Gurnah, Tanzanian novelist of colonialism and refuge, wins 2021 Nobel Prize

STOCKHOLM, Oct. 7 (Reuters) – Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah has won the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the plight of refugees,” the organization that awarded them said Thursday .

Based in Britain and writing in English, Gurnah, 72, joins Nigerian Wole Soyinka as the only two non-white writers from sub-Saharan Africa to have won what is widely regarded as the world’s most prestigious literary award.

Her novels include “Paradise”, set in colonial East Africa during World War I and shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction, and “Desertion”.

“The itinerant characters of Gurnah in England or on the African continent find themselves in the chasm between cultures and continents, between the life left behind and the life to come,” Anders Olsson, chairman of the Nobel committee of the Swedish Academy.

“I dedicate this Nobel Prize to Africa and Africans and to all my readers. Thank you ! Gurnah tweeted after the announcement.

He told Reuters the prize was “such a complete surprise that I really had to wait until I heard it announced before I could believe it.”

Gurnah left Africa as a refugee in the 1960s amid persecution of citizens of Arab descent on the Indian Ocean archipelago of Zanzibar, who would unite with the mainland of Tanganyika to form the Tanzania. He was only able to return in 1984, seeing his father shortly before his death.

Its selection for Highest Honor in Literature comes at a time of global tensions around migration, as millions flee violence and poverty in places like Syria, Afghanistan and Central America, or are displaced by climate change. Olsson said the committee’s choice was not a response to recent headlines and that he has been following Gurnah’s work for years.

Although Swahili is his mother tongue, English became Gurnah’s literary tool when he started writing at the age of 21.

He drew inspiration from Arabic and Persian poetry as well as the Koran, but the English-speaking tradition, from William Shakespeare to VS Naipaul, will particularly mark his work, the Swedish Academy said.


“That said, it must be emphasized that it consciously breaks with conventions, upsetting the colonial perspective to highlight that of the indigenous populations,” said the academy, a 235-year-old Swedish language institute which awards the 10 million Swedish crowns ($ 1.14). million) price.

Abdulrazak Gurnah is reading for a Canterbury Cathedral project in Canterbury, Britain in June 2021, in this screenshot obtained from a video on social media. Video recorded in June 2021. CANTERBURY CATHEDRAL CHAPTER / via REUTERS

It was the second consecutive Nobel Prize for Literature awarded to a writer in English, and the fourth of the last six, an unusually long period for the prize to be dominated by a single language.

In an interview with the Academy, Gurnah said that many Europeans misunderstood the idea of ​​migration.

“When a lot of these people who come in come out of both need, and also because, quite frankly, they have something to give,” he said. “They don’t come empty-handed. A lot of them are talented, energetic people with something to give.”

“So that could be another way of looking at it. You don’t just accept people as if they are poverty stricken things. “

Eliah Mwaifuge, professor of literature at the University of Tanzania in Dar es Salaam, said Gurnah “really deserves this award”, although the writer’s work is better known abroad than in Tanzania itself.


Peter Morey, a researcher at the University of Birmingham, highlighted Gurnah’s “intrepid understanding of the connections between people and places and how they change over time in the face of limits and boundaries designed to separate them.”

“In one of his novels he describes the memory of exile as being ‘a dark, empty warehouse with rotten planks and rusty ladders where you spend time rummaging through abandoned goods,” “Morey said. .

Since Soyinka became the first African to win the award in 1986, it has been won by Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz and three white African writers – South Africans Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee, and Doris Lessing, raised in Southern Rhodesia. under British rule, now Zimbabwe.

Past laureates in literature have mainly been novelists like Ernest Hemingway, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison, poets like Pablo Neruda, Joseph Brodsky and Rabindranath Tagore, or playwrights like Harold Pinter and Eugene O’Neill.

But writers have also won awards for works that include short fiction, history, essays, biographies or journalism. Winston Churchill won for his memoirs, Bertrand Russell for his philosophy and Bob Dylan for his lyrics. Last year’s award was won by American poet Louise Gluck.

Beyond the prize money and prestige, the Nobel Prize in Literature attracts great attention for the winning author, often boosting book sales and introducing lesser-known laureates to a wider international audience.

($ 1 = SEK 8.7856)

Reporting by Simon Johnson and Niklas Pollard in Stockholm and Justyna Pawlak in Warsaw; additional reporting by Johan Ahlander in Gothenburg, Guy Faulconbridge in London and Terje Solsvik in Oslo; Editing by Peter Graff

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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