Abdulrazak Gurnah was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2021. The British-based Tanzanian novelist was awarded the prize for his “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the bay between cultures and continents”.
Migration and cultural clean-up, along with the cultural and ethnic diversity of East Africa, are at the heart of Gurnah’s fiction. They have also shaped his personal life.
Gurnah was born in Zanzibar in 1948 and came to Britain in the 1960s as a refugee. When he was of Arab origin, he was forced to flee his birthplace during the revolution of 1964 and did not return until 1984 in time to visit his dying father. Until his retirement, he was a full-time professor of English and postcolonial literature at the University of Kent at Canterbury.
Gurnah has to date written ten novels, including the Booker-nominated Paradise in 1994 and By the Sea in 2001. His latest novel, Afterlives, was described by the Sunday Times as “an audio archive for a lost Africa”, and in fact the opening pages of this and many of his other works take the reader directly into the oral storytelling.
Afterlives is set against the backdrop of German rule in East Africa in the early 20th century. It tells the story of a young boy sold to German colonial troops. The novel was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction in 2021 and longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.
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Gurnah’s work draws attention to the tension between personal history and collective history. In particular, Afterlives urges readers to consider the aftermath of colonialism and war and its long-term effects, not only on nations, but also, and perhaps most importantly, on individuals and families.
Influence and style
His writing is strongly influenced by the cultural and ethnic diversity of his native Zanzibar. Shaped by its geographical location in the Indian Ocean off the coast of East Africa, it was at the center of the major trade routes in the Indian Ocean.
The island attracted merchants and colonists from what was then known as Arabia (present-day Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the UAE), South Asia, mainland Africa, and later Europe.
Gurnah’s writing reflects this diversity with its many voices and its range of references to literary sources. Most of all, it insists on hybridity and diversity in the light of Afrocentrism, which dominated the East African independence movements of the 20th century.
His first novel, Memory of Departure, published in 1987, is around the time Gurnah left Zanzibar. An adult story in the form of a memoir, it follows the protagonist’s attempt to leave his birthplace and study abroad.
Consequences of colonialism
His novel Paradise is similarly perceived as an adult tale, although it was set earlier in time, in the early 19th and early 20th centuries, when Europeans began to establish colonies on the East African coast. Paradise also addresses domestic slavery in Africa, with a bound slave as the main character.
Above all, Paradise highlights the great diversity of Gurnah’s literary repertoire and gathers references to Swahili texts, Quranic and biblical traditions, and the work of Joseph Conrad.
Gurnah’s work, with its diverse textual references and its attention to archives, reflects and touches on broader concerns in postcolonial literature. His novels deliberately consider the deletion of African narratives and perspectives as an important consequence of European colonialism.
When Gurnah’s work highlights conversations between the individual and history, Gurnah’s work has similarities with Salman Rushdie – another postcolonial writer who is equally aware of the relationship between personal memory and the larger narratives of history. In fact, Gurnah, along with his novels, is also the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Salman Rushdie, published in 2007.
Gurnah’s books ask: how do we remember a past deliberately obscured and erased from the colonial archive? Many postcolonial writers with different backgrounds have addressed this issue, from the aforementioned Rushdie to the Jamaican writer Michelle Cliff, who both highlight personal memory and history against a collective history written by those in power.
Gurnah’s work continues this conversation about the long shadow of colonialism and applies a diversity of textual traditions in the process of remembering deleted narratives.