain technologies, and certain ideas, might lead. And, as you’ll discover as you delve into his vast back catalogue, in an age of climate crisis, global pandemics and sinister corporations, his warnings about the future of humanity are as pertinent as ever.The Conversation

Mike Ryder, Teaching Fellow in Marketing, Lancaster University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why the work of Abdulrazak Gurnah, the champion of heartbreak, stands out for me


A copy of “Afterlives” (2021) by Tanzanian-born novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah.
Photo by Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

Fawzia Mustafa, Fordham UniversityAbdulrazak Gurnah, the Tanzanian winner of the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature, has some well-deserved seniority within the ever growing ranks of East African writers. He published his first novel, Memories of Departure, in 1987, and nine more since then. Among those, Paradise (1994), was short-listed for both the Booker Prize and the Whitbread Award. Yet another, By the Sea (2001), was long-listed for the Booker Prize and short-listed for the LA Times Book award.

Born in Zanzibar in 1948, Gurnah is also an accomplished scholar of African literature. Until his retirement recently, he was a professor at the University of Canterbury, in the UK. One crucial aspect of his biography remains his forced migration from Zanzibar to the UK in 1968, amid the turmoil following the 1964 revolution on the island. The trauma of that experience has fed much of his literary imagination and provided a wellspring for his novels of displacement and loss.

The East African region is rich with writers going back to the first post-independence generation. A random sampling of the first Anglophone generation from the three East African nations includes Uganda’s Okot p’Bitek, who translated his own work into English. Grace Ogot and Ngugi wa Thiongo from Kenya and Peter Palangyo and Gabriel Ruhambika of Tanzania also make the list.

More recently, a new generation of writers has obviously emerged. Again, a random sampling include millennials such as the late Binyavanga Wainaina (Kenya), Moses Isegawa (Uganda), and the Ethiopian Dinaw Mengetsu in his Uganda-based novel, All Our Names (2014). Add to these Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Kenya) who, in The Dragonfly Sea (2019), has recently used the Indian Ocean region and the East African littoral setting revisted by Gurnah in many of his novels.

The generational and political transition necessarily reflects the different historical worlds within the region that are represented by East African writers. One writer who started out before Gurnah, for example, is Ngugi wa Thiongo, himself a perennial candidate for the Nobel.

In addition to Ngugi wa Thiongo, the Somali writer Nuruddin Farah has also been tipped frequently for the Nobel Prize. One may be justified to ask, why Gurnah over Ngugi or Farah? The Nobel Committee has often defied local knowledge, in the sense of choosing internationally recognised candidates rather than those more locally celebrated at home.

At the same time, writing “contests” don’t always measure literary talent helpfully. Recognition brings prestige, a larger readership, and more sales, but this impulsion remains part of the infrastructure of a non-local book industry that’s one of the pillars of old and new capitalisms, old and new colonialisms. Even in our digital age, who can afford books, or access, among the larger population? In many cases, only the elites.

Why Gurnah’s work is powerful

Nevertheless, I was very pleased to learn that Gurnah won this year. What stands out for me is Gurnah’s constant exploration of heartbreak. Certainly, he breaks mine. His novels delve deeply into family separation, endless betrayals of core familial relations, and the inexorable pull of the lost past. Each novel exposes another nuance, another hidden aspect, another self-inflicted betrayal.

The Last Gift (2011) harbours an extraordinary secret that is only disclosed at death. Desertion (2005) uses the trope of romance, over three generations, to show the inadequacy of love in the face of social change, be it political or cultural. Paradise (1994) possibly the best known of Gurnah’s novels, is also the first to evoke deep historical and cultural research. It brings home the multiple overlays of both Omani and European colonial power, control and oppression.

The other political landscapes of gender, sexuality, race and class are perhaps more finely tuned, and certainly more robust, in Gurnah’s work than, say, Ngugi and Farah. And this may also account for his good fortune, and within the world of world literature, this well-deserved prize.

