Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Support Our Annual Fund Drive! We only shake you down once a year, but when we do we really mean it. It costs a lot to keep the site afloat, and our growing audience, well over TWO million unique viewers a month, eats up a lot of bandwidth — and bandwidth isn’t free. We aren’t supported by corporate donors, advertisers or big foundations. We survive solely on your support.
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Immigrants Hiding Their Pasts

by

In a volatile scene in Abdulrazak Gurnah’s perceptive novel, The Last Gift, the adult daughter of two immigrant parents (whom she loves) erupts into vitriol when she learns—for the first time—the details of their earlier lives, years ago, before they migrated to England.  This is what she shouts at her mother: “‘I can’t bear this,’ she said angrily.  ‘I can’t bear these shitty, vile immigrant tragedies of yours.  I can’t bear the tyranny of your ugly lives.  I’ve had enough, I’m leaving.’” Then, when her brother, Jamal, says to her, “‘Shut up, Hanna…. Let Ma speak,’” Hanna snaps at him, “‘My name is Anna, your moron….’”  The scene, fairly late in the novel, speaks volumes.  Hanna no longer calls herself by her given name, because it reveals her foreign origins.  Anna, who is much more Western, believes that she is assimilated, and she wants to depart, leave the scene, in order that no further confrontation with her family is possible.

Hanna’s eruption comes after several others have broken down and a much more placid opening: “One day, long before the troubles, he slipped away without saying a word to anyone and never went back.  And then another day, forty-three years later, he collapsed just outside the front door of his house in a small English town.  It was late in the day when it happened, returning home after work, but it was also late in the day altogether.  He had left things for too long and there was no one to blame but himself.”

That paragraph refers to Hanna’s father, Abbas, who also fled conflict, never going back to Zanzibar, the place of his origins.  Nor, it turns out, did he ever tell his wife, Maryam, or his children.  Instead, he chose to hide his background, but—as we subsequently learn—this is true of Maryam also, who believes that her parents are from the Middle East, gurnahthough she is, in fact, a foundling, raised by foster parents.  She will flee from them, just as Abbas fled from an ugly incident in his own youth.  Both were barely out of their teens, and Abbas—after years of being a sailor—settled in England and became fairly prosperous.  Again, there are numerous elements here of immigrant adjustment and success in the adoptive country.  But Gurnah, who has written of such matters in earlier books and has been justifiably praised as a novelist (including short-listed for the Man Booker Award twice), tells a different story here: old wounds, from the past, never healing because they have been repressed.

After Abbas collapses (from late-setting diabetes and a stroke) and finds himself confined to a bed, rest, and a slow recovery, he has the necessary time to mull over his origins and then to reveal them to Maryam, his wife of thirty years.  Abbas’ father was a tyrant, who didn’t want his son to waste himself on education, even though the teenager managed to acquire the training to become a teacher.  Then, because he dared to peep at a girl in the courtyard of the place where he lived, he was forced into a quick marriage, only to discover that his wife was pregnant, pregnant by some other man.  That resulted in his flight from Zanzibar, before the child was born, and resulted in thirteen years of wandering (Biblical overtones here, of course).

In all the years of marriage, he never told Maryam about his first wife—not until the stroke that incapacities him and gives him the leisure to reflect on his past.  And Maryam’s response?  It’s pretty ugly.  She calls him a bigamist.  How could he have done this to her?  You would think that the three decades of their marriage would have counted for something, but Maryam is unable to see it that way.

Gurnah wants us to understand that immigrants often bring emotional baggage with them, and even though many of them are hugely successful in their adoptive countries, the price of the past—repression—is its own hidden burden, likely to break apart the most loving relationships many years afterwards.  Maryam is not so clean herself (and that past will be revealed much later in the novel).  Both Jamal and Hanna experience numerous ugly incidents, growing out of their ethnicity, pointing out the difficulties of the second generation of immigrants—even with their potential mates, whom one would assume would be understanding.

