Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah, 72, won the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature for his writing on the “effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee," the award-giving body said on Thursday.
Born in 1948 on the island of Zanzibar, now part of Tanzania, Gurnah moved to Britain as a young refugee in 1968. He fled following the country’s liberation from British rule because then-President Abeid Karume's regime mistreated Gurnah’s Arab Muslim community.
Gurnah is the first African writer to win the award since the Zimbabwean Doris Lessing in 2007. Among the winners, he is only the second writer of color from sub-Saharan Africa, after Nigeria's Wole Soyinka, who won in 1986.
Gurnah is the author of 10 novels, including "Memory of Departure," and "Pilgrims Way." His novel "Paradise" is set in colonial East Africa during the First World War. Many of his works explore what he has called "one of the stories of our times," the deep influence of migration both on people and the places they make their new homes.
Stumbled into writing
Gurnah recently retired as a professor of post-colonial literature at the University of Kent. He got the call from the Swedish Academy in his home in southeast England.
"I think it’s just brilliant and wonderful," Gurnah told Reuters when asked how he felt to win the prize. "It's just great – it’s just a big prize, and such a huge list of wonderful writers - I am still taking it in," he said.
He has said he "stumbled into" writing after arriving in England as a way of exploring the emigrant experience -- both the loss and liberation.
Gurnah’s native language is Swahili, but he writes in English. He is only the sixth Africa-born writer to be awarded the Nobel for literature. Since it was founded in 1901, it has mostly been awarded to European and North American writers.
Anders Olsson is chairman of the Nobel Committee for literature. He called Gurnah "one of the world's most prominent post-colonial writers." He said it was significant that Gurnah's roots are in Zanzibar, a place that "was cosmopolitan long before globalization..."
"His work gives us a … picture of another Africa not so well known for many readers, a coastal area in and around the Indian Ocean marked by slavery and … repression under different regimes and colonial powers: Portuguese, Indian, Arab, German and the British," Olsson said.
He said Gurnah's characters are “between cultures ... between the life left behind and the life to come.” They face racism and prejudice, but may not face the truth to avoid conflict with reality.
Back home in Zanzibar...
News of the award was greeted with excitement in Zanzibar, where those who knew Gurnah described him as soft-spoken and modest.
Farid Himid is a local historian whose father, a teacher, taught the young Gurnah. "The reaction is fantastic. Many are happy, but many don't know him, though the young people are proud that he's Zanzibari," he said.
"And many elder people are very, very happy. Also, me, as a Zanzibari. It's a new step to make people read books again, since the internet has taken over," Himid added.
The respected award comes with a gold medal and 10 million Swedish kronor (over $1.14 million). The money comes from the prize's creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, who died in 1895.
Past literature winners have mostly been novelists such as Ernest Hemingway, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison, poets such as Pablo Neruda, Joseph Brodsky and Rabindranath Tagore, or playwrights such as Harold Pinter and Eugene O'Neill.
But writers have also won for other kinds of work that include short fiction, history, essays, biography or journalism. Winston Churchill won for his memoirs, Bertrand Russell for his philosophy and Bob Dylan for his song lyrics.
Last year's prize went to American poet Louise Glück. Still to come are prizes for outstanding work in the fields of peace and economics.
I’m Jill Robbins.
David Keyton and Jill Lawless reported on this story for the Associated Press; Niklas Pollard and Johan Ahlander reported for Reuters, and Jill Robbins adapted it for Learning English. Susan Shand was the editor.
Words in This Story
novel – n. a long, written story about imaginary characters and events
fate – n. the things that will happen to a person or thing : the future that someone or something will have
liberate – v. the act or process of freeing someone or something from another's control
regime – n. a form of government
pilgrim – n. someone who travels to a holy place
paradise – n. a very beautiful, pleasant, or peaceful place that seems to be perfect
stumble – v. (always followed by an adverb or preposition) to find or learn about something unexpectedly
prominent – adj. important and well-known
cosmopolitan – adj. showing an interest in different cultures, ideas; having people from many different parts of the world
globalize – v. to make (something) cover, involve, or affect the entire world or, of a business: to begin to operate throughout the world
modest – adj. not showing or feeling great or excessive pride
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