For the last three-plus decades, along with M.G. Vassanji, Gurnah has been the Anglophone novelist mining the Tanzanian and Zanzibari – and by extension the Indian Ocean World literary landscape. This setting has underwritten Gurnah’s themes of (forced) migrations to the West, that which the Nobel Committee singled out in their announcement of Gurnah’s award.

At the same time, Gurnah is the one novelist who has always been able to also mine the local Kiswahili (including 19th-century coastal Arabic and Islamic) literary and historical traditions. These, along with colonial archives, both German and British, are incredibly rich but globally overlooked literary confluences.




Read more:
Nobel Prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah: an introduction to the man and his writing


Interestingly, Gurnah’s more recent work – such as Afterlives (2021) – has sometimes embraced a more overtly historical dimension of the region. Set at the height of German conquest, until their defeat in the first world war, the novel follows three figures, each of whom resemble in one way or another the protagonist of Paradise. The panoramic historical sweep of the first half of the novel is an authoritative account of the complexities of German colonial power up against extraordinary local resistance. At the same time, it makes visible the alternative choices that German colonialism provided to those already disenfranchised within older colonial systems and local oppressive regimes such as those of gender.

So, while his earlier work obsessively revisits migration and loss, it is almost always buffered or intersected with pretence, outright falsehoods and strategic deceit among his cast of protagonists. These are among the survival strategies born of migration, displacement and alienation.

Gurnah’s use of a form of dramatic irony has been extraordinary. This applies both at the level of familial conflict and separation and at the level of large-scale, brutal colonial social transformations, foreign and home-grown. In other words, the same kinds of circumstances that characterise the Zanzibar of Gurnah’s youth.The Conversation

Fawzia Mustafa, Emerita Professor of English, Comparative Literature, African American and African Studies and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Fordham University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Nobel winner Abdulrazak Gurnah’s fiction traces small lives with wit and tenderness


Abdulrazak Gurnah captivatingly draws readers into the experiences and vivid lifeworlds of his characters
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Tina Steiner, Stellenbosch UniversityFor those of us who have read and reread, taught, and written about the fiction of Abdulrazak Gurnah, the Nobel Prize in Literature committee has confirmed what we knew all along. His superb writing deserves much wider recognition and readership.

Gurnah was born in Zanzibar, the archipelago off the Tanzanian coast, in 1948. Then still a British Protectorate, Zanzibar gained independence in December 1963, only to be thrown into the turmoil and violence of the Zanzibar Revolution of January 1964. These are historical events to which he returns in his fiction repeatedly.

He left for the UK in 1967 and has lived there ever since, except for a short teaching stint at Bayero University Kano in Nigeria in the 1980s. He taught in the English department at the University of Kent in Canterbury until his recent retirement.

Even though he has lived most of life in England, all his novels – except for Dottie (1990), which is set entirely in the UK – are set either fully or partially on the Eastern African Swahili Coast or in Zanzibar. To date he has published ten immensely readable novels and many short stories. These are written in clean and uncluttered prose. It makes him a master storyteller, captivatingly drawing the reader into the experiences and vivid lifeworlds of the characters depicted.

Connecting people and geographies

The work of the imagination to follow the storyteller’s attention creates connections that in their intangibility might seem elusive. And yet any reader will know these to be powerful and potentially transformative. As Ben Okri, a Nigerian writer, reminds us, such threads, which interweave stories and life, are deeply significant. This is because stories “can infect a system, or illuminate a world”. The ambiguity in Okri’s description of the effect of stories captures the way in which stories potentially open up the world and contest narratives that circumscribe and preclude mutuality. It also talks to the danger of stories when they participate in and serve as justification for structures of domination, exclusion and violence.

Gurnah, the storyteller, probes the efficacy of stories to connect people and geographies. Yet at the same time he is acutely attentive to the divisive nature of stories of certainty: of colonial domination, of patriarchal scripts, of racism, of xenophobia towards strangers from elsewhere. His work points to the way in which such certainties furnish people with a belief in the rightness of the violence they wreak on others, in the destruction of other people’s lives which they deem to matter less than their own.

