Abdulrazak Gurnah, 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature, by Washington Daniel Gorosito Pérez

Abdulrazak Gurnah: “Europe should receive immigrants with compassion and not with barbed wire.” Photography: PalFest

Writer Abdulrazak Gurnah, originally from Tanzania, has been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature; the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Mats Malm, made it known from the institution’s headquarters in Stockholm.

In its ruling, the Academy highlighted “its uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the abyss between cultures and continents.”

Abdulrazak Gurnah has published ten novels, several short stories and some essays; the main theme that marks his work is that of the refugee. His research has focused on postcolonialism, as well as colonialism, in this case related to Africa, the Caribbean and India. Although Swahili was his native language, he began writing at the age of twenty-one in exile, in the English language.

Once school finished, Gurnah was forced to leave his family and flee the country.

He grew up on the island of Zanzibar, which means in Persian “island of the blacks”, located in the Indian Ocean. He was born in Tanzania in 1948 and came to England as a refugee in the late 1960s. In December 1963, now free from British colonial rule in a peaceful way, a revolution broke out on the island which, under the regime of President Abeid Karume, generated persecution and massacres of citizens of Arab origin.

The writer belongs to this ethnic group; once he finished school he was forced to leave his family and flee the country, by then the newly formed Republic of Tanzania. It was only in 1984 that he was able to return to his homeland. In England he taught until his recent retirement at the University of Kent, Canterbury, as Professor of English and Postcolonial Literature, with a special focus on the diaspora.

His first literary influences were Arabic and Persian poetry, especially Arabian Nights, like the suras of the Qur’an. Although what will definitely mark his literary work will be the tradition of the English language that became his literary tool; from Shakespeare to VS Naipaul, they will especially mark his work.

The Swedish Academy has appreciated that Gurnah, throughout all his work, “has endeavored to avoid the omnipresent nostalgia for a more pristine pre-colonial Africa” and that “Gurnah’s writing is from his time in exile, but belongs to his relationship with the place he had left, which means that memory is of vital importance for the genesis of the work ”.

Abdulrazak Gurnah is the fifth African writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Zanzibar, the island where the writer originates from, has a historically diversified culture, from the slave trade to the various forms of oppression under different colonial powers (Portuguese, Indian, German, Arab and British) that maintained commercial relations with great part of the world; hence, long before the so-called globalization, Zanzibar was a cosmopolitan society.

Abdulrazak Gurnah’s ten novels are Memory of Departure (1987), Pilgrims’ Path (1988), Dottie (1990), Paradise (1994), Admiring the Silence (1996), By the Sea (2001), Desertion (2005) ), The Last Gift (2011), Gravel Heart (2017), Afterlives (2020).

Abdulrazak Gurnah is the fifth African writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is preceded by the Nigerian Wole Soyinka (1986), the Egyptian Naguib Mahfuz (1988) and the South African Nadine Gordimer (1991) and John Maxwell Coetzee (2003).

I say goodbye with a phrase from the Nobel Prize for Literature 2021 for reflection: “Europe should receive immigrants with compassion and not with barbed wire.”

Washington Daniel Gorosito Pérez
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Abdulrazak Gurnah, 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature, by Washington Daniel Gorosito Pérez

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