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Nobel winner Abdulrazak Gurnah is a storyteller of the lingering trauma of colonialism

  • >> Alexandra Alter and Alex Marshall, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-10-09 13:39:45 BdST

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Abdulrazak Gurnah reads for a Canterbury Cathedral project in Canterbury, Britain June 2021, in this screengrab obtained from a social media video. Video recorded in June 2021. CHAPTER OF CANTERBURY CATHEDRAL/via REUTERS

Growing up in Zanzibar, an archipelago off the coast of Tanzania, Abdulrazak Gurnah never considered the possibility that he might one day be a writer.

“It never occurred to me,” he said in an interview. “It wasn’t something you could say as you were growing up, ‘I want to be a writer.’” He assumed he would become “something useful, like an engineer.”

Then, in 1964, a violent uprising forced Gurnah, at age 18, to flee to England. Miserable, poor, homesick, he began to write scraps about home in his diary, then longer entries, then stories about other people. Those scattered reflections, the habit of writing to understand and document his own dislocation, eventually gave rise to his first novel, then nine more — works that explore the lingering trauma of colonialism, war and displacement.

“The thing that motivated the whole experience of writing for me was this idea of losing your place in the world,” he said.

On Thursday, Gurnah was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, widely regarded as the most prestigious literary award in the world, for “his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”

Gurnah, 72, is the first Black writer to receive the prize since Toni Morrison in 1993, and some observers saw his selection as a long-overdue corrective after years of European and American Nobel laureates. He is the first African to win the award in more than a decade, preceded by Wole Soyinka of Nigeria in 1986, Naguib Mahfouz of Egypt, who won in 1988; and the South African winners Nadine Gordimer in 1991 and John Maxwell Coetzee in 2003. British-Zimbabwean novelist Doris Lessing won in 2007.

Amid the heated speculation in the run-up to this year’s award, the literature prize was called out for lacking diversity among its winners. Journalist Greta Thurfjell, writing in Dagens Nyheter, a Swedish newspaper, noted that 95 of the 117 past Nobel laureates were from Europe or North America, and that only 16 winners had been women. “Can it really continue like that?” she asked.

In his 10 novels, Gurnah has often explored the themes of exile, identity and belonging. They include “Memory of Departure,” “Pilgrims Way” and “Dottie,” which all deal with the immigrant experience in Britain; “Paradise,” shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994, about a boy in an East African country scarred by colonialism; and “Admiring Silence,” about a young man who leaves Zanzibar for England, where he marries and becomes a teacher. His most recent work, “Afterlives,” explores the generational effects of German colonialism in Tanzania, and how it divided communities.

Anders Olsson, the chair of the committee that awards the prize, said at a news conference Thursday that Gurnah “is widely recognized as one of the world’s more preeminent post-colonial writers.” Gurnah “has consistently and with great compassion, penetrated the effects of colonialism in East Africa and its effects on the lives of uprooted and migrating individuals,” he added.

The characters in his novels, Olsson said, “find themselves in the gulf between cultures and continents, between the life left behind and the life to come, confronting racism and prejudice, but also compelling themselves to silence the truth or reinventing biography to avoid conflict with reality.”

Gurnah’s first language is Swahili, but he adopted English as his literary language, with his prose often inflected with traces of Swahili, Arabic and German. He drew on the imagery and stories from the Quran, as well as from Arabic and Persian poetry, particularly “The Arabian Nights.” Occasionally, he had to push back against publishers who wanted to italicize or Anglicize Swahili and Arabic references and phrases in his books, he said.

“There’s a way in which British publishing, and perhaps American publishing as well, always wants to make the alien seem alien,” he said. “They want you to italicize it or even put a glossary. And I think no, no, no, no.”

The news of Gurnah’s Nobel was celebrated by fellow novelists and academics who have long argued that his work deserves a wider audience.

The novelist Maaza Mengiste described his prose as being “like a gentle blade slowly moving in.” “His sentences are deceptively soft, but the cumulative force for me felt like a sledgehammer,” she said.

“He has written work that is absolutely unflinching and yet at the same time completely compassionate and full of heart for people of East Africa,” Mengiste said. “He is writing stories that are often quiet stories of people who aren’t heard, but there’s an insistence there that we listen.”

Laura Winters, writing in The New York Times in 1996, called “Paradise” “a shimmering, oblique coming-of-age fable,” adding that “Admiring Silence” was a work that “skillfully depicts the agony of a man caught between two cultures, each of which would disown him for his links to the other.”

But despite being hailed as “one of Africa’s greatest living writers” by author Giles Foden, Gurnah’s books have rarely received the kind of commercial reception that some previous laureates have.

Lola Shoneyin, the director of the Ake Arts and Book Festival in Nigeria, said that she expected the Nobel Prize would draw a larger audience for Gurnah on the African continent, where his work is not very widely known, and that she hoped his historical fiction might inspire younger generations to reflect more deeply on their countries’ pasts.

“If we are not looking very actively and deliberately at what has gone on in the past, how can we forge a successful future for ourselves in the continent?” she said.

Gurnah was born in Zanzibar, which is now part of Tanzania, in 1948. After moving to England, he started writing fiction in his 20s. He finished his first novel, “Memory of Departure,” about a young man who flees a failed uprising, at the same time he was writing his doctoral dissertation. He became a professor of English and postcolonial literatures at the University of Kent in Canterbury, teaching the work of writers such as Soyinka, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Salman Rushdie.

In both his scholarly work and his fiction, Gurnah has tried to uncover “the way in which colonialism transformed everything in the world, and people who are living through it are still processing that experience and some of its wounds,” he said.

The same themes that occupied him early in his career, when he was processing the effects of his own displacement, feel equally urgent today, he said, as both Europe and America have been gripped with a backlash against immigrants and refugees, and political instability and war have driven more people from their home countries. “It’s a kind of meanness and miserliness on the part of these prosperous countries that say, we don’t want these people,” he said. “They’re getting these literally handfuls of people compared to European migrations.”

Though Gurnah hasn’t lived in Tanzania since he was a teenager, the country continues to inspire him. He said that his homeland always asserts himself in his imagination, even when he deliberately tries to set his stories elsewhere. “You don’t have to be there to write about a place,” he said. “It’s all in the fibre of everything you are.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company