Instead, Gurnah’s work asks the reader to consider stories as provisional accounts that cannot claim closure or complete knowledge. Ambiguity, multiple viewpoints of the same events, complex focalisation, self-reflexive irony and narrative wit are some of the features of his writing. They make his writing so incredibly compelling. It elides narrative certainty. The narrative mode is often oblique. Perhaps we can imagine it like this, or perhaps it happened otherwise. This mode is particularly apt to illuminate the itinerant lives of people who find themselves on the move and who do not seem to belong anywhere.

Migration and other forms of displacement, as Gurnah’s stories suggest, are common occurrences in Africa and across the globe. Therefore, it is important to see others in relation to ourselves, to perceive their right of abode even if they cannot claim national belonging. However, it is precisely the humanity of the stranger that is at stake once the status of citizenship is in question. Hospitality is revealed as conditional in the current hostile immigration climate. The asylum seeker, the refugee and the migrant are hardly afforded the dignity which the recognition of a common humanity would demand.

It is this refusal to recognise the humanity of the other and its terrible consequences that Gurnah’s stories explore in detail. He crafts carefully delineated juxtapositions between hostile, implacable environments in which his characters find themselves with little room to manoeuvre, and pockets of hospitality that gesture towards alternative social imaginaries where kindness and joie de vivre become possible.

In contrast to an essentialist view of a citizen as someone who is described in terms of appearance or ancestry, Gurnah sets the complexity of centuries of intermingling along the East African shores of the Indian Ocean. In this way his stories question ideas of purity and difference. They emphasise the cultural and linguistic heterogeneity of East African coastal regions and their place within the continent, the Indian Ocean world, and the globe in order to stress a common humanity.

Empathetic storytelling

Across his oeuvre, which traverses settings in Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam, Bagamoyo, Mombasa, Lake Tanganyika, Nairobi, Muscat, Bahrain and several locales in England, Gurnah traces a long history of transnational and transoceanic movements. His work references the Eastern African slave trade and indenture, German and British colonial oppression and less legible but equally destructive forms of social exclusion to do with economic precarity and migration. While his characters are often caught in violent and unequal plots not of their own making and beyond their control – since Gurnah’s stories tend to focus on people whose lives are deemed insignificant and small – his empathetic storytelling subtly points to the importance of social connections, however unexpected, that offer reassurance and warmth.

In this way, his novels also cautiously celebrate the polyglot cosmopolitanisms and generous forms of accommodation that emerged on the Swahili coast within broader structures of ambivalent encounter in the monsoon trade and imperial conquest. In a passage in By the Sea, Gurnah’s sixth novel, published in 2001, seven-year-old Saleh Omar, one of the protagonists and narrators, describes his first encounter with a map of an Africa embedded in the wider world of the Indian Ocean:

As [the teacher’s] story developed, he began to draw a map on the blackboard with a piece of white chalk: the coast of North Africa which then bulged out and tucked in and then slid down to the Cape of Good Hope. As he drew, he spoke, naming places, sometimes in full sometimes in passing. Sinuously north to the jut of the Ruvuma delta, the cusp of our stretch of coast, the Horn of Africa, then the Red Sea coast to Suez, the Arabian peninsula, the Persian Gulf, India, the Malay peninsula and then all the way to China. He stopped there and smiled.

This moment of the unbroken chalk line is pivotal, not just in relation to this particular novel, but perhaps to Gurnah’s oeuvre as a whole. It makes visible the ocean on which so many of his stories float. And I suspect that this teacher’s smile is also the soryteller’s. It is the subtle humour which suffuses his writing that give his stories a lightness of touch, despite the harrowing aspects of the narratives. It contributes enormously to the pleasure of reading.

