Tanzanian writer and novelist, Abdulrazak Gurnah, was on October 7, 2021 named the 2021 Nobel Prize winner for Literature. According to the Swedish Academy, the novelist and academic based in the United Kingdom (UK) clinched the most coveted literary award in the world “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”
Thus, Gurnah, a relatively known novelist, becomes the first Black writer to win the prize since Toni Morrison in 1993. He is the first African to win the award in more than a decade. His award was preceded by Wole Soyinka of Nigeria in 1986, Naguib Mahfouz of Egypt in 1988, and the South African winners, Nadine Gordimer in 1991 and John Maxwell Coetzee in 2003.
For winning the award, Gurnah has literally brought back the prize to Africa. We join the global community and the literati to commend him on the great achievement and urge him to do more in promoting African and postcolonial literature. It is also laudable that the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize was jointly awarded to Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Russian journalist, Dmitry Muratov, for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.
The Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded 114 times to 118 Nobel Prize laureates between 1901 and 2021. Out of 117 past winners, 95 were from Europe or North America. In all, only 16 women had won the prize. The 2021 Nobel laureate for Literature, Gurnah, who is of Arab heritage, was born in December 20, 1948 in the Sultanate of Zanzibar, which is part of the present-day Tanzania. He moved to UK in the 1960s as a refugee during the Zanzibar Revolution.
He got his BA at Canterbury Christ Church University and MA and PhD at the University of Kent. He wrote his PhD thesis in 1982 on “Criteria in the Criticism of West African Fiction.” Gurnah taught at Bayero University, Kano, Nigeria, from 1980 to 1983. Later, he became a professor of English and postcolonial literature at the University of Kent. Following his retirement in 2017, he was appointed professor emeritus of English and postcolonial literatures.
This year’s award, like some others before it, proved bookmakers wrong as none of their favourities won it. Literary pundits had tipped French author, Annie Ernoux, Japanese bestseller, Haruki Murakami and Canadian novelist, Margaret Atwood, as possible winners. Some critics contend that the Nobel Prize in Literature has become the most controversial and unpredictable in recent times. They also believe that the prize has eluded prominent writers who eminently qualified for the award but were excluded by the Swedish Academy for political and other reasons.
Some globally acknowledged deserving writers who never got the Nobel Prize include H.G. Wells, Salman Rushdie, Haruki Murakami, Chinua Achebe, D.H. Lawrence, R.K. Narayan, Graham Green, Robert Frost, Leo Tolstoy and Marcel Proust.
Despite not being widely known, Giles Foden regards Gurnah as “one of Africa’s greatest living writers.” However, before winning the award, Gurnah’s writing had not achieved the same commercial success of other Nobel winners. Gurnah has written 10 novels, many short stories and critical essays. Although his first language is Swahili, Gurnah writes in English but in most of his works he integrates bits of Swahili, Arabic and German.
His first novel, Memory of Departure, set the stage for his ongoing exploration of the themes of “the lingering trauma of colonialism, war and displacement” throughout his subsequent novels, short stories and critical essays. Other themes that run throughout his works include exile, displacement, belonging, as well as colonialism and broken promises on the part of the state.
His novels include Memory of Departure (1987), Pilgrims Way (1988); Dottie (1990); Paradise (1994); Admiring Silence (1996); By the Sea (2001) Desertion (2005); The Last Gift (2011); Gravel Heart (2017) and Afterlives (2020). His short stories include “Cages” (1984), in African Short Stories, edited by Chinua Achebe and Catherine Lynette Innes; “Bossy” (1994), in African Rhapsody: Short Stories of the Contemporary African Experience, edited by Nadezda Obradovic and “Escort” (1996), in Wasafiri, vol.11, no.23.
His novel, Paradise, was nominated for both the Booker Prize and the Whitbread Prize for Fiction. Gurnah was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2006. He won the RFI Temoin du Monde (“Witness of the World” award in France in 2007 for his novel, By the Sea. For the Nobel Prize for Literature to be less controversial, the Swedish Academy should consider works of authors adjudged by critics to merit it.