Januari 5, 2022
Dakika 4. Soma


Abdulrazak Gurnah wins Nobel Prize in Literature

Abdulrazak Gurnah was born in Zanzibar in 1948 and fled the island with his brother in 1967. His fate and the island’s history are forever entwined, what does he think about his home today?


He claims he was just as surprised as anybody else when the telephone rang at his adopted home in Canterbury, and Stockholm was on the line to inform him he had won the highest accolade in literature, landing him in the company of Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Albert Camus and William Faulkner. Zanzibar-born Abdulrazak Gurnah, 73, has written ten novels – most of them were out of print when he was awarded the Nobel Prize on October 7. But he had a back-up, people believing in him, even if his books weren’t bestsellers. “I am completely thrilled for him“, said his long-time editor at Bloomsbury, Alexandra Pringle,  “for years and years he has told beautiful and powerful stories of the winds of politics, trade, colonisation and love. I have been publishing his novels since my earliest days at Bloomsbury and after twenty years of keeping the faith, this is one of the happiest days of my life.“ 

Simply a very good writer! 

The British newspaper “The Guardian” called him “Zanzibar’s second most famous son, now £840,000 richer”. A retired English language professor with full silver hair, Gurnah is characterised as a quiet gentleman choosing his words deliberately. He lives in Canterbury in southeast England with his wife Denise, who had just taken their grandson to the zoo when the Nobel call came. The Nobel Academy in Sweden chose him for „his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents”. But others say, more than any of this he is simply a wonderful, sensitive, poetic, humble, often humorous writer. A writer, who unlike his Kenyan counterpart Ngugi wa Thiong’o for example - long since traded as a Nobel Prize hopeful - tells his stories less ideologically and more humanly. In this sense Gurnah could be called truly African writer.  

Literature must be fun

It is noticeable when other Nobel Prize winners are honoured for their literary quality and Gurnah for its post-colonialism, but Gurnah himself maintains: “Literature must be pleasurable and enjoyable. You want it to be as clever, interesting and beautiful as possible.“ He is said to be a great admirer of Salman Rushdie and says of himself: „I am not an activist, I am a story teller.”

“Zanzibar is still my home”

Gurnah’s personal fate intrinsically reflects the history of Zanzibar. His work chronicles how colonialism and homelessness tears people apart. He dwells on traumatic historical experiences, from German colonial rule in Tanzania to independent Zanzibar’s violent annexation by Tanzania. Of Arab descent, he was raised Muslim; over and over again he lovingly explores the setting of Stone Town in his books, the parental house were he grew up. “There was no garden or pavement in front of the house. It was only a quiet lane, just wide enough for two bicycles to pass each other, with care.” In „Gravel Heart“, one of his ten novels, he remembers his own circumcision at the age of five. „ Before I started Koran school, I went on a taxi ride with my father and my mother. The taxi ride was a rare event, and my mother made much of it, filling me with anticipation of the picnic we would have when we reached our destination: vitumbua, katlesi, sambusa. On the way, the taxi stopped at the hospital – it won’t take long, my father said, then we’ll be on our way. I took his hand and followed him into the building. Before I knew what was happening, my little abdalla had lost its kofia and the outing had turned into a nightmare of pain and treachery and disappointment. I had been betrayed.”

As narrator he has found himself “neither English nor Zanzibari”; but in an interview with the AFP news agency after winning the Nobel Prize Gurnah said about Zanzibar: “I go there when I can. In my mind I live there.” He looks back on Zanzibar’s history in harrowing realistic scenes (“thousands were slaughtered, whole communities expelled”) but has also distanced himself from the experience: “It would be melodramatic to say I am still haunted by it.” In the mid-80s he returned to his home island for the first time, nervous “amidst issues of guilt and shame”, as he confessed to a journalist. “But you step off the plane and everybody is happy to see you.” Does he really consider himself the second-best known Zanzibari after Freddie Mercury? On this point, too, Gurnah has put matters in perspective in recent interviews: “Mercury is not really famous in Zanzibar, except with tourists. And Zanzibaris probably don’t remember me either.” 

But on this count, the writer clearly errs. Old and young in Zanzibar do know Abdulrazak Gurnah who still has family here. Parmukh Singh Hoogan, a former parliamentarian, fondly recalls: “He went to Darajani school in the 50s and 60s, a school designed by my grandfather Ajit Singh Hoogan.” A Zanzibari lecturer in London, Ida Hadjivayanis, who is currently translating Gurnah’s 1994 novel „Paradise“ into Swahili, has called on the Tanzanian government to include his works in the school curriculum.

Where to get his books?

Gurnah’s books were absent from bookstores not only in Zanzibar, but almost all over the world when he was chosen as a Nobel laureate.  “I could do with more readers”, he wryly commented. Only half of his books have been translated into German, although Germany’s colonial rule in East Africa around 1900 is his recurring theme (see article “60 years of friendship” on this page.) Gurnah is only the fourth black person to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in its 120-year history, the last one being Toni Morrison in 1993. The last Nobel prize winner dwelling on colonialism was Indian V.S. Naipaul in 2001, the last laureate from Africa were (white) South Africans J.M. Cotzee in 2003 and Doris Lessing in 2007, after Nigerian Wole Soyinka in 1986. 

Why we should read Gurnah

After his success, the author’s readership is set to rise all over the world. He seems one of the few writers capable of talking to audiences on either side of colonial and postcolonial divisions. That makes him a true Zanzibari – and his books all the more worth reading!

Shiriki hii

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