Abdulrazak Gurnah: ‘My favorite reading is cricket shows’ | Abdulrazak Gurnah

My earliest reading memory
The Qur’an is without doubt. Growing up in Zanzibar I started rightit was what we called Qur’an school, at the age of five and didn’t start public school until a year later, and by then I was sure I had read the brief. sura. Early on in public school, one of our classes was a Kiswahili translation of Aesop’s Fables, with pictures of a fox mistaking grapes and a hare lying on the roadside while walking. coming of the turtle. I can see those pictures.

My favorite book growing up
A Kiswahili translation of short selections from Alfu Leila u Leila (A Thousand and One Nights) in four short volumes. It was there that I first read the story of Kamar Zaman and Princess Badoura, which has stayed with me ever since. The translator and all the people credited in the foreword are colonial officials, but I think there are one or two real-lifers who have given the details. Until I was about 10 or so, the only books in English I read were comics and a school present. Its title was People of the World, and I read that over and over for a year or two. Zanzibar is not mentioned in it.

The book that changed me when I was young
This is difficult. I remember lying on the bed in my uncle’s basement in Mombasa reading a bad copy of Anna Karenina. I don’t know how it ended up there; My uncle is not literate. I was about 13 years old and I couldn’t understand how much it was, but I kept crying and crying. Our reading, based on what was found in the school library: most of the contributions came from colonial civil servants. I was 15 when I read James Baldwin’s Another Country and I remember how excited it was. Our teacher gave me VS Naipaul’s The Mystic Masseur, which I think was the first book I read and saw people I knew in real life.

The author changed my mind
I was 18 when I read William Saroyan’s The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze and it had a profound effect on me. I loved his voice of freedom and openness. I could not find this audio in any of his other writings.

The book made me want to be a writer
When I was thinking of writing a novel, I was reading American authors: Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and above all, Baldwin. I still have my battered Penguin paperback of The Fire Next Time. I read a lot of Joseph Conrad and DH Lawrence and Nadine Gordimer and Wole Soyinka, so I don’t know if I can tell which of these reading experiences did the trick.

The writer I came back to
When I was a child I memorized and regularly practiced an excerpt from Little Dorrit: the Circumlocution Office verse. The head entered me for a reading competition; I don’t know what that verse means or where it comes from. I couldn’t see a Dickens book for a long time after that, but I loved and studied his books later.

The book I just read
JM Coetzee Waiting for the Barbarians, because of the directness of his speech and the clarity of his depiction of human cruelty.

I can’t read anymore
Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. I used to appreciate how well he said it but now it’s confusing me. I think I’m ashamed of the people whose stupidity is not revealed.

The book I saw later in life
Every day brings new things; I want to celebrate the great work of writers from Africa in recent times. Soyinka, Nuruddin Farah and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o have maintained an excellent output for years. Current writers Damon Galgut, Maaza Mengiste, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, NoViolet Bulawayo and Nadifa Mohamed are all brilliant.

The book I am reading now
The Mysteries of Knut Hamsun.

My favorite read
Cricket reports and memorabilia, especially regarding Australian victories.

Afterlives by Abdulrazak Gurnah (Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, £8.99). To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.

This article was amended on 24 July 2022. The Circumlocution Office appears in Dickens’ Little Dorrit, not Bleak House.

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