/ 12 November 2021

Abdulrazak Gurnah: Nobel prize honours a self-effacing and unassuming talent

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Abdulrazak Gurnah distils the precarious experience of the exile, the refugee and the asylum seeker into his novels. (Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images)

Not a few literary folks around the world were bemused when the Swedish Academy announced in Stockholm on Thursday, October 7 that the Zanzibari novelist, Abdulrazak Gurnah, had been awarded the 2021 Nobel prize in literature “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents”. The curiosity has less to do with his being an African than his being a relatively unheralded author internationally. Had the prize gone to a better-known East African novelist, Kenya’s Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o or Somalia’s Nuruddin Farah, there might have been less bafflement.

In the event, Gurnah, 72, became the first black African to receive the Nobel prize for literature since the Nigerian dramatist, poet and novelist Wole Soyinka, in 1986; and overall, the fourth black recipient after Soyinka, Derek Walcott, the poet and playwright from the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia, in 1992, and the American novelist Toni Morrison, in 1993.

Gurnah’s is a superb, self-effacing talent whose understated energy and dedication has seen him steadily produce 10 novels to date: Memory of Departure (1987), Pilgrims Way (1988), Dottie (1990), Paradise (1994), Admiring Silence (1996), By the Sea (2001), Desertion (2005), The Last Gift (2011), Gravel Heart (2017) and Afterlives (2020).

With grace, delicacy and a keen sense of observation, Gurnah fictionalises the autobiographical in the coming-of-age/rite-of-passage story told by his début novel Memory of Departure:

“My mother was in the backyard, starting the fire. Snatches of the prayer she was chanting reached me before I went out. I found her with her head lowered over the brazier, blowing gently to coax the charcoal into flames. The saucepan of water was ready by her feet. When she glanced round, I saw that the fire had darkened her face and brought tears to her eyes. I asked for the bread money, and she frowned as if loath to be disturbed from tending the flames. She reached into the bodice of her dress and pulled out the knotted handkerchief in which she kept her money. The coins she put in my hand were warm from her body, and felt soft and round without edges.

‘Don’t take forever,’ she said, and turned back to the fire without raising her eyes to my face. I left the house without greeting her and was sorry as soon as my back was turned.

She was then in her early thirties but seemed older. Her hair had already turned grey, and the years had ruined her face, etching it with bitterness. Her glance was often reproachful, and small acts of neglect provoked her into resentful stares. Sometimes her face came to life with a smile, but slowly and unwillingly. I felt guilty about her, but I thought she might have smiled to greet me into manhood.”

Gurnah extends or widens the imaginative scope of his inquiry into the human condition, and of the compassionate intelligence and range of perspectives he brings to bear on the plight of the dispossessed and disinherited. His work offers important insights into exile and diaspora, identity and uprootedness, migration and displacement, alienation and belonging, memory and loss.

Gurnah distils the precarious experience of the exile, the refugee and the asylum seeker into his novels, chronicling their predicament with empathy and sensitivity, nuance and complexity. Reaching deep into post-independence disillusionment, psychological dislocation as well as the contexts and consequences of slavery and colonialism (both British and German), he examines history, memory and trauma as they impact East Africa and its littoral states in the Indian Ocean.

With exquisite subtlety and economy of language, he delineates character and evokes mood, setting and atmosphere in the opening of his fourth novel Paradise, shortlisted for the Booker prize in 1994:

“The boy first. His name was Yusuf, and he left his home suddenly during his 12th year. He remembered it was the season of drought, when every day was the same as the last. Unexpected flowers bloomed and died. Strange insects scuttled from under rocks and writhed to their deaths in the burning light. The sun made distant trees tremble in the air and made the houses shudder and heave for breath. Clouds of dust puffed up at every tramping footfall and a hard-edged stillness lay over the daylight hours.

He saw two Europeans on the railway platform at that time, the first he had ever seen. He was not frightened, not at first. He went to the station often, to watch the trains come noisily and gracefully in, and then to wait for them to haul themselves out again, marshalled by the scowling Indian signalman with his pennants and whistle. Often Yusuf waited hours for a train to arrive. The two Europeans were also waiting, standing under a canvas awning with their luggage and important-looking goods neatly piled a few feet away. […]. As he watched, Yusuf saw the woman run her handkerchief over her lips, casually rubbing off flakes of dry skin. The man’s face was mottled with red, and as his eyes moved slowly over the cramped landscape of the station, taking in the locked wooden storehouses and the huge yellow flag with its picture of a glaring black bird, Yusuf was able to take a long look at him. Then he turned and saw Yusuf staring. The man glanced away at first and then looked back at Yusuf for a long moment. Yusuf could not tear his eyes away. Suddenly the man bared his teeth in an involuntary snarl, curling his fingers in an inexplicable way. Yusuf heeded the warning and fled, muttering the words he had been taught to say when he required sudden and unexpected help from God.”

