Winning Gurnah

Tuesday 12 Oct 2021


THE SWEDISH Academy has been repeatedly – and not so unjustly – critised since it gave the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan, an arguably non-literary artist who is an institution unto himself, in 2016. The next year Kazuo Ishiguro, a traditional British novelist if ever there was one – never mind his Japanese ancestry – reconfirmed the 18 venerable Swedes’ long-standing mainstream-liberal bias, and their insanely Eurocentric perspective.

When the academy succumbed to the MeToo pandemic, causing the prize to be suspended in 2018, there was not a little schadenfreude in the more risqué and non-European corners of the literary sphere. But at the same time as it made a refreshing and sensible comeback with the Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk – the 2018 winner, who received her award in 2019 – the academy antagonised its own widest constituency by honouring the German author Peter Handke, who had been (rightly or wrongly) stigmatised as a supporter of Slobodan Milošević and a Bosnian genocide denier. Another incontestably “white” choice followed, with Louise Glück in 2020. But then, but then —

Though a British citizen and English-language author, the East African novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah is not only an authentic postcolonial voice. He is also a decidedly small-circulation author who struggled for many years to have his work published before he made his debut at the age of 40 – so much so that, in response to the inevitable objections, the Sierra Leonean-Scottish writer Aminatta Forna felt she had to tweet, “Abulrazak Gurnah is not ‘obscure’. If you haven’t read him, really that’s on you not the writer.”

True enough. But, within the English language, say, “an obscure writer” is precisely the kind that the Nobel Prize needs to go to. The Nobel Prize needs to go to the likes of Abulrazak Gurnah to raise awareness not only of his subject matter – the human consequences of colonialism, and the meaning of displacement – but also of the real literature happening outside the globe’s penthouses and palaces of the mighty.

An ethnically Arab-Muslim subject of the Sultanate of Zanzibar, the Swahili-speaking Gurnah was in his teens when he arrived in the UK from his home in present-day Tanzania following the Zanzibar Revolution of 1964.

He chose a scholarly life, through which he dedicated his efforts to documenting and researching the plight of refugees and the history of East Africa. He has ten novels to his name, including Memory of Departure (1987, written alongside his PhD, Criteria in the Criticism of West African Fiction), the Booker-shortlisted Paradise (1994), the Booker-longlisted By the Sea (2001), The Last Gift (2011) and, most recently, Afterlives (2020). All focus on war-afflicted individuals, often exiled and homesick, as he was when he started writing, and the lies they are told by institutional bodies such as the state.

According to Ethiopian-American novelist Maaza Mengiste, “He has written work that is absolutely unflinching and yet at the same time completely compassionate and full of heart for people of East Africa … He is writing stories that are often quiet stories of people who aren’t heard, but there’s an insistence there that we listen.”

Perhaps we might have the courage to say that the Swedish Academy won Abdulrazak Gurnah, not the other way round.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 October, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekl

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