“It never occurred to me,” he said in an interview. “It wasn’t something you could say as you were growing up, ‘I want to be a writer.’” He assumed he would become “something useful, like an engineer.”
Then, in 1964, a violent uprising forced Gurnah, at age 18, to flee to England. Miserable, poor, homesick, he began to write scraps about home in his diary, then longer entries, then stories about other people. Those scattered reflections, the habit of writing to understand and document his own dislocation, eventually gave rise to his first novel, then nine more — works that explore the lingering trauma of colonialism, war and displacement.
“The thing that motivated the whole experience of writing for me was this idea of losing your place in the world,” he said.
On Thursday, Gurnah was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, widely regarded as the most prestigious literary award in the world, for “his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”
Gurnah, 72, is the first Black writer to receive the prize since Toni Morrison in 1993, and some observers saw his selection as a long overdue corrective after years of European and American Nobel laureates. He is the first African to win the award in more than a decade, preceded by Wole Soyinka of Nigeria in 1986, Naguib Mahfouz of Egypt, who won in 1988; and the South African winners Nadine Gordimer in 1991 and John Maxwell Coetzee in 2003. The British-Zimbabwean novelist Doris Lessing won in 2007.
Amid the heated speculation in the run-up to this year’s award, the literature prize was called out for lacking diversity among its winners. The journalist Greta Thurfjell, writing in Dagens Nyheter, a Swedish newspaper, noted that 95 of the 117 past Nobel laureates were from Europe or North America, and that only 16 winners had been women. “Can it really continue like that?” she asked.
The 2021 Nobel Prizes
What to Know: Here’s a quick guide to this year’s prizes.
Prize for Literature: Abdulrazak Gurnah was honored for “his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”
Prize for Chemistry: Benjamin List and David W.C. MacMillan were honored for their development of a new tool to build molecules, work that has spurred advances in pharmaceutical research and lessened the impact of chemistry on the environment.
Prize for Physics: Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann and Giorgio Parisi were honored for their work, which “laid the foundation of our knowledge of the Earth’s climate and how humanity influences it.”
Prize for Medicine: David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian were honored for their discoveries about how heat, cold and touch can initiate signals in the nervous system.
How Do the Nominations Work?: Thousands of people, including university professors, can submit nominations. Hundreds are submitted per year.
In his 10 novels, Gurnah has often explored the themes of exile, identity and belonging. They include “Memory of Departure,” “Pilgrims Way” and “Dottie,” which all deal with the immigrant experience in Britain; “Paradise,” shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994, about a boy in an East African country scarred by colonialism; and “Admiring Silence,” about a young man who leaves Zanzibar for England, where he marries and becomes a teacher. His most recent work, “Afterlives,” explores the generational effects of German colonialism in Tanzania, and how it divided communities.
Anders Olsson, the chair of the committee that awards the prize, said at the news conference on Thursday that Gurnah “is widely recognized as one of the world’s more pre-eminent post-colonial writers.” Gurnah “has consistently and with great compassion, penetrated the effects of colonialism in East Africa and its effects on the lives of uprooted and migrating individuals,” he added.
The characters in his novels, Olsson said, “find themselves in the gulf between cultures and continents, between the life left behind and the life to come, confronting racism and prejudice, but also compelling themselves to silence the truth or reinventing biography to avoid conflict with reality.”
Gurnah’s first language is Swahili, but he adopted English as his literary language, with his prose often inflected with traces of Swahili, Arabic and German. He drew on the imagery and stories from the Quran, as well as from Arabic and Persian poetry, particularly “The Arabian Nights.” Occasionally, he had to push back against publishers who wanted to italicize or Anglicize Swahili and Arabic references and phrases in his books, he said.
“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.”
“The thing that motivated the whole experience of writing for me was this idea of losing your place in the world,” said Abdulrazak Gurnah, who received this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature.
The novelist Maaza Mengiste described his prose as being “like a gentle blade slowly moving in.” “His sentences are deceptively soft, but the cumulative force for me felt like a sledgehammer,” she said.