One of Africa’s most distinguished novelists and literary scholars, Gurnah was born on the island of Zanzibar (also Unguja), a partially self-governing area or territory of Tanzania, on December 20, 1948. Zanzibar is part of the Zanzibar Archipelago—in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of East Africa — also comprising Pemba Island and other, smaller islands. Soon after its December 10, 1963 independence from Britain, Zanzibar witnessed a violent revolution when African revolutionaries toppled the island’s largely Arab leadership, the Sultanate, then headed by Sultan Jamshid bin Abdullah, on January 12, 1964, when the People’s Republic of Zanzibar and Pemba was established. Fusing with Tanganyika (which, on December 9, 1961, attained independence from Britain), it became United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar on April 26, 1964. On October 29, 1964, the east African country became the United Republic of Tanzania, deriving its name mainly from a combination of Tanganyika and Zanzibar. 

The Zanzibar revolution was set in motion by John Okello, a Ugandan, before Abeid Karume returned from mainland Tanzania to become Zanzibar’s president and head of state while also serving as vice president of Tanzania, whose president was Julius Nyerere. Thousands of Arabs and south Asians were killed in the revolution; many fled the island.

Gurnah himself is neither Arab nor Asian but a Kiswahili-speaking black African. Nevertheless, disillusioned with the new dispensation in Zanzibar, he too fled, emigrating to the UK at 18 in 1967. As he recalls in an article in The Guardian in 2001, “When I came to England in the late 60s, Sergeant Pepper was ruling the land, de Gaulle was the Great Satan and it was only months before Enoch Powell made his classical allusion to the Tiber. […]. I arrived in Britain at around the same time, although I wasn’t Asian. I came from Zanzibar, a small island off [east] Africa which in 1964 had seen a violent uprising that led to catastrophic upheaval. Thousands were slaughtered, whole communities were expelled and many hundreds imprisoned. In the shambles and persecutions that followed, a vindictive terror ruled our lives. At 18, the year after I finished school, I escaped. Many others did the same; some were captured and disappeared, most got safely away.”

Despite encountering hostility and resentment in Britain, Gurnah attended Christ Church College, Canterbury where he earned his Bachelor’s degree. In 1982 he gained his doctorate at the University of Kent, also at Canterbury, where he has had a long and illustrious career as professor of English and postcolonial literatures. Having retired in 2017, he is now emeritus professor. He had also taught at Bayero University Kano in northern Nigeria (1980-1983).

Apart from short stories, Gurnah has written essays on authors such as V S Naipaul, Wole Soyinka, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Salman Rushdie, Zoë Wicomb and Dambudzo Marechera. In 1987, he became a contributing editor of Wasafiri, a UK-based international literary magazine whose name is Kiswahili for “travellers”. Gurnah is also editor of Essays on African WritingVolume 1: A Re-evaluation (1993) and Volume 2: Contemporary Literature (1995)—and The Cambridge Companion to Salman Rushdie (2007).

Gurnah’s Nobel is the climax of a year that has witnessed the global recognition of contemporary literature from Africa. Damon Galgut’s Booker prize, for his novel The Promise, makes him one of three South Africans to be so honoured, after two Nobel laureates: Nadine Gordimer, with The Conservationist, in 1974 and JM Coetzee, with Life & Times of Michael K in 1983 and Disgrace in 1999.

Tsitsi Dangarembga, the Zimbabwean writer, received a trio of awards: PEN International Award for Freedom of Expression, PEN Pinter prize and the Peace prize of the German Book Trade.

Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, the 31-year-old Senegalese writer, earned France’s prestigious Le prix Goncourt for his novel La plus secrète mémoire des hommes, making him the first author from sub-Saharan Africa to receive the prize first awarded to a black writer 100 years ago when the Martinique-born poet and novelist, René Maran, got it for his novel Batouala, veritable roman negre in 1921.