Nobel prize in literature 2021 to novelist from Zanzibar

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Tags: Nobel Prize | Literature | 2021

The novelist from Zanzibar, Abdulrazak Gurnah, has become the new laureate “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents” becoming the first black African writer in 35 years to win prestigious award.

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 1960s. and he was eighteen years old. 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. 

In all his work, Gurnah has striven to avoid the ubiquitous nostalgia for a more pristine pre-colonial Africa. His own background is a culturally diversified island in the Indian Ocean, with a history of slave trade and various forms of oppression under a number of colonial powers – Portuguese, Arab, German and British – and with trade connections with the entire world. Zanzibar was a cosmopolitan society before globalisation.

Gurnah’s latest novel, the magnificent Afterlives from 2020, takes up where Paradise ends. And as in that work, the setting is the beginning of the 20th century, a time before the end of German colonisation of East Africa in 1919. Hamza, a youth reminiscent of Yusuf in Paradise, is forced to go to war on the Germans’ side and becomes dependent on an officer who sexually exploits him. He is wounded in an internal clash between German soldiers and is left at a field hospital for care. But when he returns to his birthplace on the coast he finds neither family nor friends. History’s capricious winds rule and as in Desertion we follow the plot through several generations, up until the Nazis’ unrealised plan for the recolonisation of East Africa. Gurnah again uses name-changing when the story shifts course and Hamza’s son Ilias becomes Elias under German rule. The denouement is shocking and as unexpected as it is alarming. But in fact the same thought recurs constantly in the book: the individual is defenceless if the reigning ideology – here, racism – demands submission and sacrifice.

Source: Nobel Prize official website