“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,” Mengiste said. “He is writing stories that are often quiet stories of people who aren’t heard, but there’s an insistence there that we listen.”
Laura Winters, writing in The New York Times in 1996, called “Paradise” “a shimmering, oblique coming-of-age fable,” adding that “Admiring Silence” was a work that “skillfully depicts the agony of a man caught between two cultures, each of which would disown him for his links to the other.”
But despite being hailed as “one of Africa’s greatest living writers” by the author Giles Foden, Gurnah’s books have rarely received the kind of commercial reception that some previous laureates have.
Lola Shoneyin, the director of the Ake Arts and Book Festival in Nigeria, said that she expected the Nobel Prize would draw a larger audience for Gurnah on the African continent, where his work is not very widely known, and that she hoped his historical fiction might inspire younger generations to reflect more deeply on their countries’ pasts.
“If we are not looking very actively and deliberately at what has gone on in the past, how can we forge a successful future for ourselves in the continent?” she said.
Gurnah was born in Zanzibar, which is now part of Tanzania, in 1948. After moving to England, he started writing fiction in his 20s. He finished his first novel, “Memory of Departure,” about a young man who flees a failed uprising, at the same time he was writing his Ph.D. dissertation. He became a professor of English and postcolonial literatures at the University of Kent in Canterbury, teaching the work of writers such as Soyinka, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Salman Rushdie.
In both his scholarly work and his fiction, Gurnah has tried to uncover “the way in which colonialism transformed everything in the world, and people who are living through it are still processing that experience and some of its wounds,” he said.
The same themes that occupied him early in his career, when he was processing the effects of his own displacement, feel equally urgent today, he said, as both Europe and America have been gripped with a backlash against immigrants and refugees, and political instability and war have driven more people from their home countries. “It’s a kind of meanness and miserliness on the part of these prosperous countries that say, we don’t want these people,” he said. “They’re getting these literally handfuls of people compared to European migrations.
Though Gurnah hasn’t lived in Tanzania since he was a teenager, the country continues to inspire him. He said that his homeland always asserts himself in his imagination, even when he deliberately tries to set his stories elsewhere. “You don’t have to be there to write about a place,” he said. “It’s all in the fiber of everything you are.”
Who else has recently won the prize?
The American poet Louise Glück was awarded last year’s literature prize for writing “that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal,” according to the citation from the Nobel committee. Her award was seen as a much-needed reset for the prize after several years of scandal.
In 2018, the academy postponed the prize after the husband of an academy member was accused of sexual misconduct and of leaking candidates’ names to bookmakers. The academy member’s husband, Jean-Claude Arnault, was later sentenced to two years in prison for rape.
The following year, the academy awarded the delayed 2018 prize to Olga Tokarczuk, an experimental Polish novelist. But the academy came in for criticism for giving the 2019 prize to Peter Handke, an Austrian author and playwright who has been accused of genocide denial for questioning events during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s — including the Srebrenica massacre, in which about 8,000 Muslim men and boys were murdered.
Lawmakers in Albania, Bosnia and Kosovo denounced the decision, as did several high-profile novelists, including Jennifer Egan and Hari Kunzru.
Who else won a Nobel Prize this year?
David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian were awarded the prize in physiology or medicine on Monday for their discoveries about how people sense heat, cold, touch and their own bodily movements.
Three scientists whose work “laid the foundation of our knowledge of the Earth’s climate and how humanity influences it” were awarded the prize for physics on Tuesday: Syukuro Manabe of Princeton University; Klaus Hasselmann of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany; and Giorgio Parisi of the Sapienza University of Rome
Benjamin List and David W.C. MacMillan were awarded the Chemistry prize on Wednesday for developing a more environmentally friendly tool to build molecules.
When will the other Nobel Prizes be announced?
The Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday in Oslo. Last year, the award went to the World Food Program.
The Nobel in economic science will be announced in Stockholm on October 11. Last year’s prize was shared by Paul R. Milgrom and Robert B. Wilson, the inventors of new auction formats which have been used by governments to allocate scarce resources.
The New York Times