How often does one get to be within whispering distance of a Nobel Laureate? How do a few fleeting moments of such fantastic proportions where you stand under the same spotlight as someone whom you hold in the highest esteem for his work impact your life? Listen to this story of my brief tryst with Abdulrazak Gurnah, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature this year at the Sharjah Book Fair.
The only times I have bought the book of a major prize winner on the day of their winning it were when Arundhati Roy won the Booker in 1997 and now, in 2021, when Gurnah won the Nobel Prize. In both instances, what drove my decision was a sample of their work that grabbed me and said urgently, ‘Listen to this voice.’ I have been a literary devotee of Roy since then, and now, after reading ‘Gravel Heart’ by Gurnah, I have pledged my allegiance to his writing for life.
I was already smitten with his storytelling when the announcement of his attendance at the Sharjah Book Fair was made. Ecstatic, I marked my calendar, but all I had planned for was to be in the audience, saucer-eyed, glued to stories from his life that shaped him and brought him this far. I was eager to know what qualities the person whose writing had something so soulfully familiar in it, possessed.
I took in every word he spoke about his writing life and the paths he had covered, the rejections, the slights, and in the end the sudden emergence from anonymity to acclaim. I saw in his past a trail of what I was going through as a writer and the throes of being in the shadows for long.
The fact that his fine writing had taken twelve years to find a publisher and make a debut underlined the difference between good writing and popular writing. It reinforced my belief that being a bestselling author and being a fantastic raconteur are two different things. Gurnah was critically acclaimed but never had enough readership, so much so that when his name was announced by the Academy, it sent the world scurrying for information about him.
What I heard that evening was not a story of overnight success or sudden discovery of talent. It was a narrative of several decades of erudite brilliance shrouded in near obscurity. When time had rubbed its satin cloth on the patinated sterling for long enough, it shone one day, to the delight of people like me who are now besotted with his magical prose.
The unhurried manner in which he wrote, revealing even heartbreaks ever so gently, the finesse with which he intertwined personal destinies with the fate of nations, the finely layered, detailed characterization, his simple but elegant language were attributes that made him a literary superhero to me. But at the same, I realized those were the same attributes that had kept him away from the limelight for so long. The new world lusted after plot-driven, fast-paced narratives and not those that worked as poetic palliatives. Yet he persisted with his passion, unworried about popularity, combining lexical beauty with his core beliefs.
The luminary on the stage had imparted so much to me as a writer in such a short time that when the session was opened to Q & A, I stood up, my heart drumming deafeningly and said, ‘My name is Asha. Congratulations, Sir, and thank you for your fine writing. I have just finished reading my first book of yours and it has left a deep impact on me. I write a bit too, and if sometime in future I make a mark somewhere, and I am asked about my literary influences, your name would be among the first ones I would take. Thank you for your magic.’
Later, when I got up close for the signing and I said my name again, he looked up and said, ‘Are you the one who writes?’ I said I was, and he said, ‘I normally only sign in the book. But for you, I will write your name too. Good luck to you.’
I felt anointed in that moment. I knew it wasn’t just another fangirl moment or a photo-op for the social media. It was an occasion that told me that there indeed was a God of small things who made even the most improbable and impossible things happen in life. To Gurnah, it was the Nobel. To the rest of us, it could be something else.
(Asha Iyer Kumar is a Dubai-based author, children’s life-writing coach, youth motivational speaker and founder of iBloom, FZE. She can be reached at email@example.com. Her latest book of stories ‘That Pain in the Womb’ is now on Amazon.)