Admiring Silence

Abdulrazak Gurnah’s novel Admiring Silence (1996) revolves around a Zanzibari man who emigrated to England from his native Tanzania in the 1960s. Zanzibar’s political control is so brutal that the nameless narrator must leave to England as a teenager. There, he falls in love with an English woman named Emma Willoughby and they start a family together.

One of the novel’s greatest strengths is the chronically dishonest narrator’s unflinching psychological honesty, as he learns that abandoning his birth family and being estranged from his newly formed family are both part of his emotional exile. It is a masterfully written tale about the agonizing search for a place to call one’s own in an era characterized by mass migration and exile. In Admiring Silence, Gurnah uses narrative design to present themes of self-identity with a heavy dose of satire. The novel explores themes like race and postcolonial translocation.

The unidentified 40-year-old narrator decides to return to Zanzibar for the first time since he fled as a teen. Twenty years has passed since then, and when he goes back to his hometown, he discovers that it no longer feels like home. When his family turns on him because of his relationship with Emma, he returns back to England but his second home has also come in tatters, because Emma has already found another man. As a result of this confrontation, he finally grasps the significance of the changes in his life.

Memorable Quotes

He didn’t mean Afro-Caribbean people anyway. He meant darkies, hubshis, abids, bongo-bongos, say-it-loud-I’m-black-and-I’m-proud victims of starvation and tyranny and disease and unregulated lusts and history, etc. You know, my race. I could see he approved of my respectful silence, because he smilingly issued his prohibitions and instructions, wagging his finger now and then to warn me off naughty temptations.

Page 10, Admiring Silence by Abdulrazak Gurnah

The transformations of things I had known and places which I had lived with differently in my mind for years seemed like an expulsion from my past.

Page 187, Admiring Silence by Abdulrazak Gurnah

I picked up a newspaper, and it was full of news of the murderous fatwa Ayatollah Khomeini had just issued against the novelist Salman Rushdie. He was another admirer of silence, the Imam.

Page 209, Admiring Silence by Abdulrazark Gurnah

Further Reading

Admiring Silence, by Abdulrazak Gurnah by Lisa Hill, ANZ Litlovers

Abdulrazak Gurnah’s skepticisms by Nicole Rizzuto, Africa Is a Country

Interview with Abdulrazak Gurnah by Shane Creevy, Magill Magazine

Abdulrazak Gurnah: accidental author and voice of displaced by Agence France-Presse, The Citizen

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