Tanzanian-born novelist Gurnah wins Nobel Literature Prize

Tanzanian-born novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah on Thursday won the Nobel Literature Prize for his unflinching portrayal of the effects of colonialism and the trauma of the refugee experience.

Gurnah, 72, who grew up on the island of Zanzibar but arrived in England as a refugee in the late 1960s to escape revolution, is the fifth African to win the Nobel Literature Prize.

The Swedish Academy said Gurnah was honoured “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 head of the Academy’s Nobel committee, Anders Olsson, said his writings had particular resonance with a record 82 million people fleeing wars, persecution and violence in 2020.

Gurnah told the Nobel Prize website he was stunned to get the call from the Swedish Academy.

“I thought it was a prank,” he said. “These things are usually floated for weeks beforehand… so it was not something that was in my mind,” he said.

He has published 10 novels and a number of short stories. “His writings are extremely interesting right now for many, many people in Europe and around the world,” Olsson told reporters.

“In all his work, Gurnah has striven to avoid the ubiquitous nostalgia for a more pristine pre-colonial Africa,” the Academy said.

His itinerant characters “find themselves in a hiatus between cultures and continents, between a life that was and a life emerging; it is an insecure state that can never be resolved,” it added.

Publisher ‘never expected it’

The theme of the refugee’s disruption runs throughout his work, with a focus on identity and self-image, also apparent in the 1996 novel “Admiring Silence” and “By the Sea” from 2001.

Tanzania hailed his win Thursday as a “victory” for the country and the African continent.

“You have certainly done justice to your profession, your victory is for Tanzania and Africa,” the government’s chief spokesperson said on Twitter.

After his win, Gurnah urged Europe to see African refugees as people who “come out of need” and who “quite frankly… have something to give.”

“They don’t come empty-handed. A lot of talented, energetic people who have something to give,” Gurnah told the Nobel Foundation in an interview.

The announcement also caught Gurnah’s Swedish publisher off guard.

“I may have heard someone suggest once that his books were of Nobel calibre. But I never expected him to get it,” Henrik Celander told Swedish news agency TT.

Born in 1948, Gurnah fled Zanzibar in 1968 following the revolution there which led to oppression and the persecution of citizens of Arab origin.

He began writing as a 21-year-old in England. Although Swahili was his first language, English became his literary tool.

Gurnah is best known for his 1994 breakthrough novel “Paradise”, set in colonial East Africa during World War I and which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction.

Western dominance

The novel has obvious references to English author Joseph Conrad’s famed 1902 novel “Heart of Darkness” in its portrayal of the innocent young hero Yusuf’s journey to Central Africa and the Congo Basin.

Author Adam Shafi Adam, also from Zanzibar, told AFP it was “big news for a Tanzanian to win a Nobel Prize in literature … one of the most prestigious prizes in the world.”

His books “give a good picture of the East African coast during the colonial period and how it was after the revolution in Zanzibar.”

Gurnah has until his recent retirement been Professor of English and Postcolonial Literatures at the University of Kent in Canterbury, focusing principally on writers such as Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Salman Rushdie.

The Nobel Prize comes with a medal and a sum of 10 million Swedish kronor (about $1.1 million).

Last year, the award went to US poet Louise Gluck.

Ahead of Thursday’s announcement, Nobel watchers had suggested the Swedish Academy could choose to give the nod to a writer from Asia or Africa, following a pledge to make the prize more diverse in gender and geography.

It has crowned mainly Westerners in its 120-year existence.

“Previously, we had a more Eurocentric perspective of literature, and now we are looking all over the world,” Nobel committee head Olsson said in 2019.

But at the end of the day, “literary merit” is still “the absolute and the only criterion,” he said in an interview with The New Republic published this week.

The Nobel season continues Friday in Oslo with the Peace Prize, followed Monday by the Economics Prize.

Source: Modern Ghana

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