The Stories from the South Book Club is a series for book lovers to explore what it means to inhabit the unique world of the “South”.

We will meet live at Dymocks Bookstore Rundle Mall on Tuesday, April 30, 6-7.30pm, for a discussion of Abdulrazak Gurnah’s novel By the Sea with Kai Easton, David Ishaya Osu, and Morgan Nunan.

Register here for this free public event. Use this guide to enrich your reading.



By the Sea, Penguin, 2023.

It is 1995 and 65-year-old Saleh Omar has recently arrived in the United Kingdom from Tanzania to claim asylum as a refugee. As he awaits the arrival of a visitor to his flat “by the sea”, accommodation arranged for him by a refugee aid organisation, he reflects on his present life (“the half-life of a stranger”), his recent run-in with an immigration official (“the bawab of Europe”), as well as his earlier life as a businessman in Stone Town, Zanzibar (another “small town by the sea”). By contrast, English professor Latif Mahmud has lived in London for almost 30 years, having left Zanzibar as a teenager and arrived in the United Kingdom via the former East Germany. When the refugee organisation contacts Latif for assistance in Saleh’s case, both men are pulled away from their “after-life” towards the past and the distant shoreline they once called home.

This shoreline is east Africa’s Swahili Coast, a Southern world with deep ties to a centuries-old history of mercantile trade, cultural exchange, and other complex entanglements facilitated by “the musim”, monsoon winds that “blow steadily across the Indian Ocean towards the coast of Africa” before reversing a few months later “to speed the traders home”.

Centring on a family dispute reignited by the incursions of a Persian musim trader named Hussein, Gurnah probes the nuanced impacts that such incursions brought to east Africa, as well as the shifting nature of these Southern connections under both colonial rule and the post-colony period following Zanzibar’s revolution. Against this backdrop, By the Sea offers a counterpoint to contemporary stories of family, nation, empire and exile, while elucidating the often violent inheritances of each.

By the Sea is enriched with echoes from ancient and modern literature. The novel makes numerous references, in particular, to tales from One Thousand and One Nights and Herman Melville’s short story Bartleby, the Scrivener. We are called to reflect on how stories serve to shape and obscure our relations to people and place, turning attention to the nature of storytelling itself.

Walking and riding in Stone Town, Zanzibar. Ranchhod Oza: 1956. Produced by Capital Art Studio and published with permission of copyright holder, Rohit Oza.


Abdulrazak Gurnah is the widely acclaimed author of 10 novels. In 2021, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents”. His novels include the Booker-shortlisted Paradise, the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize-shortlisted Desertion, and his most recent, Afterlives, which was shortlisted for The Orwell Prize for Political Fiction.

Gurnah is from Zanzibar, an archipelago lying off the east African coast. Formerly the Sultanate of Zanzibar and a British Protectorate, the islands now form part of the United Republic of Tanzania.

Born in 1948, Gurnah left east Africa at the age of 18, during the tumultuous years that followed the 1964 Zanzibar revolution. He now resides in the United Kingdom, where he is Emeritus Professor of English and Postcolonial Literatures at the University of Kent.


“The more I research it, the clearer it appears that people’s understanding and the stories they told of the world were firmly linked to connections across the sea. The view of the world from East Africa, I suspect, is not astonishingly different from a view of the world from South Arabia, or from western India. It’s as though the ocean creates islands of culture along a broader archipelago, which are linked together by the sea and by mercantile connections.” – Gurnah, British Muslim fictions: interviews with contemporary writers

“Colonialism legitimised itself by reference to a hierarchy of race and inferiority, which found form in a number of narratives of culture, knowledge and progress. It also did what it could to persuade the colonised to defer to this account.” – Gurnah, “Writing and Place”

Dhow with Zanzibar’s Beit-al-Ajaib in the background. Ranchhod Oza: 1948. Produced by Capital Art Studio and published with permission of copyright holder, Rohit Oza.

“It was only in the early years that I lived in England that I was able to reflect on such issues, to dwell on the ugliness of what we were capable of inflicting on each other, to revisit the lies and delusions with which we had comforted ourselves. Our histories were partial, silent about many cruelties. Our politics was racialised, and led directly to the persecutions that followed the revolution… Living in England, far away from these events yet deeply troubled by them in my mind, it may have been that I was less able to resist the power of such memories than if I had been among people who were still living their consequences.” – Gurnah, “Nobel Lecture”

“In time, though, it became clear that something deeply unsettling was taking place. A new, simpler history was being constructed, transforming and even obliterating what had happened, re-structuring it to suit the verities of the moment. This new and simpler history was not only the inevitable work of the victors, who are always at liberty to construct a narrative of their choice, but it also suited commentators and scholars and even writers who had no real interest in us, or were viewing us through a frame that agreed with their view of the world, and who required a familiar narrative of racial emancipation and progress.” – Gurnah, “Nobel Lecture”


