CANTERBURY, England (Reuters) -Europe should greet migrants with compassion rather than barbed wire and the British government is “rather nasty” about those who seek asylum, said Tanzanian writer Abdulrazak Gurnah, who won the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday.
Gurnah, who explored the legacies of imperialism on uprooted individuals in his books, said he was so shocked when he was phoned by the Swedish Academy to tell him of the prize that he thought it was a cold caller.
Born in Zanzibar, now Tanzania, Gurnah moved to Britain as a student in 1968. His novels, the first published in 1987, have repeatedly portrayed displaced people – outsiders who are coming to terms with an identity in constant flux.
He spoke poetically about the experience of migration – of leaving behind family and part of one’s life for a life in a new society where one would always feel partly foreign.
He said he felt the British government seemed nasty about those seeking asylum.
“Currently, it seems the government is rather nasty about people seeking asylum or people seeking admittance into this country,” Gurnah, 73, told Reuters in his garden beside an Acer tree in Canterbury, southern England.
“It seems such a surprise to them that people coming from difficult places would want to come to a country that is prosperous. Why would they be surprised? Who wouldn’t want to come to a country that is more prosperous? There is a kind of meanness in this response.”
He casts his work as filling the gap between the academic work on colonialism and popular knowledge of it.
“This is where fiction can play a part: not by educating but by informing, by engaging, by speaking about things, by making people live,” he said.
Speaking a day after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to “defend our history and cultural inheritance” against those who attack Britain’s past, Gurnah said he rejected attempts to celebrate selective histories.
“You have to know. If there are horrible things to be known, they have to be known. You can’t just say ‘they are rubbishing us’,” he said.
Gurnah expressed amazement at the resolution and courage of those who travelled so far to escape their own countries for a new life.
“This somehow is constructed as if it is immoral – you know they use this phrase ‘economic migrant’ – as if to be an economic migrant is some kind of crime. Why not?”
“Millions of Europeans over centuries left their homes for precisely that reason and invaded the world for precisely for that reason,” he said.
The other side of the equation, he said, was why people felt they had to embark on such perilous voyages for a new life.
“You have to ask the question: what is so horrible about where they are that they will do such things, that they will take such risks?” he said.
Europe, he said, should rethink its approach to migration.
“With greater compassion rather than with barbed wire – rather than a kind of discourse that Europe is going to be destroyed,” he said.
Gurnah said he was not advocating free-for-all “open season” migration but that there should not be an antagonistic and abusive representation of migrants.
Brexit, he said, had revealed a “certain meanness” about Britain – and that lurking behind the vote to exit the European Union was another narrative about migrants from far beyond Europe’s borders.
Asked why there were so few Black Nobel Prize winners for literature – four including himself – Gurnah said the world was changing.
“The fact of the ignorance or the exclusion of non-European people from certain kinds of recognitions, or the exclusion of women from certain kinds of recognitions, is only just now beginning to become an issue or a thing people are concerned to put right. So we have got to wait and see,” he said.
(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge and Natalie Thomas, both in Canterbury; Editing by Andy Bruce and Howard Goller)