Abdulrajak Gurnah was making a cup of tea in the kitchen of his Canterbury home on Thursday when he received a call that he had been told he had won the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature.
The retired 2-year-old retired professor, who trimmed his gray beard nicely and his opinions were mostly underestimated, said he was surprised if he was happy, saying he had not the slightest idea that he was being considered. “I wouldn’t have picked me up,” he told a BBC radio interviewer in the evening.
For a man born in Zanzibar in 1948, it was a fitting contrast to English, but who has had a good five decades of quiet life in Britain. Gurna was raised in a wealthy family in the Sultanate of Zanzibar, then the center of the Arab slave trade. He fled the island after the 1st revolution, then joined Tanzania, which targeted people of Arab descent and closed schools.
He found himself in a mostly unwanted Britain, meaningless and homeless. After studying at Canterbury and earning a PhD at the University of Kent, he became a member of the faculty, teaching English and post-colonial literature.
In his spare time, he wrote 10 novels for which – until this week – he won a dedicated, if not huge, follow-up. Asked which of his books he would recommend, he replied that most were probably out of print.
Gurna’s literary style can be described as “provocative”, if he does not intentionally erase it, bringing to life the story of forgotten people and places in the corners of history. His story on the East African Swahili coast in the early twentieth century, which Zimbabwean writer Navuyo Rosa Tushuma called “a feeling of calm living alongside the loud and cruel shocks of history”.
Gurnah said his characters are “shaped but not defined” by the situation. In Afterlife, his latest novel, a girl is beaten by her adoptive parents because she secretly learns how to read. Yet she continues to seduce the young man who will be her husband, to make jokes and to live the life determined by his own will.
Gurna’s characters are above all people. A German priest gently cares for an injured African man, though he is stuck in his belief that nothing imported has happened in East Africa. A Ball protection The officer brutalizes the African boy in his duties but nurtures his German studies, presenting him with a volume of Schiller – challenging his own superstitions in a way that no African can properly understand.
Several of the novels deal with the subject of immigration, which Gurna described to reporters on Friday as “an event of our time,” especially for those who were pushed or dragged from the world south. In his quote, the Swedish Academy said he had won the award “for the sympathetic penetration of the effects of colonial colonization and the fate of refugees in the Gulf between culture and continent.”
When Guerna arrived in Britain, he painted a picture of a country of “courtesy and politeness”. “The animosity that was met with me had no expectations,” he said. “You face bad words, ugly looks, rudeness.” The Britain he lived in was so white that, at times, seeing a scene of his own in a shop window, he immediately wondered who he was.
Nonetheless, he sank into the canon of English literature “and read and read and read”. The jutting in his diary about home was finally developed in his first novel, Exit memory, A man fleeing his newly independent homeland.
His fourth novel, Paradise, Shortlisted for the 1994 Booker Prize, his highest literary prize until this week’s Nobel. He intended it as the story of a little-known war between German and British colonial powers on African soil. But when he sat down to write the opening scene – where Yusuf, a young African man, had been recruited by the German army – he realized that his hero had no idea how he could end up in such a situation.
The opening scene became the final scene instead. And Gurna devoted himself to discovering how a little boy could be sold into bondage to pay off his father’s debt and escape to another prison. It is that kind of diligent attention, not detail, to the truth that makes his writing so compelling.
The Africa he portrays is more complex, subtle and multicultural than the Western-filtered narrative. “Gurner’s books ask: How do we remember the past, which we deliberately receive and delete from the past colonial archives?” Said Melania Auto, assistant professor of post-colonial literature at Trinity College Dublin.
He writes in English, his mother tongue is not Kiswahili, it is a fact that has limited his reputation in Tanzania. Tanzanian lawyer Fatema Karume said her country was embroiled in a debate over Guernsey’s nationality in the wake of this week’s Nobel Prize announcement. Tanzania does not recognize dual nationality and they are “desperately trying to claim their own”.
Gurna is often asked why he writes in English. It’s a language he said, like cricket, it’s a British invention but a game that everyone has now – and sometimes foreigners play better. But when asked where he came from, he replied without hesitation: “I came from Zanzibar. There is no confusion about this. ”