Abdulrazak Gurnah, 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature: An Indo-Oceanic Biography

Esther Pujolràs Noguer¹

We are in 1963 and Rashid, a young man from the island of Zanzibar, arrives in London, the colonial metropolis par excellence, driven by a dream: to study at an English university that will allow him to enter the meanders of a (English) literature forged on imperialist foundations. His intention is to acquire knowledge to return to his homeland and start a new life in a new country: after all, Zanzibar has achieved its independence.

But his plans collapse the moment he sets foot on English soil: after eleven months of independence, Zanzibar is embroiled in one of the bloodiest revolutions in recent African history and Rashid, pushed by his father who senses the bleak future of the island, makes the terrible decision to remain in England.

And I say “terrible” because at that moment Rashid, as he himself perceives it, becomes an exile. In a novel that took place in the nineteenth century, we would say that we contemplate the precise moment when the protagonist “grows” emotionally, that is, when the young Rashid becomes an adult. But the novel that brings Rashid to life is not an old-fashioned tale: it has to take place in the troubled waters of a postcolonial world that, as the novel’s title, “Desertion,” suggests, is riddled with abandonments, absences, and betrayals.

Published in 2005, “Desertion” is a failed attempt at historical novelBecause the story Rashid tells has no place in the annals of the British Empire. From the moving experience of exile Rashid reveals the forbidden romance between the Englishman Martin and Rehana, a love story that takes place at the end of the nineteenth century and that strongly attacks the imperialist belief of the non-existence of race relations “Serious.”

Nobel Prize in Literature 2021

Abdulrazak Gurnah

Why start this article on Abdulrazak Gurnah, the new –and unexpected- winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature 2021, for the protagonist of one of his most elegant and magnificent novels?

I firmly believe that there is a lot of Gurnah in Rashid. Abdulrazak Gurnah was born in Zanzibar in 1948 and left his native Zanzibar, with his brother, when he was only seventeen years old. Like Gurnah, a retired professor at the University of Kent, Rashid ends up working as a professor of postcolonial literature at an English university.

I have often speculated about the parallels between his exiled characters and his own life because no other author, that I know of, has managed to capture with such emotional brilliance what it means to be away from one’s own people and have to face constant contempt day after day. of a western world that sees itself as superior.

The exile of the characters

Like the writer confessed in a 2004 interviewAfter years of living in England, his physical appearance continues to provoke rejection and he cannot help feeling “strange” in front of the insulting stares of passers-by, who do not know him at all. Undoubtedly, this is the sentiment that leads Latif Mahmud, one of the protagonists of “By the Sea” (On the Shore), also a university professor, to launch a long tirade about the meaning of the expression “grinning blackamoor”. after being insulted on the street.

The exiles of Rashid and Latif Mahmud join those of Saleh Omar, the other protagonist of “By the Sea” (2001), Hassan of “Memory of Departure” (1987), Daud in “Pilgrim’s Way” (1988), Dottie Balfour in the novel of the same name “Dottie” (1990), the unnamed narrator of “Asmiring Silence” (Precarious Silence, 1996), Abbas in “The Last Gift” (The Last Gift, 2011) and Salim in “Gravel Heart »(2017).

Gurnah’s work must be situated in a geography defined by the contours of the Indian Ocean. To speak of Gurnah as a Tanzanian author is to minimize the cosmopolitan essence of an Indo-oceanic coastline that is distinguished precisely by its fluidity and its animosity towards national borders.

Following the route traced by the vehicular language of East Africa, Swahili, Gurnah’s English texts navigate the history of that geographical area revealing a fascinating world that, wrapped in a captivating narrative, brings to light and denounces the endemic presence of slavery.

The fictional world of Gurnah

It is the story of Yusuf who, at the age of twelve, is sold by his parents to a rich merchant whom he calls “Uncle Aziz.” Together with Uncle Aziz, Yusuf learns to sell human beings. Yusuf’s journey, from the coast to the hinterlands, as a member of the expedition led by Uncle Aziz, is a detailed, painful and moving story of sheer survival.

The “paradise” that gives its title to the novel “Paradise”, which houses the story of Yusuf, is the uninterrupted mirage of the aspirations of a young African who wants to be free and happy. Yusuf’s adventure ends abruptly with the arrival of the German army preparing for the First World War. It is necessary to remember here something that history frequently forgets and that Gurnah’s fiction insists on, namely that East Africa was a battlefield during the First World War and that many Africans lost their lives in a war which, frankly, had very little to do with them.

“Paradise”, published in 1994, was nominated that year for the prestigious Booker Prize, undoubtedly the most prestigious literary prize awarded in the United Kingdom. However, the character does not disappear from the fictional world of Gurnah, since he takes it up again in his latest novel, “Afterlives”, published in 2020, in which we access the life of Yusuf, renamed Hamza, after his enlistment in the German army.

The presence of the same characters in several novels is a distinctive sign of Gurnah, forming a literary network that transports us to the imaginary world of One Thousand and One Nights, an emblematic Indo-European text that is also cited several times in his work.

And so, imbued with the Indo-oceanic spirit that emerges from Gurnah’s work, as a Scheherazade, I conclude this article with the absolute conviction that Gurnah’s life experience, in its most humanitarian projection, prevails in her work, endowing it with a sensitivity aesthetics that well deserves the most important literary award in the world.

  1. Esther Pujolràs Noguer is a professor of Postcolonial Literature at the University of Lleida. This article was originally published in the French digital The Conversation.
  2. Translation from French: mercedes arancibia

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Abdulrazak Gurnah, 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature: An Indo-Oceanic Biography