Abdulrazak Gurnah, Chronicler of Migrant Experience, Wins 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature

A black and gold line drawing of Gurnah, an elderly Black man in a suit jacket and buttoned shirt
Abdulrazak Gurnah, 73, was awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday. Illustration by Niklas Elmehed © Nobel Prize Outreach

Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah has won 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.”

Born in 1948, the writer grew up in Zanzibar. After the island liberated itself from the British Empire in 1963, a violent uprising led to widespread persecution of Arab-descended minorities. As a member of a targeted ethnic group, 18-year-old Gurnah was forced to seek refuge in England, writes Alison Flood for the Guardian.

While in exile abroad, Gurnah wrote to cope with the trauma of dislocation.

“The thing that motivated the whole experience of writing for me was this idea of losing your place in the world,” he tells the New York Times’ Alexandra Alter and Alex Marshall.

Though Swahili is Gurnah’s first language, “English became his literary tool,” notes the Swedish Academy, which awards the annual prize, in a statement. Since 1987, he has published ten novels and numerous short stories, many of which follow the lives of refugees as they reckon with loss, displacement and the lasting trauma caused by European colonization of the African continent. A professor emeritus of English and postcolonial studies at the University of Kent, Gurnah has also published literary criticism on Indian-British novelist Salman Rushdie and Kenyan novelist and academic Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, among others.

Gurnah’s debut novel, Memory of Departure, relates the travails of a young man on the East African coast who comes of age under the oppressive conditions of a totalitarian regime. In Paradise, which was shortlisted for the 1994 Booker Prize and is described in the statement as his “breakthrough” work, Gurnah writes from the perspective of Yusuf, a 12-year-old boy who is forced into indentured servitude in East Africa in the years leading up to World War I.

As V.V. Ganeshananthan noted for the New York Times in 2017, even Gurnah’s minor characters tend to have “richly imagined histories” that bring their unique identities to life. This is an intentional choice: Speaking with Judyannet Muchiri of Africa in Words about his most recent novel, Afterlives, Gurnah explained:

My interest was not to write about the war or the ugliness of colonialism. Instead I want to make sure the context in which war and colonialism happened is understood. And that the people in that context were people with entire existences.

Gurnah’s win has been hailed by some as a sign of progress for the Swedish Academy, which has historically favored white, male and European writers. He is the first Black writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature since Toni Morrison in 1993, reports Andrew Limbong for NPR. Meanwhile, the last Black African writer to win the award was Wole Soyinka in 1986.

Speaking with Alex Shephard of the New Republic, Nobel Committee Chair Anders Olsson “demurred” on the question of whether Europe’s ongoing migrant crisis “had any immediate impact on our decision,” instead arguing that “the phenomenon of exile and migration has been there for many, many years.”

Gurnah was an unexpected honoree, Shephard writes, as his novels “are largely unknown outside of the U.K. and aren’t particularly well known inside of it.” On Twitter, journalist Jane Friedman pointed out that Gurnah has sold just 3,000 print copies in the United States to date.

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Last year, American poet Louise Glück won the award for her “unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.” Including Glück, just 16 of the prize’s 118 recipients have been women.

As Shephard observes in in his annual commentary on the award, “The prize has been awarded to Europeans 14 times this century—this despite the Nobel Committee’s vocal emphasis on greater diversity and its quasi-public apologies for the prize’s well-earned reputation for Eurocentrism.”

The Swedish Academy itself has been mired in controversy in recent years. In 2017, an academy member’s husband, Jean-Claude Arnault, was accused of serial sexual assault and leaking the names of prize winners to bookies. The resulting scandal delayed the announcement of the 2018 prize winner by a full year and led indirectly to the resignation of multiple academy members. Arnault was later convicted of rape and sentenced to two years in prison.

The academy has also faced criticism for its selection of Austrian author Peter Handke as the 2019 literature laureate. Handke has previously expressed support for late Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević and publicly denied the 1995 Srebrenica genocide.

Earlier this week, the Academy announced the Nobel Prizes for physics, chemistry and medicine. The winner of the Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday. Last year, the World Food Program, a United Nations organization that addresses food insecurity around the world, took home the prestigious award.

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