There is the acerbic sarcasm which exposes racial aggression and renders it absurd. And there is the self-deprecating humour of the migrant in the face of an immovable and indifferent environment, which staves off self-pity and sets in motion processes of disalienation. The dry wit of the narratives allows Gurnah to forge a bond with readers, who come to appreciate it as a mode of interaction that can liquefy ossified social categories by opening up spaces of irony and ambiguity and remind us of the fragility of the human condition we all share.The Conversation

Tina Steiner, Associate Professor in the English Department, Stellenbosch University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

French football legend Lilian Thuram tackles the scourge of white thinking in new book


French Lilian Thuram slips away from Italian player Stefano Fiore during the France vs Italy Final of the Euro 2000 soccer championhips in Rotterdam.
EFE-EPA/Michele Limina

David Murphy, University of Strathclyde “People aren’t born white, they become white.” This realisation dawned on the former French footballer, World Cup winner and anti-racism activist Lilian Thuram while he was engaged in talks with the white French organisers of a proposed exhibition on racism. As he recounts in the introduction to his new book, White Thinking, Thuram told those around the table that, instead of focusing on the victims of racism, the exhibition

should instead focus on those who profit from this discrimination, often unconsciously and unintentionally.

He was referring, of course, to white people. However, the idea that an exhibition on racism should focus on the problematic nature of whiteness was almost incomprehensible to them.

It was this failed dialogue around the nature of racism that prompted Thuram to write White Thinking, of which I am one of the English translators, alongside Aedín Ní Loingsigh and Cristina Johnston.

Thuram’s first book, My Black Stars: From Lucy to Barack Obama, published in 2010, sought to challenge the white version of history and culture that he had learned in school in France by telling some of the black stories denied him in his childhood.

Now, in White Thinking, he has come to the realisation that this white story and the white thinking that underpins it need to be overturned.

The book was first published in France in late 2020. It provoked both acclaim and heavy criticism. Elements of the right-wing press in particular lambasted the book for its “frequently racialising discourse”. Many journalists and politicians on the right politically, as well as conservative Republicans, viewed the book as “anti-white racism”.

This was a charge that had been levelled at Thuram in late 2019 when he gave an interview in Italy about the racism present in football stadiums, which he argued was representative of a wider racism in Italian and European society more generally.

There was, however, significant praise from liberal and left-wing publications, such as Libération and Télérama, which recognised that the book delivered often unwelcome but necessary truths about ongoing racial inequality.

Thuram’s book is hugely ambitious, an attempt to trace and examine the origins of white supremacy, understood in its widest sense. This is not simply a study of vile racists but of an insidious, unthinking form of racial hierarchy, whose origins can be traced back to slavery and colonisation, and which still shapes our understanding of the world today.

Indeed, white thinking, Thuram argues, is not limited to white people. He cites two examples from his frequent visits to Africa. In Ouagadougou, a man he encounters in the street tells him that

White people come second only to God.

When he tells this story to the mayor of Ouagadougou, he’s told:

It’s not surprising. We have a saying here: “God is great but the White man is not small”.

This, Thuram argues, tells us all we need to know about the pervasiveness of white thinking.

Challenging French universalist ideology

Thuram was born on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe in 1972 and moved to the outskirts of Paris at the age of 9. An elegant full-back and centre-half, with Monaco, Parma, Juventus and Barcelona, he won a record number of caps for the French national team, won the World Cup in 1998 (scoring the winning goals in the semi-final) and the European Championship in 2000.

Thuram began his transformation from athlete to activist while he was still a competitive sportsman. In the mid-2000s, he spoke out against politicians such as Nicolas Sarkozy, the tough-talking minister for the interior, and later president. Sarkozy had demonised youngsters living in the poor, marginalised and multi-racial high-rise estates in the suburbs, many of whom were children of immigrants from north and sub-Saharan Africa. In 2005, he infamously stated that he would clear out the “louts” from the suburbs, which should be washed out with a power hose (Karcher).

Thuram had grown up in just such an estate. So had many of his fellow players in the French squad.

In 2008, when he retired from playing, he created a foundation to provide a platform for his fight against racism. The Lilian Thuram Foundation for Education against Racism is particularly concerned with anti-racism outreach work, often targeted at schoolchildren.

For many, Thuram will still be best known as a member of the multiracial French team that won the World Cup in 1998, and were famously celebrated as representing “la France black, blanc, beur” (black, white, Arab) in a play on the red, white and blue of the French tricolour flag.

