Learning to read

Abdulrazak Gurnah

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


This essay offers autobiographical reflections on the role of different languages in the author's own writing career. If much of the imaginary world of English canonical literature reflected an imperial vision of the world in which it was Europe's destiny to rule the other parts of the globe-as shown in an incisive reading of Keats's poem "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer"-one of the central challenges faced by an aspiring Zanzibari writer learning to read (and to write) was to overcome the destructive narratives of Europe and to eventually find a register of his own in English, a language that turned out to be hospitable and capacious after all. Yet this register never formed part of a self-contained linguistic universe: it was shaped by the multilingual and transcultural environment in which the author grew up as a native Swahili speaker in (colonial) Zanzibar, by the Arabic he learnt in Qur'an school, and by the ribald and forbidden stories he heard in the streets, as much as by his experiences as an African migrant in Europe. For someone growing up in Zanzibar, the coexistence of contradictory cultural traditions felt negotiable; later in life, his writing in English developed into a contact zone of its own-a zone as much of migrancy as of the encounter with Swahili and English that occurred in his childhood, as much the experience of England as all the other experiences that he has gone through.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationHabari ya English? What about Kiswahili?
Subtitle of host publicationEast Africa as a Literary and Linguistic Contact Zone
EditorsLutz Diegner, Frank Schulze-Engler
PublisherBrill: Rodopi
Number of pages10
ISBN (Electronic)9789004292260
StatePublished - 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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