Writing Paths – A Journey into the World of Migrants and Exiles, with Nobel Prize for Literature Abdulrazak Gurnah

East Africa was in the spotlight this year in Sweden, with the Swedish Academy awarding the 2021 Nobel Prize to British novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah, of Tanzanian descent. Little known to the French-speaking general public, the Anglo-Tanzanian is the second African writer from sub-Saharan Africa to win this prestigious award, after the Nigerian Wole Soyinka, distinguished in 1986.

The influx of African populations to Europe is a relatively new phenomenon. On the other hand, no one is surprised to see Europeans moving to other continents. This immigration has continued for centuries. I have the impression that there is a lack of generosity, which prevents Europeans from accepting migrants into their homes, as if there was not enough for everyone. However, a large majority of migrants who arrive in Europe come because their survival is at stake and, in return, they have something to give. They don’t come empty-handed.

So says Abdulrazak Gurnah, winner of the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature. Author of ten novels, short stories and theoretical texts on postcolonial literature, the writer is originally from Zanzibar. Now in his seventies, Gurnah lives in Canterbury, England, after retiring from the University of Kent, where for several decades he served as a professor of English literature. According to the spokesperson for the Swedish Academy, this is his penetrating and uncompromising analysis of the effects of colonialism and the fate of refugees torn between cultures and continents Which earned him a distinction by the Nobel jury.

Considering the place occupied by refugees and migrants in his work, it is perhaps not surprising that Abdulrazak Gurnah took advantage of his new reputation to draw attention to their plight and the conditions of their reception. at least ” inhospitable »In the rich countries of the Northern Hemisphere. These remarks are in line with the literary concerns of the winner, even if his denunciation of the methods of welcoming migrants in Europe may “ strengthen the interpretation of those who want to see in this Nobel Prize for literature something above all political », Declares Guillaume Cingal, lecturer at the University of Tours and specialist in English-speaking literatures.

Intellectual and psychic maturation

Abdulrazak Gurnah is himself an exile. Born in 1948 in the Zanzibar archipelago then under British occupation, he had to flee when in 1964, a bloody revolution overthrew the sultan who ruled the island. The violence unleashed by this revolution was primarily aimed at the powerful Arab minority, including the family of the winner. Gurnah told reporters how, in the process, he landed in England on a one-month tourist visa, before enrolling at university for literary studies.

Coming to writing accidentally, according to her own words, Gurnah wrote her first novel at the age of 21, but had to wait until the late 1980s to publish it. Very largely autobiographical, Memory of Departure stages in the form of memory, the intellectual and psychic maturation of a young East African who, facing corruption and arbitrariness in his country, goes abroad in the hope of making sense to his life. Hassan Omar’s doomed attempts to come true through migration and love are inspired by events in the author’s life.

In the next two novels, Pilgrim’s Way (1988) and Dottie (1990), the action takes place in England, evolving around the themes of integration, racism and Englishness. Gurnah’s preoccupations in his first novels are not far removed from the themes of British writers with an immigrant background, such as Hanif Kureishi or Zadie Smith. On the question of the literary tradition in which Gurnah’s work is inscribed, here is what the academic Guillaume Cingal tells us: “ What we call “Black British Writing”, these are the texts written by Afro-descendants, or Africans of the first or second, third generation, most of the action of which takes place in the United Kingdom. There are a number of texts by Gurnah which may seem to fall within this questioning of the status of Afro-descendants in the United Kingdom. And at the same time, it is also postcolonial texts, from the diaspora that consecrate the character of the migrant as an important figure in contemporary narrative literature. This may be the first Nobel Prize entirely dedicated to a diaspora writer.


It is with his fourth opus, Paradise, published in 1994 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, that Gurnah has established himself as one of the major writers of the English language. This beautiful novel of loss of innocence, deeply nostalgic, marks the return of the author to his native country that Gurnah declares never to have really left, even though he has been living in England for almost fifty years. ” Not a single day goes by that I don’t think about Zanzibar, several times a day », He declared again recently.

Bildungsroman ” Where ” learning story “, Paradise recounts the journey of young Yusuf, victim of the calculations of his family and of History with a capital “H”. The novel ends with the forceful enlistment of the protagonist into the ranks of the German army at the dawn of the First World War. It is located at the confluence of the intimate and the public, against the backdrop of the caravan and colonial history of Tanzania. This novel also delivers a very literary account, inspired both by Joseph Conrad’s journey “to the heart of darkness” and by Swahili oral tradition. On the cosmopolitan culture of East Africa, which permeates the fiction of Abdulrazak Gurnah,

What seems to us to be very striking and of which Gurnah is an excellent example, is the intercultural side, recalls Guillaume Cingal. There was also a very strong hold from the Germans and the Italians. It has been a melting pot of multiple influences for a very long time. And Gurnah’s novel, Paradise is a novel very representative of that, since it takes place in the world of caravans and caravanners and it reworks all these reasons for slavery, trade, nomadism.

African and indigenous perspectives

Afterlives is Gurnah’s tenth novel, published in 2020. With this story, which reads somewhat like a sequel to Paradise, we leave the cosmopolitan world of inter-Arab commerce and nomadism, to dive into the claustrophobic world of German colonialism. Through the story of a beauty as elegant as it is tragic, the novelist here paints the portrait of a traumatized Tanzanian society, trying to survive the brutalities of war and colonization. The protagonists achieve this by bringing to the narrative surface African and indigenous voices and perspectives silenced by the occupying military powers and, in this, Gurnah’s fiction is representative of the rich literary traditions of East Africa, such as l ‘explains Guillaume Cingal: ” This Nobel Prize will be an opportunity to shine the spotlight on all the authors who have not been translated, whose works have only been partially translated. This is the case of Ngugi wa Thing’o who has been on the nobelisables lists for ten years and some of whose major texts are either no longer available or not translated altogether. There are also literatures in Swahili or Kiswahili, extremely rich and extremely fruitful, in this land which goes from Tanzania to Sudan. There are really extremely lively literatures which are still unknown in France.

Abdulrazak Gurnah is the tree that hides the forest. Unanimously hailed around the world, will the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Zanzibarite be an opportunity to discover the singular and powerful writers of East Africa, this part of world literature that has been ignored for too long?

Three novels by Abdulrazak Gurnah have been translated into French: Paradise, translated by Anne-Cécile Padoux (Le Serpent à Plumes, 2000); Near the sea (Galaade ,, 2006) and Farewell Zanzibar (Galaade, 2009), translated by Sylvette Gleize.

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Writing Paths – A Journey into the World of Migrants and Exiles, with Nobel Prize for Literature Abdulrazak Gurnah

Hank Gilbert