Thuram believed the team did indeed constitute a celebration of the nation’s diversity. But he was perturbed by an emerging media and political discourse that sought to celebrate the team as embodying the success of French “integration” policies.

French universalist ideology typically imagines a nation made up of equal citizens and, within that framework, France has long given refuge to outsiders on condition that they are willing to be integrated into the dominant, secular Republican culture.

Or, to put it in the starker terms of a popular saying: immigrants and refugees can become French, as long as they leave the baggage of their foreign identity at the door.

Conclusion

The three translators of White Thinking were faced with the challenge of rendering in English slippery concepts such as “integration” for a British audience more accustomed to multicultural, hyphenated notions of identity. For example, how do you find a pithy way of explaining for the general public the French Republican antipathy towards communautarisme? It’s a term often used to describe as a threat to French universal Republican values any attempt to assert a particular, communal, minority identity or experience.

The translation experience brought to mind the work undertaken by Johnny Pitts in his pioneering study, Afropeans. Pitts seeks to explore both the particular nature of the black experience in various European countries and the commonalities that are all too plain to see when you take the time to look closely.

So, yes, we need to understand the specific nature of French Republican debates about race and citizenship. But, fundamentally, is there a major difference between the French discussion of integration or communitarianism and British debates about the “good” immigrant who respects “British values” and the “bad” immigrant who doesn’t?

Having worked with the Thuram Foundation on various projects over the past two years, I have been struck by how much Thuram’s words and ideas find echoes in the increasingly confident public proclamations on race (and other social matters) by young black British footballers such as Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Tyrone Mings.

However, there remains a reciprocal lack of awareness of the black experience across national boundaries within Europe. And it is still far more common to look instinctively to the African American context for models of how to resist and bring about change.

In that context, the publication of White Thinking is perhaps another small step towards building that Afropean sense of identity envisaged by Johnny Pitts.The Conversation

David Murphy, Professor of French and Postcolonial Studies, University of Strathclyde

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Climate change novels allow us to imagine possible futures – read these crucial seven


Hitoshi Suzuki/Unsplash, FAL

Adeline Johns-Putra, University of SurreyEvery day brings fresh and ever more alarming news about the state of the global environment. To speak of mere “climate change” is inadequate now, for we are in a “climate emergency”. It seems as though we are tripping over more tipping points than we knew existed.

But our awareness is at last catching up with the planet’s climate catastrophes. Climate anxiety, climate trauma, and climate strikes are now all part of many people’s mental landscape and daily lives. This is almost four decades after scientists first began to warn of accelerated global warming from carbon dioxide increases in the atmosphere.

And so, unsurprisingly, climate fiction, climate change fiction, “cli-fi” – whatever you want to call it – has emerged as a literary trend that’s gained astonishing traction over the past ten years.

Just a decade ago, when I first began reading and researching literary representations of climate change, there was a curious dearth of fiction on the subject. In 2005, the environmental writer Robert Macfarlane had asked plaintively: “Where is the literature of climate change?”. When I went to work in 2009 on one of the first research projects to attempt to answer this question, I found that some climate change novels were only beginning to emerge. Ten years later, the ubiquity of cli-fi means that the question of how many cli-fi novels there are seems irrelevant. Equally irrelevant is any doubt about the urgency of the climate emergency.

But the question of how to deal with such a complex challenge is paramount. The climate emergency demands us to think about our responsibilities on a global scale rather than as individuals, to think about our effects not just on fellow humans but on all the species that call this planet home, and to think about changing the resource-focused, profit-seeking behaviours that have been part of human activity for centuries.

Novels allow us to imagine possible futures from the comfort of the present.
Maria Cassagne/Unsplash, FAL

This is where literature comes in. It affords us the headspace in which to think through these difficult and pressing questions.

Cli-fi has a central role in allowing us to do the psychological work necessary to deal with climate change. I am often asked to identify the climate novel that is the most powerful and effective and, just as often, I reply that no one novel can do this. The phenomenon of cli-fi as a whole offers us different ways and a multitude of spaces in which to consider climate change and how we address it.

