Finding his place in the world: Some thoughts on Abdulrazak Gurnah, the Nobel Prize and Desertion

I first saw Abdulrazak Gurnah at the Mediums of Change Conference held at SOAS in London in 1995. It was convened by the Royal Africa Society, and chaired by Professor Stuart Hall of the Open University as part of Africa ’95, a season of arts and culture events being held across the UK. The keynote speaker was Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka (who was then under threat from Nigerian President Sani Abacha, and was under tight security). He was joined for a brief chat after by South African laureate Nadine Gordimer, who had decided to look in, having heard that Soyinka was present. The auditorium was charged: suddenly we had not one, but two Nobels in the house. I was a graduate student in Glasgow, and with two compatriots from Leeds University were on our first big international outing. We were fascinated by the body language. Gordimer friendly, effusive, leaning in, paid her respects while a clearly uncomfortable Soyinka looked like he would rather be elsewhere. In his talk titled ‘Ritual as Medium: A modest Proposal’, Soyinka had just challenged the gods to allow him be present at his own elaborate funeral.

Nelson Mandela had been released from prison in 1990, and with the elections in 1994, a newly independent South Africa was just beginning to slough off apartheid. Perhaps it was too soon to imagine Gordimer as really representing us. But neither could we have guessed that Gurnah would one day join this elite club. Then, it was wonderful and enough that he was from Tanzania; from East Africa.[i] As discussant on poet Niyi Osundare and writer Miriam Tlali’s panel, and in subsequent interventions he was fearless and incisive. He made a passionate plea for conference to untether itself from the colonial, to ‘post’ our imagination so as to free ourselves to be able to interrogate it properly, citing what Kwame Appiah had termed a ‘space-clearing gesture’. We were then groping towards post-colonial theory, and most of us felt the oppressiveness of the overarching, and oftentimes overwhelming colonial voice. I have held onto these words (and Essays on Writing 1, and later 2) that re-looked at and re-evaluated issues in literature be it on culture, on language, on women, and much more, cutting through the rationalizing and almost seductive completeness of English, and its embeddedness in everything. I used his work for study, and use it still in my teaching.


The awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to this writer and literary scholar in 2021 has once again brought into focus issues raised when Wole Soyinka, the first ‘Black’ African, was awarded this prize in 1986. Soyinka, who saw his selection as an act of restitution, said:

I have not been able to accept the prize on a personal level… I accept it as a tribute to the heritage of African Literature, which is very little known in the West… I regard it as a statement of respect and an acknowledgement of the long years of denigration and ignorance of the heritage on which all of us have been trying to build.[ii]

His Nobel Lecture, which selected a play about the Hola massacre in colonial Kenya as entry point, amplified these sentiments. Almost four decades on, these issues remain unresolved. Although the prize is open to all writing ‘of an ideal tendency’, there is still mild surprise that Africans can write well, in English. It is in response to such attitudes that Chinweizu had argued in 1986 that the Nobel fell short of being an international honour because of its narrow pool of eligibility, and was more ‘an instrument of European cultural domination, available to only a select few who betray their mother tongue and adopt an alien, metropolitan medium of communication.’[iii] Gurnah has argued spiritedly with his publishers for his right to tell his story his way, including in Kiswahili, his first language: ‘There’s a way in which British publishing, and perhaps American publishing as well, always wants to make the alien seem alien,” he said. “They want you to italicize it or even put a glossary. And I think no, no, no, no.’[iv] And so he pays subtle attention to the nuances of language as representation, capturing in dialogue the cadences, and lending fluidity to the characters that has become a distinguishing hallmark of his writing.It brings a quiet satisfaction and completenessto the joy of reading his work whilst appreciating his ‘refusal of the self-assured summaries of people who despised and belittled us.’[v]

