Portrait of Professor Abdulrazak Gurnah

Professor Abdulrazak Gurnah

Professor of English and Postcolonial Literatures


Abdulrazak Gurnah was born in Zanzibar and is now best-known as a novelist. His fourth novel Paradise was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1994. His latest novel is The Last Gift (2011). His main academic interest is in postcolonial writing and in discourses associated with colonialism, especially as they relate to Africa, the Caribbean and India. He has edited two volumes of Essays on African Writing, has published articles on a number of contemporary postcolonial writers, including Naipaul, Rushdie and Zoe Wicomb. He is the editor of A Companion to Salman Rushdie (Cambridge University Press 2007).



  • Gurnah, A. (2011). The Urge to Nowhere: Wicomb and Cosmopolitanism. Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies [Online] 12:261-275. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17533171.2011.586828.
    This essay tackles an important subject – cosmopolitanism – and relates this to travel and provincialism in Wicomb's fiction, drawing on Fanon, Bhabha and Gilroy, and discussing three of Wicomb's major works. It draws a link between place and memory, and how in Wicomb's work the latter is obscured by shame. It detects a productive tension in Wicomb's writing between the value of travel and the value of rootedness in one place, and proposes its resolution in the privileging of ambivalent moments of experience.
  • Gurnah, A. (2011). Mid Morning Moon. Wasafiri [Magazine] 26:25-29. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02690055.2011.557532.
    I first heard about the map from one of my teachers. It was not the kind of information he was supposed to be giving us, but I think he was bored with what he had to do and sometimes drifted away to unexpected topics. He was not our proper teacher, although he was a teacher in a primary school in the town and had a reputation for being learned. His name was Maalim Hassan Abdalla. He had recently moved next door to us and lived in the downstairs rooms he rented from our neighbours, Uncle Abdulrahman and Bi Fatma. We called them uncle and aunt out of respect. They had no children and had the two upper storeys of the house, so did not need the ground floor. Uncle Abdulrahman was a teacher too, but a much grander one. He taught at the secondary school, where all the teaching was done in English, and had studied at Makerere University College, Kampala. At the time, almost all teachers in the secondary school were Europeans, and it gave Uncle Abdulrahman a kind of glamour that he had rubbed shoulders with these legendary ones. He and Maalim Hassan must have known each other from before, or perhaps had even studied together when they were younger.


  • Gurnah, A. (2012). The Last Gift: A Novel. London / New Delhi / New York / Sydney: Bloomsbury.
    One day, long before the troubles, he slipped away without saying a word to anyone and never went back. And then another day, forty three years later, he collapsed just inside the front door of his house in a small English town. It was late in the day when it happened, on his way home after work, but it was also late in the day altogether. He had left things for too long and there was no one to blame for it but himself. Abbas has never told anyone about his past - before he was a sailor on the high seas, before he met his wife Maryam outside a Boots in Exeter, before they settled into a quiet life in Norwich with their children, Jamal and Hanna. Now, at the age of sixty-three, he suffers a collapse that renders him bedbound and unable to speak about things he thought he would one day have to. Jamal and Hanna have grown up and gone out into the world. They were both born in England but cannot shake a sense of apartness. Hanna calls herself Anna now, and has just moved to a new city to be near her boyfriend. She feels the relationship is headed somewhere serious, but the words have not yet been spoken out loud. Jamal, the listener of the family, moves into a student house and is captivated by a young woman with dark-blue eyes and her own, complex story to tell. Abbas's illness forces both children home, to the dark silences of their father and the fretful capability of their mother Maryam, who began life as a foundling and has never thought to find herself, until now.

Book section

  • Gurnah, A. (2012). The Photograph of the Prince. In: Morris, M. and Robson, D. eds. Road Stories. Faber and Faber.
    In ROAD STORIES nine authors turn their attention to Exhibition Road, drawing inspiration from its famous institutions, collections, colleges and parks, as well as the lives of its residents. These specially commissioned pieces celebrate the diversity and richness of Exhibition Road in prose that is by turns lyrical and comical, contemplative and provocative. The result is a truly memorable and surprising collection by some of our most exciting and acclaimed writers: Ali Smith, Deborah Levy, Kamila Shamsie, Russell Hoban, Clare Wigfall, Eleanor Thom, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Hanan Al-Shaykh and Iain Sinclair
  • Rooney, C. (1995). ’Inheritance and Independence in Chenjerai Hove’s Bones and Tsitsi Dangaremga’s Nervous Conditions’. In: Gurnah, A. S. ed. Essays on African Writing, Volume II. Oxford: Heinemann, pp. 119-143.