Here, then, is my list of a range of novels that offer just such a diverse set of perspectives. These books provide readers with a range of thought (and feeling) experiments, from dystopian despair to glimmers of hope, from an awareness of climate change impacts on generations to come to vivid reminders of how we are destroying the many other species that share our planet.

1. The Sea and Summer, 1987

Australian novelist George Turner’s book is one of the earliest examples of cli-fi and is prescient in more ways than one. Set in Melbourne in the 2030s, skyscrapers are drowning due to sea-level rise: a setting for a stark division between the rich and the poor. Like many cli-fi novels, this novel’s dystopian future provides a sophisticated thought experiment on the effects of climate change on our already divided society. Turner’s book deserves to be reread — and reissued — as classic and still relevant cli-fi.


HarperVoyager

2. Memory of Water, 2012

Water has become a precious commodity in this cli-fi dystopia by Finnish author Emmi Itäranta. In Nordic Europe in the distant future, a young girl must decide whether to share her family’s precious water supply with her friends and fellow villagers and risk being accused of “water crime”, punishable by death. This tender coming-of-age narrative is thus also a meditation on the value of resources taken entirely for granted by the contemporary, westernised reader.

3. The Wall, 2019

At first glance, John Lanchester’s novel could be a comment on the rise of anti-refugee sentiment in Britain. In a not-so-distant future, every inch of British shoreline is guarded by an immense wall, a bulwark against illegal migrants as well as rising sea levels. But through the experiences of a young border guard, the novel shows us how this national obsession with borders not only distracts from the climate emergency at hand; it diminishes our responsibility to fellow humans around the world, whose lives are threatened by climate change and for whom migration is a desperate solution.


Titan Books (UK)

4. Clade, 2015

Australian author James Bradley’s novel chronicles several generations of one family in an increasingly devastated world. The day-to-day detail of their lives, as relationships hold together or break apart, unfolds against the backdrop of environmental and thus societal breakdown. The novel contrasts the mundane miscommunications that characterise human relations with the big issue of global warming that could rob future generations of the opportunity to lead meaningful lives.

5. The Stone Gods, 2007

Jeanette Winterson’s stab at cli-fi offers, like Bradley’s novel, a long view. The novel ranges over three vastly different timeframes: a dystopian, future civilisation that is fast ruining its planet and must seek another; 18th-century Easter Island on the verge of destroying its last tree; and a near-future Earth facing global environmental devastation. As readers time travel between these stories, we find, again and again, the damage wrought by human hubris. Yet, the novel reminds us, too, of the power of love. In the novel, love signifies an openness to other humans and other species, to new ideas, and to better ways of living on this planet.


Constable

6. The Swan Book, 2013

This novel by indigenous Australian author Alexis Wright is unconventional, fable-like cli-fi. Its protagonist is a young indigenous girl whose life is devastated by climate change but most of all by the Australian government’s mistreatment of its indigenous populations. Weaving indigenous belief with biting satire, Wright’s novel is a celebration of her people’s knowledge of how to live with nature, rather than in exploitation of it.

7. Flight Behaviour, 2012

Unlike the other novels on this list, this one, by Barbara Kingsolver, is a realist novel set entirely in the present day. A young woman from Tennessee stumbles upon thousands of monarch butterflies roosting on her in-laws’ land, the insects having been thrown off course by extreme weather events brought about by climate change.

From the scientists who come to study the problem, she learns of the delicate balance that is needed to keep the butterflies on course. Kingsolver’s rich descriptions of an impoverished Appalachian community are combined with her biologist’s training, so that reader empathy is eventually shifted from the likeable heroine to the natural wonder that is the butterflies. We are reminded of how climate change risks not simply human comfort but the planet’s ecological complexity.The Conversation

Adeline Johns-Putra, Reader in English Literature, University of Surrey

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Nobel Prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah: an introduction to the man and his writing


Abdulrazak Gurnah during the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2017.
Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images

Lizzy Attree, Richmond American International UniversityThe Nobel Prize in Literature, considered the pinnacle of achievement for creative writers, has been awarded 114 times to 118 Nobel Prize laureates between 1901 and 2021. This year it went to novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah, who was born in Zanzibar, the first Tanzanian writer to win. The last black African writer to win the prize was Wole Soyinka in 1986. Gurnah is the first black writer to win since Toni Morrison in 1993. Charl Blignaut asked Lizzy Attree to describe the winner and share her views on his literary career.