There is a new urgency today in conversations on restitution, mainly of cultural artefacts, of things; but back then Soyinka was concerned with our dignity as human beings. It is a concern shared by Gurnah, who bemoans the casual chipping away at and erosion of human dignity in the UK, as Rashid does in Desertion, where he tells us: ‘the earliest lesson I received in London was how to live with disregard’, and under withering white gaze to experience ‘(h)ow chilling and belittling blue eyes can be’(212).[vi] Where it has taken him ‘a long time to learn not to care, years, a lifetime’ (214). Gurnah’s entire career has been in the West, and yet comments after his win show that he remains on the margins, as does the literature he represents. In Zanzibar, everyone knew everyone else—it was a closely knit society, with a population that for centuries has carried a mix of Indian, of Arab and African, a demonstration of the ‘casual cosmopolitanism’ of many centuries. And yet when Independence came in 1963, the flashpoint that led to the 1964 revolution was the complex one of identity. The questions of nation, and of identity are fraught ones, but for Zanzibar, these are the two main questions that have refused to settle. The Island, a British protectorate since 1890, had been in Arab hands for two centuries before this. The first elections saw the Afro Shirazi party (seen as African, but actually very diverse), although garnering 54% of the vote, lose out to an Arab majority in number of seats in parliament because of a coalition of two smaller parties. By 1964, an insurrection turned revolution saw the overthrow of this government, and its replacement, ending Arab domination of the Island and leading to the union with Tanganyika mainland to form Tanzania, led by Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, ‘glowing with pleasure’ (248), and Abeid Karume.

This event was significant as it was the first time in independent Africa that a neocolonial administration had been overthrown directly. Some had anticipated the new Government’s intention to look to Egypt and the Arab world, an oppression from which they felt they had just been delivered. The historian Abdul Sheriff insists, however, that the revolution was ‘an attempt to deny and erase the Indian Ocean face’ of Zanzibar’s heritage and look exclusively to Africa. Ultimately, years of racism and marginalization turned the protests into a bloody massacre. This issue of identity and its formation, with all of its admixtures and complexities is just one of the crosscutting issues that Gurnah explores in Desertion.  

Gurnah speaks of the flattening into black and white of complex matters of identity once in the West, which ironically also provides him with an avenue to escape the specificities, the ‘complicated cruelties’ that were happening at home.

Soon I began to say black people and white people, like everyone else, uttering the lie with increasing ease, conceding the sameness of our difference, deferring to a deadening vision of a racialized world. For by agreeing to be black and white, we also agree to limit the complexity of possibility, we agree to mendacities that for centuries served and will continue to serve crude hungers for power and pathological self-affirmations. (222)

Through Rashid, we are made aware of the international issues of the time, from civil rights to apartheid, into which he immerses himself. But it is the particular pain of home, which remains largely unspoken, that overwhelms, particularly when he finds he cannot return. He says of his self-exile:‘I have no means to describe the deep poison that runs through the experience of flight and homelessness… How could I have known? How could I have had even an inkling? (200) The violence in Zanzibar has been classified as ‘ethnic cleansing and genocidal intent.’ By 1964, the Island had lost a quarter of its Arab population, whole families slaughtered and left on the streets. This is the place that Gurnah and his brother fled in 1968, when he was only eighteen. It is the place he cannot forget. He has learnt to grieve over its tragedies with restraint (221), returning again and again in his writing to these ‘stories that capture us and entangle us for all time.’ (120)

Desertion isa novel about an unconventional intercultural relationship between an Englishman, Martin Pearce, and a local woman, Rehana Zakariya. This love affair casts a long shadow, loosely following the threads of Gurnah’s own life. The plot is woven through the lives of two brothers, Amin, who stays, and the younger Rashid who leaves for further studies in England just before the political upheaval, only following events in his brother Amin’s letters, and then very sketchily. The political repression means that one cannot discuss the situation, and while writing provides Amin with a lifeline, self-censorship becomes a means to survive on the Island. Conversely, Rashid also finds solace in writing, using it as the avenue through which he explores the tensions of being an outsider, as does Gurnah himself:

“Writing [came] out of the situation that I was in, which was poverty, homesickness, being unskilled, uneducated. So out of that misery you begin to write things down. It wasn’t like: I’m writing a novel. But this kept growing, this stuff. Then it started to become ‘writing’ because you have to think and construct and shape and so on.”[vii]

