Zanzibar borne British novelist Abdulrazak Salim Gurnah, active in England, won the Nobel Prize in Literature for the year 2021.
This most prestigious prize in literature in the world has been awarded annually in Sweden since 1901, to an author from any country who has, according to the will of Swedish chemist and industrialist Alfred (Bernhard) Nobel (1833 – 1896), excelled ‘in the field of literature, produced the most outstanding work in an idealistic direction’.
Abdulrazak Gurnah’s mother tongue is Swahili but he writes in English. He is the sixth Africa-born writer who has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was also shortlisted for the 1994 Booker Prize for Fiction, 2001 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction, and the 2006 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.
Abdulrazak Gurnah was recognized ‘for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents’. As an author of novels, he is known to explore forced migration, colonialism, racism, exclusion, etc. He is recognized internationally by literary scientists as one of the most interesting postcolonial authors and critics.
Abdulrazak was born on 20 October 1948 on Unguja Island in Zanzibar in Malindi District near the port, and is since 1968 based in England. He is an Emeritus Professor of English Literature at the University of Kent in Canterbury.
He went to Darajani Primary School near the Market in Zanzibar Town and King George VI Grammar School (now Lumumba Secondary School) which was earlier a sister school to Prince of Wales Grammar School in Nairobi for European children, and those with a European parent. He left Zanzibar at the end of 1968 during the chaotic, violent and oppressive years of the dictator Sheikh Abeid Aman Karume’s police State. He arrived in Canterbury, England, to study engineering, but then he went over to English literature and eventually began to write. At school, he was among the best students and was active in sports, especially in field hockey.
During the primary school years, he also attended the famous afternoon Madrasa (Koran school) of Msikiti Barza in Tharia Topan School in Stone Town. (Since a couple of years there are plans to demolish Darajani Primary School to build a large shopping center there. Many famous Zanzibaris from several generations have gone in this school. There have been protests from various directions, including from Zanzibaris in the diaspora, who have now suggested to the Government in Zanzibar to change Darajani Primary School’s name to ‘Skuli ya Msingi ya Abdulrazak Gurnah’ (Abdulrazak Gurnah Primary School).
Gurnah has said that he ‘stumbled’ into writing after arriving in England as a way to explore both the loss and liberation of the emigrant experience. He has written 10 novels, a short story collection and many essays and articles during his long academic career. His first book, the novel Memory of Departure, was published in 1987. However, he is best known for his novel Paradise (1994), which was listed to the Booker and Whitbread Prizes. His other remarkable works include By the Sea (2001) and Desertion (2005). His latest work is Afterlife (2020).
In his novels, Gurnah explores the pain suffered through dislocation and displacement from Zanzibar to England. In his ninth novel he talks about xenophobia and racism as he witnessed them in cities around the world – a central theme in Gravel Heart (2017). In it he captures the experiences of relocation from post-revolutionary violent Zanzibar to racist Britain of the 1960s.
On 7 October 2021, Gurnah spoke to Eleanor Wachtel, University of Kent, Canterbury and said: ‘I’m afraid that something still must be done – people still have to say things and campaign and convince and so on – when it should be quite obvious that we should be past these inhuman and disgusting, confused beliefs about privileges and race.’ (CBC Radio, 12 June 2020)
Anders Olsson, Chairman of the Nobel Committee for Literature, described Gurnah as ‘one of the world’s most prominent postcolonial writers’. Gurnah writes vigorously and his characters are ‘in the gap between cultures … between the life left and the coming life, confronting racism and prejudice, but also forced to silence the truth or invent a biography to avoid conflicts with reality’.
According to Dr David Herd, Professor of Modern Literature at University of Kent, Gurnah writes powerfully and tenderly about colonialism’s brutality and refugee experiences. ‘Abdulrazak Gurnah’s writing epitomizes our contemporary condition of displacement, violence, and belonging. His is the struggle for individual voice, for justice, for feeling at home in an ever-changing world. No one writing today has articulated the pains of exile and the rewards of belonging so well. Canterbury and Kent are both his exile and home.’
At the time of the announcement of the Nobel Prize on 7 October 2021, there were only two novels of Gurnah translated into Swedish: Paradise (Paradiset 2012, reviewed in Karavan 1/2013 which was a special issue on Zanzibar and Abdulrazak Gurnah) and the Last Gift (Den Sista Gåvan 2015, reviewed in Karavan 2/2015), both published by the small Celander Publishers of Stockholm.
The third Swedish translation of Gurnah’s novel Afterlife of 2020 (Efterliv 2021), his latest, was published jointly by Celander and Bonnier early in January 2022, soon after the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded in October 2021. All the three books are also available in e-book and audio versions.
The news of the prize was greeted with loud cheers in Zanzibar, and generally in Tanzania and East Africa. Those who knew Gurnah described him as soft and modest, friendly and easy to hang out with. The reaction there was amazing, almost euphoric. Everyone was happy though many do not know him personally, but they are proud that he is ‘Mzanzibari’. ‘It will improve the reading culture in Zanzibar, and East Africa in general,’ said a Zanzibari teacher of English in Zanzibar.
