THE 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to the novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah, born in Zanzibar and active in England, “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 is contained in q statement by the Chairman of the Nobel Committee of The Swedish Academy, Anders Olssen. Abdulrazak Gurnah was born in 1948 and grew up on the island of Zanzibar in the Indian Ocean but arrived in England as a refugee in the end of the 1960’s. 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 victimized 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 eighteen 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.
Gurnah’s writing is from his time in exile but pertains to his relationship with the place he had left, which means that memory is of vital importance for the genesis of his work. His debut novel, ‘Memory of Departure’, from 1987, is about a failed uprising and keeps us on the African continent. The gifted young protagonist attempts to disengage from the social blight of the coast, hoping to be taken under the wing of a prosperous uncle in Nairobi. Instead he is humiliated and returned to his broken family, the alcoholic and violent father and a sister forced into prostitution.
Gurnah often allows his carefully constructed narratives to lead up to a hard-won insight. A good example is the third novel, ‘Dottie’ (1990), a portrait of a Black woman of immigrant background growing up in harsh conditions in racially charged 1950’s England, and because of her mother’s silence lacking connection with her own family history. At the same time, she feels rootless in England, the country she was born and grew up in. The novel’s protagonist attempts to create her own space and identity through books and stories; reading gives her a chance to reconstruct herself. Not least names and name changes play a central role in a novel that shows Gurnah’s deep compassion and psychological adroitness, completely without sentimentality. In Gurnah’s treatment of the refugee experience, focus is on identity and self-image, apparent not least in ‘Admiring Silence’ (1996) and ‘By the Sea’ (2001).
In both these first-person novels silence is presented as the refugee’s strategy to shield his identity from racism and prejudice, but also as a means of avoiding a collision between past and present, producing disappointment and disastrous self-deception. Gurnah’s dedication to truth and his aversion to simplification are striking. This can make him bleak and uncompromising, at the same time as he follows the fates of individuals with great compassion and unbending commitment. His novels recoil from stereotypical descriptions and open our gaze to a culturally diversified East Africa unfamiliar to many in other parts of the world. In Gurnah’s literary universe, everything is shifting – memories, names, identities.
This is probably because his project cannot reach completion in any definitive sense. An unending exploration driven by intellectual passion is present in all his books, and equally prominent now, in ‘Afterlives’ (2020), as when he began writing as a 21-year-old refugee.