National Post (Latest Edition)
Tanzanian novelist who ‘upended colonial perspective’ wins Nobel Prize
STOCKHOLM • Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah won the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee,” the award-giving body said on Thursday.
Based in Britain and writing in English, Gurnah, 72, joins Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka as the only two non-white writers from sub-saharan Africa ever to win what is widely seen as the world’s most prestigious literary award.
His novels include Paradise, set in colonial East Africa during the First World War and shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction, and Desertion.
“Gurnah’s itinerant characters in England or on the African continent find themselves in the gulf between cultures and continents, between the life left behind and the life to come,” Anders Olsson, head of the Swedish Academy Nobel Committee, told reporters.
“I dedicate this Nobel Prize to Africa and Africans and to all my readers. Thanks!” Gurnah tweeted after the announcement.
He told Reuters the prize was “such a complete surprise that I really had to wait until I heard it announced before I could believe it.”
Gurnah left Africa as a refugee in the 1960s amid the persecution of citizens of Arab origin on the Indian Ocean archipelago of Zanzibar, which would unite with the mainland territory Tanganyika to form Tanzania. He was able to return only in 1984, seeing his father shortly before his death.
His selection for the top honour in literature comes at a time of global tensions around migration, as millions of people flee violence and poverty in places such as Syria, Afghanistan and Central America, or are displaced by climate change. Olsson said the committee’s choice was not a response to recent headlines, and it had been following Gurnah’s work for years.
Though Swahili was his first language, English became Gurnah’s literary tool when he began writing as a 21-year-old.
He has drawn inspiration from Arabic and Persian poetry as well as the Qur’an, but the English-language tradition, from William Shakespeare to V. S. Naipaul, would especially mark his work, the Swedish Academy said.
“That said, it must be stressed that he consciously breaks with convention, upending the colonial perspective to highlight that of the Indigenous populations,” said the academy, a 235-yearold Swedish institute which awards the $1.4 million prize.
It was the second literature Nobel in a row awarded to a writer in English, and the fourth of the last six, an unusually long stretch for the prize to be dominated by a single language.
Peter Morey of the University of Birmingham singled out Gurnah’s “fearless understanding of the connections between people and places and how they change over time in the face of the boundaries and borders designed to keep them apart.”