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Winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature have mostly been white, European men

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Tanzanian-born novelist Gurnah wins Nobel Literature Prize

Books written by Abdulrazak Gurnah, who has become the the fifth African to win the Nobel Literature Prize © AFP / Jonathan NACKSTRAND

Stockholm (AFP), Oct 7 – Tanzanian-born novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah on Thursday won the Nobel Literature Prize for his unflinching portrayal of the effects of colonialism and the trauma of the refugee experience.

Gurnah, 72, who grew up on the island of Zanzibar but arrived in England as a refugee in the late 1960s to escape revolution, is the fifth African to win the Nobel Literature Prize.

The Swedish Academy said Gurnah was honoured “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents”.

“I am absolutely overwhelmed and proud. It was completely unexpected,” Gurnah told AFP.

Earlier he had told the Nobel Prize website he was stunned to get the call from the Swedish Academy and “I thought it was a prank” as “these things are usually floated for weeks beforehand”.

“The Nobel prize, it’s an enormous honour,” he told AFP by telephone. “It means that something is getting through, that’s what the work attempts to do, persuading or successfully reaching through to people. I love that, I’m so happy about that.”

On being a refugee and the burning issue of immigration he explained: “I’ve written about the things that are happening in the world that I live in and at the moment the world that I live in envelops this issue, this concern. This is kind of the story of our time. There is a lot to write about… it’s not to be blind.

“I’m constantly interested in what it is that brought us here… What are the forces and historical moments that brought us here.”

The head of the Academy’s Nobel committee, Anders Olsson, said his writings had particular resonance with a record 82 million people fleeing wars, persecution and violence in 2020.

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Gurnah has published 10 novels and a number of short stories.

The theme of the refugee’s disruption runs throughout Gurnah’s work © AFP / Tolga Akmen

“His writings are extremely interesting right now for many, many people in Europe and around the world,” Olsson told reporters.

“In all his work, Gurnah has striven to avoid the ubiquitous nostalgia for a more pristine pre-colonial Africa,” the Academy said.

His itinerant characters “find themselves in a hiatus between cultures and continents, between a life that was and a life emerging; it is an insecure state that can never be resolved,” it added.

– Publisher ‘never expected it’ –

The theme of the refugee’s disruption runs throughout his work, with a focus on identity and self-image, also apparent in the 1996 novel “Admiring Silence” and “By the Sea” from 2001.

Tanzania hailed his win Thursday as a “victory” for the country and the African continent.

“You have certainly done justice to your profession, your victory is for Tanzania and Africa,” the government’s chief spokesperson said on Twitter.

After his win, Gurnah urged Europe to see African refugees as people who “come out of need” and who “quite frankly… have something to give”.

“They don’t come empty-handed. A lot of talented, energetic people who have something to give,” Gurnah told the Nobel Foundation in an interview.

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Nobel Prize in Literature 2006-2021 © AFP

The announcement caught Gurnah’s Swedish publisher off guard.

“I may have heard someone suggest once that his books were of Nobel calibre. But I never expected him to get it,” Henrik Celander told Swedish news agency TT.

Born in 1948, Gurnah fled Zanzibar in 1968 following the revolution there which led to oppression and the persecution of citizens of Arab origin.

He began writing as a 21-year-old in England. Although Swahili was his first language, English became his literary tool.

Gurnah is best known for his 1994 breakthrough novel “Paradise”, set in colonial East Africa during World War I and which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction.

– Western dominance –

The novel has obvious references to English author Joseph Conrad’s famed 1902 novel “Heart of Darkness” in its portrayal of the innocent young hero Yusuf’s journey to Central Africa and the Congo Basin.

Author Adam Shafi Adam, also from Zanzibar, told AFP it was “big news for a Tanzanian to win a Nobel Prize in literature … one of the most prestigious prizes in the world”.

His books “give a good picture of the East African coast during the colonial period and how it was after the revolution in Zanzibar”.

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, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Salman Rushdie.

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The Nobel Prize, won last year by US poet Louise Gluck, comes with a medal and a sum of 10 million Swedish kronor (about $1.1 million).

Nobel watchers had suggested the Swedish Academy might give the nod to a writer from Asia or Africa, following a pledge to make the prize more diverse in gender and geography.

It has crowned mainly Westerners in its 120-year existence.

“Previously, we had a more Eurocentric perspective of literature, and now we are looking all over the world,” Nobel committee head Olsson said in 2019.

But at the end of the day, “literary merit” is still “the absolute and the only criterion,” he said in an interview with The New Republic published this week.

The Nobel season continues Friday in Oslo with the Peace Prize, followed Monday by the Economics Prize.

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