  • Much of the novel’s central conflicts straddle the 1964 Zanzibar revolution. How did Gurnah connect this period to the long history of Indian Ocean trade, cultural exchange, and entanglements shared by various coastal regions of the South? Did anything in the recounting of this history surprise you?
  • What did you make of Saleh Omar’s reflections on maps (“Before maps the world was limitless…”) and his description of the first map he ever saw? How does this connect with the long history of trade centring on the Indian Ocean and the east African coastline? To what extent can we think of By the Sea as a kind of map in its representation of the South?
  • Gurnah was awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature for, in part, his representation of “…the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents…”. What might By the Sea tell us about this “fate”? Does the novel’s representation of refugee experiences remain relevant today?
  • How does the presence of two narrators impact the coherence of this narrative? What did you make of the passage at the end of chapter two (“Can an I ever speak of itself without making itself heroic…”)? Did your allegiance to the character-narrators shift throughout the novel?
  • The novel references a number of other literary works. Did these allusions enrich your reading experience? Did they inform your understanding of the novel’s meaning?
  • By the Sea is narrated some 30 years after the central conflicts in the novel. Why might Gurnah have decided to do this? What is lost and what is gained by this approach? In doing so, what might Gurnah be emphasising about memory?
  • “The stories we knew about ourselves… seemed… a different category of knowledge… And at school there was little or no time for those other stories, just an orderly accumulation of the real knowledge they brought to us, in books they made available to us, in a language they taught us.” Are there stories in your life that you feel are underappreciated, misunderstood, or overshadowed by a dominant narrative? Where do you find stories that gather “different categories of knowledge”?


Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Nobel Lecture and interviews.

Meg Samuelson on Abdulrazak Gurnah in the Sydney Review of Books, “A Storyteller for Our Times”. 

For further information about the photographs featured in this guide, read about Pamila Gupta and Meg Samuelson’s research on Capital Art Studio in Stone Town, Zanzibar.


“It is a familiar minor climax in our stories, leaving what we know and arriving in strange places, carrying little bits of jumbled luggage and suppressing secret and garbled ambitions.” (page 4)

Create notes on a character who is leaving a specific place, and arriving in a specific (perhaps “strange”) place. What are your character’s “secret and garbled ambitions”? What might they want?


“We were in a small windowless room with a hard floor, with a table between us and a bench running along one wall. It was lit with hard fluorescent strips which made the pewter-coloured walls close in out of the corners of my eyes.” (page 6)

Begin writing a scene of arrival, in which your character finds themselves in an enclosed space, static now after a significant journey. This might take place at an airport, a station or dock, or perhaps a room or tent elsewhere. Who is with them, if anyone? Does your character view this arrival as positive, negative, or some combination thereof? Can you convey your protagonist’s emotions through descriptions of this new setting? Try writing this scene without using the verb “to feel”. 


“Ud-al-qamari: its fragrance comes back to me at odd times, unexpectedly, like a fragment of a voice or the memory of my beloved’s arm on my neck.” (page 14)

Focusing on the senses, note down some small objects that this character may be carrying with them. Choose one. What does it recall? Can you convey the item’s importance through your descriptions of it, or how your character views it? What secrets might it represent, and how might this impact your character’s behaviour? Add a few sentences in which this item is lost or taken. 


If you’re interested in sharing your work, please come and find Stories from the South on Facebook, and look for our “Creative Writing” thread.


If you enjoyed By the Sea, why not also try one of these books?

  • Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s The Dragonfly Sea (2022): A novel set partly on Kenya’s Lamu Archipelago and traversing the Indian Ocean.
  • Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land (1992): the acclaimed “traveller’s tale” of the Indian Ocean world in the 12th and 20th centuries CE.
  • Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend But the Mountains (2018) and Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa from her short story collection Foreign Soil (2014): two stories of refugees arriving in Australia after crossing the Indian Ocean.

Or other books by Abdulrazak Gurnah, such as:

  • Paradise (1994): Like Hassan in By the Sea, 12-year old Yusuf’s fate is tied to a wealthy and influential merchant to whom Yusuf’s parents are indebted. Retracing mercantile caravan routes into the African hinterland, the novel concludes as the World War I reaches colonial east Africa.
  • Desertion (2005): Set on the Indian Ocean coastline, this novel was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.
  • Afterlives (2020): Resuming where Paradise ends, Afterlives explores the impact of European conflicts for the residents of an east African coastal town.
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