Cover Photo: Instagram/@nobelprize_org

The Zanzibari writer gains recognition for his compelling and compassionate novels, which explore the effects of colonialism and the reality of being a refugee

The late Sara Danius, the first woman to ever head the Nobel literature committee, once told an audience: "What does it take to win the Nobel Prize in Literature? I don’t know. All I know is that the criteria are simple, but tough. The Nobel Prize in Literature is awarded to someone who has done outstanding work in an idealistic direction that adds the greatest benefit to humankind. You get awarded not for a single work, but for a life’s work."

Meeting that criteria, Abdulrazak Gurnah has published short stories and 10 novels over decades, each drawing from his own experience arriving in England as a refugee fleeing persecution at the end of the 1960s. Having grown up on the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar, his first language was Swahili but English became his literary tool. Until his recent retirement, he was the Professor of English and Postcolonial Literatures at the University of Kent, focusing on writers such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka, and Salman Rushdie.

See also: This International Booker Prize-Winning Novel Belongs On Your Reading List

Gurnah's intellectual pursuit for the truth and refusal to simplify colonialism, corruption and enduring exploitation for his readers have always been at the centre of his literary universe. For instance, his 1994 breakthrough novel, Paradise, evolved from a research trip to East Africa around 1990. It is an interesting subversion of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, delving into urban East African society before and after its colonisation in a story told from the perspective an innocent young hero, Yusuf. Paradise was shortlisted for the Booker Prize

See also: 13 New Books To Read in October 2021

He began writing his latest novel, Afterlives, at the age of 21. An intergenerational story of a family living under German rule in East Africa, he explores the bleak reality of war and violence through compelling characters, such as Hamza, who returns to his childhood village after being forced to fight with the schutztruppe, the German colonial troops, against his own people. Recoiling from stereotypes, he is determined to capture the humanity and cultural diversity of East Africans, especially against a backdrop of real historical events at the turn of the century.

It is this “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents” throughout his career that has earned him the Nobel prize for literature this year. "I thought it was a prank. These things are usually floated for weeks or months beforehand, so it’s not something that was in my mind at all," says Gurnah of his reaction to receiving the prestigious award. 

In that interview with Adam Smith, chief scientific officer of Nobel Prize Outreach, he also comments that cultural divisions which have become a talking point in conversations about the refugee crisis are not "permanent or somehow insurmountable". 

"People have been moving all over the world. Europeans streaming out into the world is nothing new. Centuries of that we’ve had. This phenomenon of people from Africa coming to Europe is a relatively new one," he says. "I think the reason it’s so difficult for a lot of people in Europe and European states to come to terms with it is perhaps a sort of… a kind of miserliness, as if there isn’t enough to go around. When many of these people who come out of need, they don’t come empty handed. A lot of them are talented, energetic people, who have something to give. Think of it as providing succour to people who are in need, but also people who can contribute something."

The first black African writer to win the award in 35 years, he joins a distinguished line-up of past recipients, including Toni Morrison, Olga Tokarczuk, Bob Dylan and Kazuo Ishiguro.

See also: Susanna Clarke Wins The Women's Prize For Fiction 2021