Congratulations on winning the Nobel prize for literature - last year the jury honoured your “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism”. Do you feel this award has pushed forward debates around colonialism?
It does seem that way. A lot of people are discussing colonialism right now but the conversation is not without resistance. These debates are not necessarily tied in with what is happening in the formerly colonised places - it’s about Europe, the formerly colonising countries.
The issue is more alive than it was in the past, in part because these are no longer monocultural societies. I think different European nations’ colonialism has much in common: It was largely a violent and coercive affair.
Are different countries dealing with the legacy of colonialism in different ways?
In Germany, the opening up of debates on this topic is relatively new. It’s a reckoning with history, something that feels far away, beyond people's lifetimes. It’s different in the UK and France, where the evidence of colonialism is right in front of your eyes: You’re surrounded by people from formerly colonialised territories.
Germany’s multiracial population is large but not necessarily people from formerly colonised German colonies. In the UK and France, the victims of former aggression form a part of society and are speaking up, often loudly.
And that brings more urgency into the debate?
In the UK, talk about colonialism is part of a bigger culture war: On one side, people are defensive about the empire, on the other, people are insisting that it’s time to face up to the past.
We’ve seen the toppling of statues, people throwing paint at former national heroes. The people behind these acts are British, rather than those formerly affected by colonial aggression. They may be small acts but symbolically they are actually huge.
You moved to the UK from Zanzibar aged 18, fleeing the violence after the 1964 revolution. How did your early experiences of colonialism affect you and imbue your work?
All of us who lived through the colonial period have intense memories of it - and people who didn’t experience it personally now live amid its consequences. This is an ongoing history which needs to be worked out for all parties.
Just this afternoon I had a conversation about about artefacts that have been stolen from various places and are held at the Humboldt in Berlin, the British Museum in London and other institutions. Beyond the artworks and religious items, the colonial history has also left a wound: Many cultures have been undervalued or despised.
There is much to bring out into the open and to negotiate. And it's not simply a matter of asking: who’s guilty? Of course there’s guilt because wrong was done. But it is also about understanding the lasting impact of what happened.
Europe’s current reality remains connected to this history. It's not like Europeans went there and then came home and now it's all over. Europe’s prosperity has much to do with colonialism as does the backwardness or the poverty of many formerly colonised places.
German East Africa is especially prominent in two of your novels: Paradise (1994) and Afterlives (2020). You describe German colonialism in a close up way, in terms of interpersonal relationships and interactions. Why did you take this approach?
I always want to try and create a rounded narrative rather than something that is flat or polemical. If I wanted to be polemical, I might have gone into politics or become an activist. The situations we experience are often complex.
As a writer, it’s about opening up these situations and seeing what is really going on, moving in close to the arena of how people interact, their families, the detail of their daily lives. That brings a place and a history to life.
And these daily lives in Afterlives unfold in a mixture of languages, with Arabic, Swahili and German mixed into the English narrative. What led you to this style?
I grew up speaking Swahili, it’s my first language and I later learned English at school. In Afterlives German pops up as well as Arabic. That reflects the multilingual, multiethnic society along the coast of Africa and its Indian Ocean connections.
It’s how people speak to this day: dropping the odd English word, a couple of Indian words, some Arabic and so on, even if they're actually speaking Swahili. When I write, this mixture of language comes naturally. Some words don’t have an exact English equivalent.
Then I leave the originalword, making sure that its meaning is clear. For example, in the book I use the word ‘Marehemu’ which is used to precede the name of a person who has passed away, particularly if it's somebody you feel affectionate towards. And what it actually means is “may God have mercy on his or her soul”.
If you were to write “my father, may God have mercy on his soul” in English every time you mention him it would sound pompous or silly. But in Swahili it’s disrespectful to leave it out. In this case, it was obvious I needed to retain the word to convey a certain meaning.
Which likely strikes a chord for readers in Tanzania and other Swahili speakers.
Indeed. And there are millions of Swahili speakers in the world, probably more than speakers of Swedish, Danish, Norwegian and Dutch combined.
Have you ever thought about writing purely in Swahili?
No, this is what I've got (- points to his book). This is fine. Somebody else will translate it. In fact next week, a new translation of paradise in Swahili is coming out, which has been a long time coming.
You've lived in the UK for many years now. Does this distance give you a different perspective when you write about East Africa?
I'm 73 years old. That also helps to crystallise and gives me perspective. After the revolution in Tanzania I couldn't return for many years, only going back in 1984 when a law was changed.
Since then I visit quite often. I speak to my sisters and my nieces on the phone and I follow what's going on. Moving to the UK was hard at first but my time away also means I can write about Britain and the experience of being displaced.
I often wonder if it would be more sensible to have stayed and struggled along with everybody else - or whether it is it better to go and try and fulfil yourself elsewhere. These are issues that are on the mind of millions of people around the globe and they continue to affect my writing.
What was the Tanzanian response to your Nobel prize announcement?
Everybody was so very pleased with the Nobel, the Tanzanian President was quick to congratulate me and when I went to Tanzania recently, I was invited to go and meet him. Also ordinary people in the street recognise me and greet me.
Everybody was delighted and so was I.
Interview by Jess Smee