Who is Gurnah and what is his place in East African literature?

Abdulrazak Gurnah is a Tanzanian writer who writes in English and lives and works in the UK. He was born in Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous island off the east African coast, and studied at Christchurch College Canterbury in 1968.

Zanzibar underwent a revolution in 1964 in which citizens of Arab origin were persecuted. Gurnah was forced to flee the country when he was 18. He began to write in English as a 21-year-old refugee in England, although Kiswahili is his first language. His first novel, Memory of Departure, was published in 1987.

He has written numerous works that pose questions around ideas of belonging, colonialism, displacement, memory and migration. His novel Paradise, set in colonial east Africa during the first world war, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994.

Comparable to Moyez G. Vassanji, a Canadian author raised in Tanzania, whose attention focuses on the east African Indian community and their interaction with the “others”, Gurnah’s novel Paradise deploys multi-ethnicity and multiculturalism on the shores of the Indian Ocean from the perspective of the Swahili elite.

A distinguished academic and critic, he recently sat on the board of the Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African literature and has served as a contributing editor for the literary magazine Wasafiri for many years.

He is currently Professor Emeritus of English and Postcolonial Literatures at the University of Kent, having retired in 2017.

Why is Gurnah’s work being celebrated – what is powerful about it?

He was awarded the Nobel

for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fates of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.

He is one of the most important contemporary postcolonial novelists writing in Britain today and is the first black African writer to win the prize since Wole Soyinka in 1986. Gurnah is also the first Tanzanian writer to win.

Copies of Afterlives by Tanzanian-born novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah.
Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images

His most recent novel, Afterlives, is about Ilyas, who was taken from his parents by German colonial troops as a boy and returns to his village after years of fighting against his own people. The power in Gurnah’s writing lies in this ability to complicate the Manichean divisions of enemies and friends, and excavate hidden histories, revealing the shifting nature of identity and experience.

What Gurnah work stands out for you and why?

The novel Paradise stands out for me because in it Gurnah re-maps Polish-British writer Joseph Conrad’s 19th century journey to the “heart of darkness” from an east African position going westwards. As South African scholar Johan Jacobs has said, he

reconfigures the darkness at its heart … In his fictional transaction with Heart of Darkness, Gurnah shows in Paradise that the corruption of trade into subjection and enslavement pre-dates European colonisation, and that in East Africa servitude and slavery have always been woven into the social fabric.

The tale is narrated so gently by 12-year-old Yusuf, lovingly describing gardens and assorted notions of paradise and their corruption as he is pawned between masters and travels to different parts of the interior from the coast. Yusuf concludes that the brutality of German colonialism is still preferable to the ruthless exploitation by the Arabs.

Like Achebe in Things Fall Apart (1958), Gurnah illustrates east African society on the verge of huge change, showing that colonialism accelerated this process but did not initiate it.

Is the Nobel literature prize still relevant?

It’s still relevant because it is still the biggest single prize purse for literature around. But the method of selecting a winner is fairly secretive and depends on nominations from within the academy, meaning doctors and professors of literature and former laureates. This means that although the potential nominees are often discussed in advance by pundits, no-one actually knows who is in the running until the prize winner is announced. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, for example, is a Kenyan writer whom many believe should have won by now, along with a number of others like Ivan Vladislavic from South Africa.

Winning puts a global spotlight on a writer who has often not been given full recognition by other prizes, or whose work has been neglected in translation, thus breathing new life into works that many have not read before and deserve to be read more widely.The Conversation

Lizzy Attree, Adjunct Professor, Richmond American International University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘Goodreads’ readers #ReadWomen, and so should university English departments


The social network website Goodreads provides insight into what some women are reading.
(Flip Mishevski/Unsplash)

Karen Bourrier, University of CalgaryEven in the 21st century, women writers are often consigned to what American novelist Meg Wolitzer has called “the second shelf.” Women’s novels are designed and marketed with a female audience in mind and publishers still presume that novels about women won’t appeal to male readers. Unfortunately, even in 2021 there may be some truth to this presumption.