It is in England that they both begin to appreciate their being outsiders, and begin to note the totalizing and flattening ways in which they are perceived. It is through writing, through the letters, and a paper on Othello delivered at a literary conference that the story finds its denouement, and enables a return. When Rashid tells Amin of his divorce from his wife Grace, Amin opens up about his own failed relationship with Jamila, Pearce’s granddaughter. Their parents forbade Amin and Jamila’s affair because of her grandmother Rehana’s transgression. She’d first married an Indian, and then cohabited with the mzungu, Pearce, with whom she had a child, Asmah. Pearse left for home before the baby was born. There is powerful censure of, and perception of moral failure combined with prejudice against such a coupling, and especially where Rehana is seen as brazen and proactive, even falling in love. Yet with all odds stacked against it, even given powerful agency, the union is doomed to fail. Rashid brings the story of exile back to its beginnings in an intricate twist that sees him meet Barbara, who turns out to be Pearse’s legitimate granddaughter, at the conference. Rashid is reading a paper on Othello, the classic Shakespearian tragedy that deals with the ill-fated Othello, who is black, and the Italian – or white – Desdemona. Many worlds meet.


 ‘This award feels, for not quite a few of us, like a family prize.’
Yvonne A Owuor[viii]

When Yvonne Owuor first went to Zanzibar as Director of the International Film Festival (ZIFF) in 2003, Chan Bahal, who runs the wonderful bookshop, Bookstop, at Yaya Centre in Nairobi suggested she read Abdulrazak Gurnah to ease her way in. She left armed with three books: Paradise (1994), Admiring Silence (1996), and By the Sea (2001). This last she quickly readin one night, ‘and sat in stillness as if I had stumbled into a secret world.’ Gurnah had opened up the worlds of the Indian Ocean to Yvonne, and she invited us all in with her, the festival that year in his hometown a remarkable cultural gathering of East Africans, and others—such as the African-American filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles. On this Island that Mwalimu Nyerere once considered cutting adrift, the pre-eminent historian and archivist Abdul Sheriff provided the contexts at the newly introduced literary forum. It was an assembly almost impossible to imagine in 1964 when federation was sought.[ix]

This same year (2003), Yvonne met Gurnah, who was Chair of the Jury that awarded her the Caine Prize for African Writing for her short story, Weight of Whispers. He told her, ‘Write. Don’t doubt. Write.’ I have found Gurnah’s unmistaken essence in Owuor’s work since, in the resoundingly successful 5-day international conference, ‘Worlds of the Indian Ocean: Connecting the Past to the Future’ that she helped convene for the Aga Khan University in 2009, for example. It focused on ‘exploring nuances that have arisen through the regions centuries old encounters with the realm of the Indian Ocean’, a theme she explores in The Dragonfly Sea (2019), and on other forums. But mostly it is in the freedom to live fully in an expanded world that he opened up to her. And to us. This is a family prize.

[i] With Peninah Mlama, whose performance and stage presence were remarkable.

[ii] Cited in Bernth Lindfors, ‘Africa and the Nobel Prize’, World Literature Today Vol 6 No. 2. The Nobel Prizes in Literature 1967-1987: A Symposium. (Spring 1988), 222-224, 222.

[iii] ‘That Nobel Prize Brouhaha’, The Guardian, Lagos, 3 Nov 1985, 5, cited in Lindfors.

[iv] ‘Abdulrazak Gurnah is awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.’>2021/10/07>books>nobel-prize

[v] “Nobel winner Abdulrazak Gurnah says ‘writing cannot be just about polemics.’”

[vi] All page references in brackets are to this text: Desertion.GB: Bloomsbury, 2005.

[vii] David Shariatmadari, ‘Interview: ‘I could do with more readers!’: Abdulrazak Gurnah on winning the Nobel prize for literature.

[viii] ‘A Writer of Loneliness, Exile, and Fluidities of our Humanities’: Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor Celebrates Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Nobel Prize Award.’

[ix] See Issa G Shivji’s Pan-Africanism or Pragmatism? Lessons of Tanganyika-Zanzibar Union, Addis Ababa: OSREA& Dar es Salaam, Mkuki na Nyota, 2008, for a comprehensive understanding of the union.


  • A Strategic Consultant, Arts & Culture for the GoDown Arts Centre, Nairobi, a fellow of the Centre for Advanced Scholarship, University of Pretoria and a member of the Kenya National Commission for UNESCO (KNATCOM) Culture Program Committee and the UNESCO Culture|2030 Indicators Expert Facility, Africa.