Tanzanian writer Abdulrazak Gurnah wins Nobel Prize for literature

Tanzanian writer Abdulrazak Gurnah, winner of the Nobel Prize
Tanzanian writer Abdulrazak Gurnah, whose works explore the experience and impact of migration, won the Nobel Prize for literature Thursday.
(Simone Padovani / Getty Images)

Tanzanian writer Abdulrazak Gurnah, whose experience of crossing continents and cultures has fed his novels about the effect of migration on individuals and societies, won the Nobel Prize for literature Thursday.

Gurnah joins the ranks of such illustrious recipients as Toni Morrison, Kazuo Ishiguro, Wole Soyinka and Gabriel García Márquez.

The Swedish Academy said Gurnah was honored for “his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fates of the refugee in the gulf between culture and continents.”


“Gurnah’s dedication to truth and his aversion to simplification are striking,” the academy said. “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.”

Gurnah, who recently retired as a professor of post-colonial literature at the University of Kent, in southeast England, got the call from the academy in the kitchen of his home.

“I’m absolutely excited,” he told the Associated Press. “I just heard the news myself.”

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Born in 1948 on the island of Zanzibar, now part of Tanzania, Gurnah moved to Britain as a teenage refugee in 1968, fleeing a repressive government that persecuted the Arab Muslim community to which he belonged. He has said he “stumbled into” writing after arriving in England as a way of exploring both the loss and liberation of the immigrant experience.

He is the author of 10 novels, including “Memory of Departure,” “Pilgrims Way,” “Paradise” (shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994), “By the Sea” and “Desertion.” The academy said Gurnah’s 2020 book, “Afterlives,” was marked by the same intellectual passion he showed when he began writing as a 21-year-old.


“By the Sea” was shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 2001.

In a 2005 story on Gurnah’s novel “Desertion,” former Times critic Richard Eder noted that “Gurnah’s work has been overshadowed by that of more powerful writers of South Asian origin — Michael Ondaatje, Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Rohinton Mistry — but it has a subtle if sometimes stiff poignancy that has won it attention, though more in Britain than here.”

None of those better-known writers has won the Nobel Prize. Neither has Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, a Kenyan writer and former political prisoner, now 83, whose name comes up perennially as a candidate.

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Gurnah’s themes of abandonment, Eder continued, channel “the cultural and social marooning of a generation brought up to think of itself as part of the British version of Western culture and order, only to find that as exiles … they have been set apart, condescended to and worse.”

Many of Gurnah’s works explore what he has called “one of the stories of our times”: the profound effect of migration both on uprooted people and the places they make their new homes.

Anders Olsson, chairman of the Nobel Committee for Literature, called him “one of the world’s most prominent postcolonial writers.” He said it was significant that Gurnah’s roots were in Zanzibar, a place that “was cosmopolitan long before globalization bonus.”

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“His work gives us a vivid and very precise picture of another Africa not so well-known for many readers, a coastal area in and around the Indian Ocean marked by slavery and shifting forms of repression under different regimes and colonial powers: Portuguese, Indian, Arab, German and the British,” Olsson said.

He added that Gurnah’s characters “find themselves in the gulf between cultures … between the life left behind and the life to come, confronting racism and prejudice, but also compelling themselves to silence the truth or reinventing a biography to avoid conflict with reality.”

Gurnah, whose native language is Swahili but who writes in English, is only the sixth African-born writer to be awarded the Nobel for literature, which has been dominated by European and North American writers since the prize was founded in 1901. He is the first winner from sub-Saharan Africa since Soyinka in 1986.

News of the award was greeted with excitement in Zanzibar, where those who knew Gurnah described him as soft-spoken and modest.

“The reaction is fantastic. Many are happy, but many don’t know him, though the young people are proud that he’s Zanzibari,” said Farid Himid, who described himself as a local historian whose father had been a teacher of the Quran to the young Gurnah. “I have not had the chance to read any of his books, but my family talked about it.”

Gurnah didn’t often visit Zanzibar, he said, but he has suddenly become the talk of young people in the semiautonomous island region.

“And many elder people are very, very happy — also me, as a Zanzibari. It’s a new step to make people read books again, since the internet has taken over,” Himid said.

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Favorites for the literature prize this year, according to British bookmakers, had included Thiong’o, French writer Annie Ernaux, Japanese author Haruki Murakami, Canada’s Margaret Atwood and Antiguan American writer Jamaica Kincaid.

Last year’s prize went to American poet Louise Glück for what the judges described as her “unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal.”

Glück was a popular choice after several years of controversy. In 2018, the award was postponed after sex-abuse allegations rocked the Swedish Academy, the secretive body that chooses the winners. The awarding of the 2019 prize to Austrian writer Peter Handke caused protests because of his strong support for the Serbs during the 1990s Balkan wars.

The prestigious award comes with a gold medal and 10 million Swedish kronor (more than $1.14 million). The prize money comes from a bequest left by the prize’s creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, who died in 1896.

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On Monday, the Nobel Committee awarded the prize in physiology or medicine to California scientists David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian for their discoveries into how the human body perceives temperature and touch.

The physics prize was awarded Tuesday to three scientists whose work found order in seeming disorder, helping to explain and predict complex forces of nature, including climate change.

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The peace prize will be announced Friday and the award for economics Monday.

The Times contributed to this report.

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