Tanzanian writer Abdulrazak Gurnah, whose experience of crossing continents and cultures has fed his novels on the impact of migration on individuals and societies, won the Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday.
Gurnah joins the ranks of illustrious laureates such as Toni Morrison, Kazuo Ishiguro, Wole Soyinka and Gabriel García Márquez.
The Swedish Academy said Gurnah was honored for “his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the plight of refugees in the chasm between culture and continents.”
“Gurnah’s dedication to truth and his aversion to simplification is striking,” the academy said. “His novels recoil from stereotypical descriptions and open our eyes to a culturally diverse East Africa, unknown to many in other parts of the world.”
Gurnah, who recently retired as a professor of post-colonial literature at the University of Kent in south-east England, got the academy’s call in his home kitchen – and initially thought it was a prank.
He said he was “surprised and humbled” by the price.
Gurnah said the themes of migration and displacement he explores “are things that are with us every day” – even more now than when he came to Britain in the 1960s.
“People are dying, people are injured all over the world. We have to deal with these issues in the kindest way, ”he said. “It is still dark that the academy has chosen to highlight these themes which are present throughout my work. It is important to approach them and talk about them.
Born in 1948 on the island of Zanzibar, now part of Tanzania, Gurnah moved to Britain as a teenage refugee in 1968, fleeing a repressive regime that persecuted the Arab-Muslim community to which he belonged. He said he “stumbled upon” writing after arriving in England as a way to explore both the loss and the liberation of the immigrant experience.
He is the author of 10 novels, including “Memory of Departure”, “Pilgrims Way”, “Paradise” – which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994 – “By the Sea” and “Desertion”. The academy said that Gurnah’s 2020 book, “Afterlives,” was marked with the same intellectual passion he showed when he started writing at the age of 21.
Many of his works explore what he called “one of the stories of our time”: the profound impact of migration on both uprooted people and the places where they settle.
Anders Olsson, chairman of the Nobel Committee for Literature, called him “one of the most prominent postcolonial writers in the world”. He said it was significant that Gurnah’s roots were in Zanzibar, a place that “was cosmopolitan long before the globalization bonus”.
“His work gives us a vivid and very precise picture of another Africa less known to many readers, a coastal area in and around the Indian Ocean marked by slavery and changing forms of repression under different regimes and powers. colonial: Portuguese, Indian, Arab, German and British, ”said Olsson.
He added that the characters of Gurnah “find themselves in the chasm between cultures (…)”
Luca Prono said on the British Council website that in Gurnah’s work “identity is a matter of constant change”. Prono, an academic, said the characters in Gurnah “disrupt the fixed identities of the people they meet in the environments to which they migrate.”
Gurnah, whose mother tongue is Swahili but who writes in English, is only the sixth writer of African descent to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, dominated by European and North American writers since the prize was created in 1901 .
Nigerian writer Soyinka, who won the Nobel Prize in 1986, hailed the latest African laureate as proof that “the arts – and literature, in particular – are doing well, a strong flag waved above the depressing news “in a” continent in permanent work. “
“Let the tribe grow! Soyinka told The Associated Press in an email.
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News of the award was greeted with enthusiasm in Zanzibar, where many remember Gurnah and her family – although few actually read her books.
Gurnah’s books are not compulsory reading in schools there and “are hardly available,” said local Education Minister Simai Mohammed Said, whose wife is Gurnah’s niece. But, he added, “a son from Zanzibar brought so much pride.”
“The reaction is fantastic. Many are happy but many do not know him, even if the young people are proud that he is Zanzibar, ”said Farid Himid, who described himself as a local historian whose father had taught the Koran to young Gurnah. “I haven’t had the chance to read any of his books, but my family has mentioned them.”
Gurnah didn’t travel to Zanzibar often, he said, but he suddenly became the topic of conversation for young people in the semi-autonomous island region.
“And a lot of older people are very, very happy – so am I, as a Zanzibar. It’s a new step for people to read books again, since the internet has taken over, ”Himid said.
Favorites for this year’s literature award, according to British bookies, included Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o, French writer Annie Ernaux, Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, Canadian Margaret Atwood and Antiguan writer Jamaica Kincaid.
Last year’s award went to American poet Louise Glück for what the judges described as her “unique poetic voice which, with austere beauty, makes individual existence universal”.
Glück was a popular choice after several years of controversy. In 2018, the award was postponed after allegations of sexual abuse rocked the Swedish Academy, the secret body that chooses the winners. The awarding of the 2019 prize to Austrian writer Peter Handke sparked protests because of his strong support for the Serbs during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
The prestigious award is accompanied by a gold medal and 10 million Swedish kronor (over $ 1.14 million). The prize money comes from a bequest left by the creator of the prize, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, who died in 1895.
On Monday, the Nobel Committee awarded the Physiology or Medicine Prize to Californian scientists David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian for their findings on how the human body perceives temperature and touch it.
The physics prize was awarded Tuesday to three scientists whose work has tidied up apparent disorder, helping to explain and predict complex forces of nature, including climate change.
Benjamin List and David WC MacMillan were named Nobel laureates in chemistry on Wednesday for finding a simpler and greener way to build molecules that can be used to make compounds, including drugs and pesticides.
The Peace Prize will be announced on Friday and the Economy Prize on Monday.