Novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah was named the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature awardee on Thursday “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, who grew up on the island of Zanzibar, arrived in England as a refugee at the end of the 1960s.
After the peaceful liberation from British colonial rule in December 1963, Zanzibar went through a revolution which, under President Abeid Karume’s regime, led to oppression and persecution of citizens of Arab origin; massacres occurred. Gurnah belonged to the victimised ethnic group and after finishing school was forced to leave his family and flee the country, by then the newly formed Republic of Tanzania.
He was 18 years old. Not until 1984 was it possible for him to return to Zanzibar, allowing him to see his father shortly before the father’s death. 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, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Salman Rushdie.
Gurnah has published ten novels and a number of short stories. The theme of the refugee’s disruption runs throughout his work. He began writing as a 21-year-old in English exile, and even though Swahili was his first language, English became his literary tool. He has said that in Zanzibar, his access to literature in Swahili was virtually nil and his earliest writing could not strictly be counted as literature.
Arabic and Persian poetry, especially The Arabian Nights, were an early and significant wellspring for him, as were the Quran’s surahs. But the English-language tradition, from Shakespeare to V. S. Naipaul, would especially mark his work. That said, it must be stressed that he consciously breaks with convention, upending the colonial perspective to highlight that of the indigenous populations.
"Thus, his novel Desertion (2005) about a love affair becomes a blunt contradiction to what he has called “the imperial romance”, where a conventionally European hero returns home from romantic escapades abroad, upon which the story reaches its inevitable, tragic resolution. In Gurnah, the tale continues on African soil and never actually ends," according to the award-giving body.