The veteran opposition politician, Ismail Jussa Ladhu, expressed the political aspect of the prize. ‘This means a lot to Zanzibar’s fight for self-determination. It helps to put Zanzibar back on the world map.’ And added that the Nobel Committee has recognized Gurnah’s works and it has helped us to understand ‘the divided departments of the colonialists, how hearths are disassembled between homes where people come from and life in exile where people have been forced to go’.
Unfortunately, in spite of the critical narratives Abdulrazak Gurnah has created, his books were not well-known in Zanzibar, and East Africa in general. Several of his novels have been out of print, difficult to find and expensive as imported books. Moreover, English Literature as a school subject has been neglected in East Africa for more than two decades. Since October 2021, several seminars have been held in East Africa and among East Africans in the diaspora regarding Gurnah’s works, and soon his novels will be available in Swahili translation. Only time will tell if Gurnah’s books will be a required reading in both English and Swahili in Eastern Africa, and elsewhere in African Literature programs, now that Swahili is the National Language of Tanzania, Kenya & Uganda, and one of the National Languages of Congo/DRC, Rwanda & Burundi, one of the eight National Minority Languages of Oman, one of the official languages of the East African Community (EAC), the African Union (AU), UNESCO, Southern African Development Community (SADEC), etc. In the United States, Kiswahili has been adopted by people of African descent as their ancestral language, which is why more people there are learning and studying Kiswahili than in any other country outside of East and Central Africa.
Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Swedish connections have an interesting history: In 2007, Erik Falk published at Karlstad University Press, Sweden, his PhD thesis in literature, Subject and History in Selected Works by Abdulrazak Gurnah, Yvonne Vera and David Dabydeen which is a deep and comparative study of these three post-colonial, politically-conscious novelists.
On 29 January 2010, Abdulrazak Gurnah was in Uppsala, Sweden, for a day for the final public event within the program ‘Cultural Images in and of Africa’ at the Nordic Africa Institute (NAI, formerly Scandinavian Institute of African Studies). There he lectured about ‘Writing the Littoral: Culture and Representation of the Western Indian Ocean’. The program, which was greatly appreciated, had been going on for several years with activities in several locations in the Scandinavian region. Every year, a promising author from Africa was invited for a few months as ‘Writer in Residence’ at the Nordic Africa Institute. (During April – June 2009, the Kenyan performing artist and radical poet Shailja Patel, whose father was from Zanzibar, was Writer in Residence at NAI in Uppsala.)
In December 2010, Pia Eresund’s review in Swedish of Gurnah’s Paradise was published in HABARI Vol. 42 No. 4/2010, the quarterly of the Swedish Tanzania Friendship Association, SVETAN, Stockholm.
Mr Henrik Celander, owner of Celander Publishers in Stockholm, a small family publishing house, had failed to get Swedish translation rights for books by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. One morning soon after Gurnah’s visit to Sweden to participate in the rounding up of the program ‘Cultural Images in and of Africa’ at NAI in Uppsala, Henrik Celander called the Library of NAI to get some information on any currently interesting African fiction writers. The receptionist put him in touch with Susanne Linderos who was assisting Mai Palmberg, the researcher running the ‘Cultural Images in and of Africa’ program. Celander asked Linderos to suggest some interesting African authors who were not translated into Swedish. Linderos told him that Abdulrazak Gurnah was the most interesting post-colonial African novelist. Later in 2012, Celander published Gurnah’s Paradise as Paradiset in Swedish, translated by Helena Hansson. In 2015 Hansson’s Swedish translation of Gurnah’s The Last Gift was published by Celander as Den Sista Gåvan.
Gurnah’s journey to become Nobel Laurate in Literature has been ‘long and arduous’ in his own words. At the 40th Sharjah International Book Fair in the Emirates during 3-13 November 2021, the world’s largest which was this time headlined by Abdularazak Gurnah, he said, ‘I write as well as I can to be truthful to the idea I want to put across; to make it beautiful’. This is Gurnah’s literary genius in a nutshell!
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(This article is an expanded version of the original Swedish article ‘Nobelisten Abdulrazak Gurnah’ by Abdulaziz Y Lodhi published in HABARI Vol. 53 No. 4/2021, quarterly of the Swedish Tanzania Friendship Association SVETAN, Stockholm. Dr Lodhi is Emeritus Professor of Swahili and Bantu Linguistics at Uppsala University. He was three years before Abdulrazak Salim Gurnah in the same secondary school and afternoon Madrasa. They have played field hockey together at school. After 7 months of political detention, Lodhi, a student and youth leader, went into self-exile in August 1968 and returned to Zanzibar in February 1979 to attend the UNESCO funded ‘Workshop on the Teaching of Swahili as a Foreign Language’ at the Institute of Kiswahili and Foreign Languages. Since then, he has been cooperating with various institutions in Zanzibar and is currently Guest Professor at the State University of Zanzibar (SUZA).
The term ‘Nobelist’ in English is coined by Mohamed Rashid Ismail, a childhood friend of Abdulaziz Lodhi, who happened to miswrite ‘Nobelist’ instead of ‘Novelist’ in a message to him on 8 October 2021. In Swahili it became ‘Nobelisti’.
The term has now been used by the members of the WhatsApp group KGL (King George-Lumumba) of some of those who graduated at King George VI Grammar School during 1963-65 and their contacts. The school changed its name to Lumumba College after the revolution of January 1964, and nowadays it is called Lumumba Secondary School.)