Tanzanian Abdulrazak Gurnah, who has just won this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, has always been one of the world’s great writers – the Nobel award has simply confirmed this, says New African editor Anver Versi.
The news that Tanzanian Abdulrazak Gurnah has won this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature has been greeted with great jubilation in Africa’s increasingly influential literary community and the general public in the East African countries of Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya.
The Swedish Academy, announced on 7 October 2021, “The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2021 is awarded to the novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah, born in Zanzibar and active in England, ‘for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents‘.”
The committee also praised his “recoil from stereotypical descriptions and [opening] our gaze to a culturally diversified East Africa unfamiliar to many in other parts of the world.”
This is the first time that anyone from East Africa has been awarded the Nobel Prize – and completes the African regional circle of Nobel Literature laureates. Until now, four African writers had won the world’s most prestigious award in literature: Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka, Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz and the South Africans Nadine Gordimer and John Maxwell Coetzee. Gurna’s award brings the total African laureates to five.
Caught between two worlds
Gurnah was born in Zanzibar in 1948. He escaped the island nation when it descended into chaos and violence following the bloody revolution in 1964, masterminded by Abedi Karume, leader of the opposition Afro-Shirazi Party but executed by the mysterious John Okello.
The revolution overthrew the dominance of Omani Arabs and their Swahili supporters and among other events, forced the constitutional Sultan Jamshid Bin Abdalla to flee to the UK where he lived in exile until 2020 when he was allowed to settle in Oman, his ancestral homeland.
Gurnah himself fled to the UK as a refugee and studied at Christ Church College, Canterbury before gaining his PhD from the University of Kent. In his initial reaction to the news of his award he underlined the contribution that refugees have made to European countries.
In the minds of many Europeans, he said, “there is a kind of miserliness, as if there isn’t enough to go around” but while “a lot of these people who come, come out of necessity” they also come “because they have something to give. They don’t come empty-handed. A lot of them are talented, energetic people, who have something to give.”
Gurnah was a professor and the director of graduate studies at the University of Kent’s department of English until his recent retirement, specialising in authors such as Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka and Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o. He also lectured at the Bayero University in Kano, Nigeria.
Gurnah’s intellectual passion was the study of colonialism and its effects and ramifications not only on nation states but individuals, especially those caught between two worlds, as he was himself.
His interest was wider than Africa and examined postcolonial writing and expression in India as well as the Caribbean and was very highly respected by a coterie of some of the best writers from these regions, such as Salman Rushdie and V.S. Naipul as well as British literary lions.
Delving into the essence of mankind
I had the pleasure and privilege to invite him to an international development and culture festival in London which I was involved in organising and he graciously travelled from Kent to read a passage from his novel Paradise to a rapt audience. I was also delighted to be able to talk in Kiswahili with him. He gave me the impression of being a very self-contained man, quietly spoken and someone who weighed his words carefully before uttering them.
His writing is complex and it takes you into worlds that are at once unexpected and magical and yet, strangely familiar. His style is spare and his characters, while unforgettable, are shorn on any surplus flesh. You feel that if you cross out even one line of his prose, the whole balance of the book would change.
His main themes, of people straddling diverse identities and seeking to find themselves in societies and cultures alien to them while their past keeps changing out of all recognition, is very relevant to the world today as wars, civil strife, economic breakdowns, persecution and tyranny force millions out of their homelands and into various forms of exile. Through it all, he delves deep to find the essential essence of mankind.
To those who have read him, Abdulrazak Gurnah has always been one of the world’s great writers – the Nobel award has simply confirmed this.
Memory of Departure (1987)
Pilgrims Way (1988)
Admiring Silence (1996)
By the Sea (2001)
The Last Gift (2011)
Gravel Heart (2017)
My Mother Lived on a Farm in Africa (2006)
He has also edited two volumes of Essays on African Writing and is the editor of A Companion to Salman Rushdie (Cambridge University Press, 2007). He has served as a contributing editor to Wasafiri magazine since 1987
He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2006.