The Last Gift is strong on character and culture but slow and muted in its plotting.  Nuance has always been Gurnah’s strength, as well as characterization, but in his most recent novel (his ninth) the pacing could have been faster and more engaging.

Abdulrazak Gurnah: The Last Gift

Bloomsbury, 288 pp., $26.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.

 

 

 

 

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

September 28, 2016
Eric Draitser
Stop Trump! Stop Clinton!! Stop the Madness (and Let Me Get Off)!
Ted Rall
The Thrilla at Hofstra: How Trump Won the Debate
Robert Fisk
Cliché and Banality at the Debates: Trump and Clinton on the Middle East
Patrick Cockburn
Cracks in the Kingdom: Saudi Arabia Rocked by Financial Strains
Lowell Flanders
Donald Trump, Islamophobia and Immigrants
Shane Burley
Defining the Alt Right and the New American Fascism
Jan Oberg
Ukraine as the Border of NATO Expansion
Ramzy Baroud
Ban Ki-Moon’s Legacy in Palestine: Failure in Words and Deeds
David Swanson
How We Could End the Permanent War State
Sam Husseini
Debate Night’s Biggest Lie Was Told by Lester Holt
Laura Carlsen
Ayotzinapa’s Message to the World: Organize!
Binoy Kampmark
The Triumph of Momentum: Re-Electing Jeremy Corbyn
David Macaray
When the Saints Go Marching In
Seth Oelbaum
All Black Lives Will Never Matter for Clinton and Trump
Adam Parsons
Standing in Solidarity for a Humanity Without Borders
Cesar Chelala
The Trump Bubble
September 27, 2016
Louisa Willcox
The Tribal Fight for Nature: From the Grizzly to the Black Snake of the Dakota Pipeline
Paul Street
The Roots are in the System: Charlotte and Beyond
Jeffrey St. Clair
Idiot Winds at Hofstra: Notes on the Not-So-Great Debate
Mark Harris
Clinton, Trump, and the Death of Idealism
Mike Whitney
Putin Ups the Ante: Ceasefire Sabotage Triggers Major Offensive in Aleppo
Anthony DiMaggio
The Debates as Democratic Façade: Voter “Rationality” in American Elections
Binoy Kampmark
Punishing the Punished: the Torments of Chelsea Manning
Paul Buhle
Why “Snowden” is Important (or How Kafka Foresaw the Juggernaut State)
Jack Rasmus
Hillary’s Ghosts
Brian Cloughley
Billions Down the Afghan Drain
Lawrence Davidson
True Believers and the U.S. Election
Matt Peppe
Taking a Knee: Resisting Enforced Patriotism
James McEnteer
Eugene, Oregon and the Rising Cost of Cool
Norman Pollack
The Great Debate: Proto-Fascism vs. the Real Thing
Michael Winship
The Tracks of John Boehner’s Tears
John Steppling
Fear Level Trump
Lawrence Wittner
Where Is That Wasteful Government Spending?
James Russell
Beyond Debate: Interview Styles of the Rich and Famous
September 26, 2016
Diana Johnstone
The Hillary Clinton Presidency has Already Begun as Lame Ducks Promote Her War
Gary Leupp
Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Against Russia
Dave Lindorff
Parking While Black: When Police Shoot as First Resort
Robert Crawford
The Political Rhetoric of Perpetual War
Howard Lisnoff
The Case of One Homeless Person
Michael Howard
The New York Times Endorses Hillary, Scorns the World
Russell Mokhiber
Wells Fargo and the Library of Congress’ National Book Festival
Chad Nelson
The Crime of Going Vegan: the Latest Attack on Angela Davis
Colin Todhunter
A System of Food Production for Human Need, Not Corporate Greed
Brian Cloughley
The United States Wants to Put Russia in a Corner
Guillermo R. Gil
The Clevenger Effect: Exposing Racism in Pro Sports
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail