As a hobbyist blogger with the temerity to write in English on her blog, it irks me to realize the pomposity of literature and the hypocrisy of classicism, especially in American writers. Take, for example, my ambivalent opinion on the book introduction about ‘Essays Two’ by Lydia Davis I read from the 12/11/2021 issue of The New York Times Book Review.
Knowing another language certainly gives you a unique insight into the world with a subtle but more caring timbre of sentiment and reason common to all human creatures. But the magical ability is not a prerogative of a brilliant professional translator of a high literate/academic echelon. Davis’s Marcel Proust is undoubtedly impressive, but Proust is not for everybody, showing that the literati excludes general readers. On the other hand, there are would-be, potential, or unclaimed writers whose narratives are to be reckoned with, from a refugee to an immigrant. Take Nobel Literature Prize winners Abdulrazak Gurnah (2021) and Kazuo Ishiguro (2017). Both used English as their literary tool to articulate their narratives with the images seen through their poetic “third eye” sense.
Davis and other translators-turned writers speak languages of the same language family. So, of course, the perspectives are similar. But, in all fairness, I want to see writers (and former translators) of all social classes writing about subject elements of particular views from a platform where they become universalizing, striking the chords of our human life. Isn’t that what literature is about?
The great writers are capable of metamorphosis and travel across a gulf of time and a hiatus of cultures and continents because their narratives speak to the sentiments and reason common to all humankind. Enter Abdulrazak Gurnah, this year’s Nobel Prize laureate in Literature, in this celestial constellation of great writers. The following is what I think about Gurnah based on reading his interview with today’s Reuter.
Gurnah, born in Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania) in 1948, went to England in the 1960s as a refugee fleeing from the political turmoil and social unrest of his native country. Then began his migrant’s song composed of multiple strands of his experience, thoughts, and feelings that became polyphonic acapella in variant notes and rhythms. Unlike many other laureates of prestigious literary awards or esteemed recognition, Gurnah is a champion of underdogs who were not expensively educated in private institutions and, above all, who were not born into the surroundings of English as mother tongue. Working at the places where his privileged literary peers would not think of, Gurnah wrote in English as Second Language as his Lingua Franca literary tool. The result is his enchantment of readers to a fantastic maze of his inner world. His narratives become Ariadne’s thread that guides his readers to the world that seems so unfamiliar yet oddly universal.
Gurnah seems to be the kind of writer I sincerely respect and dare to emulate who have lived among ordinary people like a sun in evening declination with the soft but radiant scarlet hues covering the earth, reflecting its magnificent face in shining waters. I am delighted to confirm that you don’t have to be born into a culture that speaks English if you want to become a good English writer. It is not about the Perfect mastery of language but about articulating thoughts to become a great writer. Although the media emphasizes Gurnah’s being the second black African author to have won the award since Nigerian Wole Soyinka in 1986, I don’t think it’s about his race that draws attention to his books. His being a writer supersedes his race because writers are different kinds of the race with a unique eye to look at the world and show it to readers, standing together in the collegiality of human spirits.