  • Gurnah, A. (1998). Guyana’s Local Hero. Times Literary Supplement [Online]:30-30. Available at: https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/private/guyanas-local-hero/.
  • Gurnah, A. (1997). The Very Lucky Few Sprague, S. S. ed. Times Literary Supplement [Online]:14-14. Available at: https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/private/the-very-lucky-few/.
  • Gurnah, A. (1997). Shadrach Minkins, from fugitive slave to citizen - Collison,G. Times Literary Supplement:14-14.
  • Gurnah, A. (1996). Swollen City. Times Literary Supplement [Online]:22-22. Available at: https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/private/swollen-city/.
  • Gurnah, A. (1995). Killing Fields. Times Literary Supplement [Online]:22-22. Available at: https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/private/killing-fields/.
  • Gurnah, A. (1994). Isolated in Isiolo. Times Literary Supplement:26-26.
  • Gurnah, A. (1993). A Confluence of Spaces Harris, W. ed. Times Literary Supplement:22-22.
  • Gurnah, A. (1993). The ’Carnival Trilogy’ - Harris, W Harris, W. ed. Times Literary Supplement:22-22.
  • Gurnah, A. (1993). Prospero’s Nightmare Brink, A. ed. Times Literary Supplement:21-21.


  • Almaeen, M. (2018). Spirituality and Islamic Feminism: A Critical Analysis of Religious Agency in Selected Literary and Cinematic Works.
    Islamic ideological evolution has been hugely affected by the cultural and political attributions of both colonisation and neo-colonisation. This is particularly evident in the polarising controversy over religious women's agency, which continues to engage many Islamic feminists. This research critically examines the religious agency of Muslim women as a product of the postcolonial ideological, historical and political factors that have shaped contemporary religious discourse, with a particular focus on Sufi informed religious agency. Sufism offers ideological and aesthetic tools that can empower agency in Islamic feminist writing, such as the spiritual ecology that is derived from Ibn 'Arabi's wa?dat al-wuj?d. Sufi literature is often critically analysed within the framework of Magical Realism, and this literary critical approach determines the reading of the mystical elements. These elements are therefore perceived as myths. This thesis avoids this critical mistake by asserting that these mystical aspects are faith-based articulations of resistance to the ideological normativity, of postcolonial ideologies.
    This research examines a number of Sufi-based feminist novels: Leila Aboulela's Minaret (2005), "Days Rotate" (2001) and The Kindness of Enemies (2015); Raja Alem's My Thousand and One Nights (2007) and Fatma (2002); as well as the film Bab'Aziz (2005) by Nacer Khemir. The study of feminist views and the representation of women's agency affiliated with Sufism permits a further understanding of the literary and cinematic resistance to the normativity within which Sufi literature has been read. This study reveals that the novelists' and cinematic director's perspectives on spiritual women's agency, as articulated in the works under scrutiny, accommodate variable views of religious knowledge. This not only encourages different levels of engagement in the textual traditions as a source of agency but also instigates considerable engagement with the political issues that are integral to Sufism and women's agency. Overall, this research problematises both the normative consideration of Sufism and feminist engagement in the religious agency of Muslim women.
  • Anders, J. (2017). The Spirit of the Jest: Humour, Incongruity and Kipling’s Engagement With Modernity.
    This thesis investigates Kipling's response to colonialism, capitalism and modernity, as a total system, and one that he engaged with in a critical and creative way. It does so by tracing the threads of incongruity and humour. This approach has been taken for a number of reasons. Firstly, Kipling's interest in the incongruous, appears not only in the material dealing with the colonial East, but extends throughout his writing career. Secondly, humour and incongruity are features that contribute to the aesthetic and ambivalence of Kipling's work, and their absence usually denotes a shift into a particularly dark and introspective register. Finally, incongruity and humour are rarely examined in Kipling's work (C. A. Bodelsen and J.M.S. Tompkins are rare exceptions), and their significance in his material has not been fully explored.
  • Alexander, C. (2017). Giving Backchat: Gendered Social Critiques in Anglo-Caribbean, Migrant Female Literature.
    Giving backchat is a popular term in the Anglophone Caribbean and is locally considered a form of gendered speech. This form of discourse is like the African American concept of talking back with the exception of intent; giving backchat is not intended to convey disrespect whereas backtalk is impertinent. Typically applied to girls and young women, giving backchat is a way of challenging, interrogating, and upsetting social, cultural, and familial gender-biased norms in closed and sometimes unyielding groups that seek to impose forced silences on female group members. This project examines the appearances giving backchat makes throughout the texts of Anglophone Caribbean female writers-particularly those who are migrant, immigrant, and resident in Britain beginning in the 19th century and extending to the 21st century. Female authors with Caribbean roots residing in the UK such as Mary Prince, Mary Seacole, Jean Rhys, Una Marson, Beryl Gilroy, Joyce Gladwell, Andrea Levy, Jean Binta Breeze, and Eintou Pearl Springer utilise giving backchat in their texts, which include slave narratives, travelogues, novels, and poetry, to question the often stagnant roles women occupy in societies; to challenge false immigrant narratives or immigrant narratives exclusive of girls and women of colour; and to create dialogues more inclusive of the colonised or formerly colonised, female Other living in the Imperial, host society. This project examines several examples of immigrant narratives by these authors, fiction and nonfiction, to determine how giving backchat functions in these texts to promote a discourse focused on issues relevant to Anglophone Caribbean immigrant women living in the UK.
  • Mongiat, T. (2017). Confronting Heteronormativity in Postcolonial Zimbabwean Literature.
    This project addresses the settler colonial context of Rhodesia and postcolonial Zimbabwe, and investigates the nature of, and relationship between, gender and sexual norms and colonialism through early postcolonial literary responses. Literature is not merely examined as a source of representation, but as an element of discourse which reflects and shapes norms. I analyse how writers police and reiterate heteronorms, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, and how they resist and contest the realities and logic of heteronormativity.

