Gurnah and Soyinka Meet at Aké Festival by Michelle Mojisola Savage
The venue was Strong Tower Hall, Ikoyi, Lagos State; the event was - Aké Arts and Book Festival. The Festival had seen the congregation of some significant literary and creative minds of this generation. Authors, writers, artists, filmmakers, and poets gathered to celebrate creativity and share their knowledge with an enthralled audience through book chats, panel discussions, poetry, and music. It was a great festival full of memorable moments, but non as iconic as the events of its last day when the first African to win the Nobel Prize in Literature and its most recent African winner came together.
Abdulrazak Gurnah, the 2021 Nobel laureate and headliner of last year's Aké Festival, was preparing for his book chat with Nigerian journalist Kunle Ajibade when silence descended on the dark hall as a familiar figure with a more familiar head of white hair floated quietly into the room. Suddenly, the grave silence was broken by an eruption of cheers and applause. The 1986 Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, was in the room! For the first time, the two living African laureates were in the same place. My eyes watered.
The significance of that moment was more profound because the meeting took place on the African continent. It was a feat made possible by Lola Shoneyin, the founder and director of the Aké Arts and Book Festival, who believes we should celebrate our writers.
The theme of the Festival - "Homecoming" – was, perhaps, a premonition of the iconic meeting. After a 35-year sojourn, Gurnah was home as a Nobel laureate, and Wole Soyinka received him. Home, for Gurnah, has different definitions. “Where you choose to be or find yourself in circumstances,” he said. Following the Zanzibar revolution of 1964, 18-year-old Gurnah emigrated to Britain, where he has lived for more than 50 years. He considers Britain home but feels that Zanzibar (now Tanzania) remains home “perhaps, in a more profound way.”
Gurnah revealed to Ajibade and the Festival audience that he started writing because of the experience he had of being a stranger. At first, he had no intention of becoming a writer because it seemed like an “impossibly high aspiration,” even though at the age of ten, his English teacher observed that he “wrote well”. As a young stranger in a new place without family or friends, Gurnah wrote to understand himself and his situation. “Sometimes, writing can be helpful in disentangling things,” he said.
Gurnah with Michelle Mojisola Savage
The Norwegian Nobel committee awarded Gurnah the Nobel 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.” Although he does not consider himself a refugee, regardless of the circumstances under which he left Zanzibar, Gurnah has focused much of his work on the lives and struggles of refugees to make their stories known. “There is a human obligation to be hospitable to people fleeing war and injustice. It’s criminal and inhumane to criminalize them,” he said, especially since the war and violence they were fleeing from were instigated by the people turning them away.
The absence of information or, better still, "accurate" information on the history and colonization of Africa pushes Gurnah to write more on the subject. “History has to be re-narrated,” he believes. For him, the fight is not over until the world understands the consequences of colonialism and gains empathy toward the refugee cause.
‘After Lives’ by Abdulrazaq Gurnah is available to borrow from the ZODML library at 196 Awolowo Road, Ikoyi, Lagos State.
Michelle Mojisola Savage
is a writer and Engineering
student at the University of
Lagos. Her interests include
playing the guitar, strong
political arguments and
talking to dogs.