The Nobel Prize in Literature, considered the pinnacle of achievement for creative writers, has been awarded 114 times to 118 Nobel Prize winners between 1901 and 2021. This year, it went to novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah, born in Zanzibar, the first Tanzanian author to win . The last black African author to win the award was Wole Soyinka in 1986. Gurnah is the first black author to win since Toni Morrison in 1993. Charl Blignaut asked Lizzy Attree to describe the winner and share her views on his literary career.
Who is Gurnah, and what is his place in East African literature?
Abdulrazak Gurnah is a Tanzanian writer who writes in English and lives and works in the UK. He was born in Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous island off the coast of East Africa, and studied at Christchurch College Canterbury in 1968.
Zanzibar underwent a revolution in 1964, in which citizens of Arab origin were persecuted. Gurnah was forced to flee the country when he was 18. He began writing in English as a 21-year-old refugee in England, although Kiswahili is his first language. His first novel, Memory of Departure, was published in 1987.
He has written several works that raise questions about ideas of belonging, colonialism, displacement, memory, and migration. His novel Paradise, set in colonial East Africa during World War I, was shortlisted for the 1994 Booker Prize.
Compared to Moyez G. Vassanji, a Canadian author who grew up in Tanzania, whose attention focuses on East African Indian society and their interaction with “others,” Gurnah’s novel Paradise applies multi-ethnicity and multiculturalism to the shores of the Indian Ocean. from the perspective of the Swahili elite.
As a prominent academic and critic, he recently sat on the board of the Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature and has served as a contributing editor of the literary magazine Wasafiri for many years.
He is currently Professor Emeritus of English and Postcolonial Literatures at the University of Kent, after retiring in 2017.
Why is Gurnah’s work celebrated – what’s powerful about it?
He was awarded the Nobel
for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the bay between cultures and continents.
He is one of the most important contemporary postcolonial novelists writing in Britain today and is the first black African writer to win the award since Wole Soyinka in 1986. Gurnah is also the first Tanzanian writer to win.
His latest novel, Afterlives, is about Ilyas, who was taken from his parents by German colonial troops as a boy and returns to his village after many years of fighting against his own people. The power of Gurnah’s writing lies in this ability to complicate the Manichean divisions of enemies and friends and to uncover hidden stories that reveal the changing nature of identity and experience.
Which Gurnah job stands out to you, and why?
The novel Paradise stands out to me because Gurnah in it maps the Polish-British author Joseph Conrad’s journey from the 19th century to the “heart of darkness” from an East African position to the west. As the South African researcher Johan Jacobs has said, he
reconfigures the darkness of the heart … In his fictional transaction with Heart of Darkness, Gurnah shows in Paradise that the corruption of the trade of submission and slavery precedes European colonization, and that in East Africa there has always been weaving and slavery in the social fabric.
The story is told so gently by 12-year-old Yusuf, who lovingly describes gardens and various notions of paradise and their corruption, while being pawned between masters and traveling to different parts of the interior from the coast. Yusuf concludes that the brutality of German colonialism is still preferable to the ruthless exploitation of the Arabs.
Like Achebe in Things Fall Apart (1958), Gurnah illustrates East African society on the brink of major change, showing that colonialism accelerated this process but did not start it.
Is the Nobel Prize for Literature still relevant?
It is still relevant because it is still the largest single prize for literature. But the method of selecting a winner is rather secretive and depends on nominations from within the academy, meaning doctors and professors of literature and previous laureates. This means that although the potential nominees are often discussed in advance by experts, no one actually knows who is going until the prize winner is announced. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, for example, is a Kenyan writer who many believe should have won now, along with a number of others like Ivan Vladislavic from South Africa.
Winning puts global focus on an author who has often not received full recognition from other awards, or whose work has been neglected in translation, thus breathing new life into works that many have not read before and deserve to be read more widely.