Abdulrazak Gurnah wins Nobel Prize in Literature for portraying fate of refugees

Judges praised his 'compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism'

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND - AUGUST 17:  Abdulrazak Gurnah attends a photocall during the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 17, 2017 in Edinburgh, Scotland.  (Photo by Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images)

A novelist who grew up in Zanzibar before moving to Britain as a student and writing stories about the fate of refugees has won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Abdulrazak Gurnah was praised by Nobel jurors for "his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee".

A refugee himself, he took up writing after moving to England and has published 10 novels and many short stories. His breakthrough work, the 1994 novel Paradise, was set in East Africa during the First World War.

His most recent work, Afterlives, was published in 2020 and takes up where Paradise left off. Speaking to The National last year, he described it as a portrayal of the effects of colonialism.

"I’m still taking it in,” he said in a call with Nobel organisers, moments after winning the prize.

“It’s both the pleasure of making things, crafting, getting it right, but it’s also the pleasure of getting something across,” he said of his work. Asked if he felt joy in writing, he joked: “I feel joy when I’ve finished.”

Mr Gurnah was born on the island of Zanzibar in what is now Tanzania, but fled for Britain to escape the persecution of Arabs in the 1960s. He wrote in English despite Swahili being his first language.

He left his family in Tanzania and could not return until 1984 to see his father, who died shortly afterwards.

“Gurnah’s dedication to truth and his aversion to simplification are striking,” said Anders Olsson, the chairman of the Nobel committee.

"His novels recoil from stereotypical descriptions and open our gaze to a culturally diversified East Africa unfamiliar to many in other parts of the world.

“An unending exploration driven by intellectual passion is present in all his books, and equally prominent now, in Afterlives, as when he began writing as a 21-year-old refugee."

Mr Gurnah's first novel, Memory of Departure, was published in 1987. As well as writing books, he taught English and literature at the University of Kent, until his recent retirement.

"We are absolutely delighted that our former lecturer Abdulrazak Gurnah has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature - truly inspirational," the university said.

The literature prize is the fourth to be handed out in this year's Nobel season after the medicine, physics and chemistry honours. The peace prize will be awarded on Friday.

While the others have been shared, the literature prize typically goes to a single person. Mr Gurnah will take the full jackpot of 10 million crowns ($1.14m).

Previous literature winners include the novelist Ernest Hemingway, the singer Bob Dylan and Britain's wartime leader Winston Churchill, who wrote multi-volume books about the First and Second World Wars.

Updated: October 7th 2021, 2:15 PM
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