    Robert Mugabe's now infamous homophobic outbursts in 1995 dehumanised homosexuals through references to dogs and pigs, and associated same-sex sexuality with American and European contexts. His rhetoric articulated a form of heteronormative nationalism which politicised the memory of colonialism, but also represented a significant discursive change in Zimbabwean society. Homosexuality, previously submerged by a culture of discretion and repression, had moved from the domain of the unspoken to the spoken, and from an invisible to a visible presence. Previously, references to homosexuality had been absent from public discourse in the postcolonial and much of the colonial period, and in Zimbabwean literature until the 1990s. Yet Dambudzo Marechera's controversial and progressive writing provided an exception - he explicitly represented the same-sex sexuality suggested by homoerotic depictions in other writing, but which was not portrayed.

    This offers an example of the way I approach literature in this thesis - I view writing as a means of representation, but also as an element of discourse which reflects, shapes, and contests ideas and norms. Discourse, following the work of multiple poststructural theorists, is conceived of as a constitutive form which produces and limits subjects and expression, but which is subject to a persistent threat of reconstitution. My project, which explores the articulation of heteronormativity in postcolonial writing until the 1990s, is intersectional, and documents the relation between modes of oppression. Accordingly, gender constructions are examined and related to the articulation of normative heterosexuality, and to other signifiers, especially notions of race and ethnicity integral to the settler colonial context of Rhodesia and to Zimbabwean society. Colonialism is discussed throughout, and I examine and problematise the represented relationship between heteronormativity and the violent material, discursive, and psychological products of colonialism, and postcolonial nationalisms. My project aims to satisfy the need for a composite intersectional study examining heteronormativity in Zimbabwean literature.
  • Gad, Y. (2014). I Take Back My Body: Mapping the Female Body in Postcolonial Literature.
    This dissertation examines the ways in which cultural definitions of gender, sex, and race have equally impacted and disrupted women and their relationships in postcolonial culture. Such relationships can be with either with oneself or with others. My argument throughout this project is that colonialism as an act of systematic physical and psychological violence, together with its residual effects that split the individual and his/her community, is a primary cause of transgression. Breaking social boundaries takes place through a process of coding and decoding the body where female characters portrayed from a selected range of fiction demand agency in environments that deny them such power. In order to track the development or loss of feminine identity, I comparatively study the characters and incidents alongside one another to show how oppression, across time and space, can produce different expressions of revolt. Unlike colonized men who are also forced to question the integrity and wholeness of their body, with women the oppression is twofold: she is made inferior by nature of her race and her sex. Until today, this has serious implications that hinder the cultural development and economic progress of postcolonial cultures. Hence, the discussions presented in this project call for a feminist and postcolonial understanding of the corporeal body and challenges Cartesian ethics which conceptualize the mind as superior to the body. Arguably, they contribute to other dualities which participate in similar hierarchical ideals when discussing racial and sexual difference such as, self/other, masculine/feminine, civil/uncivilized. Crossing over different geographies, writers such as, Ahdaf Soueif and Toni Morrison showcase women who reject the dualisms, even if some of their struggles end tragically. Representing postcolonial women in this light invites a less biased understanding of the body as lived, and its reactions as consequent to where and how it goes about such living.
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