Abdulrazak Gurnah won the Nobel Prize in literature Thursday. The novelist was honored by the Swedish Academy for his “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism.”
The United Kingdom based, Abdulrazak Gurnah, was born in the Sultanate of Zanzibar in 1948 and moved to England as a refugee in the 1960s during the Zanzibar Revolution. He began writing as a 21-year-old in the UK, while adopting Swahili as his first language and English became his literary tool.
Mr Gurnah has written 10 novels, many of which focus on the refugee experience. His first three novels, Memory of Departure (1987), Pilgrims Way (1988) and Dottie (1990), document the immigrant experience in contemporary Britain from different perspectives. His fourth novel, Paradise (1994), is set in colonial East Africa during the First World War and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction. Admiring Silence (1996) tells the story of a young man who leaves Zanzibar and emigrates to England where he marries and becomes a teacher. A return visit to his native country 20 years later profoundly affects his attitude towards both himself and his marriage. By the Sea (2001), is narrated by Saleh Omar, an elderly asylum-seeker living in an English seaside town.
The Swedish Academy noted that, 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, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Salman Rushdie.
On Thursday, according to a statement signed by Anders Olsson, the chair of the committee that awards the prize, noted that Gurnah “is widely recognized as one of the world’s more pre-eminent post-colonial writers.” Gurnah “has consistently and with great compassion, penetrated the effects of colonialism in East Africa and its effects on the lives of uprooted and migrating individuals,” he added.
The characters in his novels, Olsson said, “find themselves in the gulf between cultures and continents, between the life left behind and the life to come, confronting racism and prejudice, but also compelling themselves to silence the truth or reinventing biography to avoid conflict with reality.”
Some observers saw Gurnah’s choice as an extensive overdue corrective after years of European and American Nobel laureates. The new prize winner is the first African to win the award in more than a decade, preceded by Wole Soyinka of Nigeria in 1986, Naguib Mahfouz of Egypt, who won in 1988; and the South African winners Nadine Gordimer in 1991 and John Maxwell Coetzee in 2003. The British-Zimbabwean novelist Doris Lessing won in 2007.