This sexism can be seen in the continued speculation that female-identifying novelist Elena Ferrante is actually a man.
Vanity Fair contributing editor and book columnist Elissa Schappell summarized the assumptions behind the speculation: the novelist’s prolific output of “serious” books that interweave history, politics, violence, sex and domestic life, while “unflinchingly showing women in an unflattering light.”

Books by female-identifying authors are also less likely to be reviewed in prestigious literary magazines. In 2019, more than 60 per cent of reviews in magazines including London Review of Books, The Atlantic, and Harper’s, were of books written by men. This is actually an improvement since 2010, when between 69 per cent and 80 per cent of reviews in these magazines were of male-authored books.

The popular #readwomen hashtag on Twitter has been one response to the marginalization of women authors or sexism about their work. The social network website Goodreads can also provide insight into what women are reading.

Reading women

My collaborative research with data science professor Mike Thelwall has explored the reading habits of a cohort of mostly female readers (76 per cent) on the popular social network site Goodreads. As a group, Goodreads users also skew younger, whiter and more educated than the general population.

We examined what books readers read on Goodreads compared to what university professors assign in the classroom, using data from the Open Syllabus Project.

In past decades, researchers relied on handwritten diaries, letters and surveys of readers to find out how everyday readers responded to the books they read. Goodreads, which collects book reviews and ratings from 90 million members, offers one portal into reading habits.

On average, women Goodreads users read twice as much as male Goodreads users, and are more willing to read books by both male and female authors.

We scraped data from Goodreads and found that most Goodreads book club members were likely to have read books in common by women authors.

These women authors fell into two categories: young adult authors (J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, Stephanie Meyer and Veronica Roth) and 19th- or early 20th-century authors (Jane Austen and Harper Lee). The popularity of young adult series by women, including the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series, means that 13 of the 19 most popular titles are by women.

Cover of three books from the Hunger Games series
A study found that that most Goodreads book club members were likely to have read books in common by women authors.
(Shutterstock)

Compared to what professors teach

In a second study, we compared what books Goodreads users read to what university professors assign in the classroom, using data from the Open Syllabus Project. The Open Syllabus Project originated at Columbia University. It amasses syllabi, or college reading lists, from openly accessible university websites. Open Syllabus currently has a corpus of over nine million syllabi from 140 countries.

Our study focused on Victorian literature, literature published during Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901), which is both commonly taught at the university level and still read by general readers.

For the most part, we found that Goodreads users read books — including classic works by Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde — about as often as university professors taught them.

However, we also found that the books that Goodreads users read more often than they were assigned in university tended to be by women writers, to feature strong female protagonists and to be aimed at a young adult audience — or all three.

Taking women writers seriously

This research is important because it suggests that professors who want to connect to students should take women writers more seriously.

Women writers show up less often than male writers on university syllabi. A survey conducted at McGill University in 2018 showed that 73 per cent of writers assigned on the university’s English literature syllabi are men.

Unfortunately, this is no surprise: English Prof. John Guillory’s work on canon formation captures the state of college English classes 30 years ago (and sometimes even more recently) when it was not uncommon for English professors to teach only white men.

Works by women writers are formative for many readers. For example, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre are often among the first “adult” novels that young English-language readers read. Their combination of romance and strong female protagonists continues to appeal to 21st-century readers outside the classroom.

Our study also showed that Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland — three works of young adult fiction featuring girls — were also read more on Goodreads than we would predict given how often they were assigned on syllabi.




Read more:
Jane Eyre translated: 57 languages show how different cultures interpret Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel


It is more than time that publishers, book reviewers and university professors give women writers the respect they deserve. In an era of declining English majors when most English majors are women, English departments can at least start by assigning more women writers.The Conversation

Karen Bourrier, Associate Professor of English, University of Calgary

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.