New hero of African literature, the Tanzanian writer has built over the past 34 years a demanding work giving pride of place to the burning themes of exile.
Others would rather have bet on the Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o or the Somali Nuruddin Farah, who, for several years already, are regularly cited as favorites. The fact remains that in the end, it is not really a surprise that the Tanzanian Abdulrazak Gurnah became, on October 7, 2021, the fifth African Nobel Prize for Literature in History after the Nigerian Wole Soyinka in 1986, the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz in 1988, as well as the South Africans Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee, respectively in 1991 and 2003.
Praised by the Swedish Academy, which awards the prize annually, “for its uncompromising and compassionate treatment of the effects of colonialism and the plight of the refugee in the divide between cultures and continents”, the author reckons, thus, to his credit a work of burning topicality, including in particular ten novels.
The last of these novels, “Afterlives” (not translated into French), released in September 2020, tells the story of two of his compatriots who, at the turn of the 20th century, faced the throes of German colonization. A theme that he had already dealt with, in 1994, in “Paradise”, the work which really made him known in the world of literature and which then earned him a nomination for the prestigious Booker Prize, the literary prize the most prestigious of Anglophonie – “Near the Sea”, published in 2001, had also been, in its time, “listed” for the same price.
But it is above all from his own past as a forced exile that Mr. Gurnah draws his inspiration the most: born into an Arab family in Zanzibar, an archipelago of East Africa having been a part of it for 158 years ( 1698-1856) from the Sultanate of Oman, he had to flee when the revolution broke out in January 1964 which led three months later to union with Tanganyika and the formation of Tanzania.
He found himself four years later in the United Kingdom, where he began in 1987, after notably a doctorate on West African literature, his literary career with “Memory of Departure”. Mr. Gurnah thus wished to pay tribute, in the interview he gave, following his prize, to the website of the Nobel Prize to these African migrants of whom “many (…) come” to Europe, “by necessity, and also frankly because they have something to give ”. “They don’t come empty-handed,” he insisted.
The Djiboutian writer Abdourahman Waberi, a friend of Mr. Gurnah and who has greatly contributed to making him known in the French-speaking world, particularly welcomed “extraordinary news for African literature”.
While on the Moroccan side, we have seen the English-speaking author Laila Alami say “absolutely delighted”. “His sensitive exploration of belonging, his keen eye for how power affects human relationships, his beautifully crafted phrases and his humor drew me to his novels and made me a devoted reader,” t -she writes in a post on the social network Instagram, where she also confided that Mr. Gurnah was, moreover, “one of the nicest writers [qu’elle] have[t] never met ”. Hoping that one day Moroccan literature can in the same way be taken to the pinnacle …
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Abdulrazak Gurnah, 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature