Abdulrazak Gurnah headshot and orange-pink cover of Paradise novel

Nobel laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah’s 1994 novel “Paradise”

In summer 2005, I took classes at the University of Ghana in Accra — in between pickup basketball games and nervously navigating the jitney-style “tro tro” bus system.

Among my self-discoveries that summer was an appreciation for the African aesthetic. I complemented my coursework on the oral histories of Sundiata and the short-lived political writing of Kwame Nkrumah with wood-carving, food culture, drumming, and storytelling. I read and re-read passages from a worn copy of “Th” under a baobab tree, and excitedly emailed a childhood friend from an Internet cafe to tell him that his New England university was home to Chinua Achebe, whose classic 1958 novel “Things Fall Apart” reinvigorated my dream to be a writer.

What clicked for me that summer was that so much of this art and culture I was exploring wasn’t an answer to the dominant themes of my western world. They stood on their own. They didn’t need the West to be complete but rather I needed them to be a little closer to complete myself. In this way, I felt it all nourishing.

One of the novels I added to a list then that I only now got to was “Paradise,” the 1994 Nobel Prize-winning historical fiction written by Abdulrazak Gurnah.

Like most celebrated novels, “Paradise” is credited with a range of heavy themes — in this case, colonialism and violence, memory and adulthood. Gurnah introduces how European powers imposed new hierarchies and economic dependencies in Eastern Africa. The protagonist is Yusuf, whose father is a hotelier in debt to a rich Arab merchant named Aziz. Traditional ways of life are eroded, and profit and power rise.

The novel gives the kind of complexity I better understood from my first summer in West Africa. Everything is messier than I previously imagined.

Busy trade routes and marketplaces became entangled with European interests. The novel depicts raids and forced labor, dehumanizing acts within global trade. Yusuf comes of age in this world. In its own way, the novel helped me better understand the world, even if I was almost 20 years too late to reading it.

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