The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2021 is awarded to the novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah, born in Zanzibar and active in England,
“for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents”.
Abdulrazak Gurnah was born in 1948 and grew up on the island of Zanzibar in the Indian Ocean but arrived in England as a refugee in the end of the 1960s. After the peaceful liberation from British colonial rule in December 1963, Zanzibar went through a revolution which, under president Abeid Karume’s regime, led to oppression and persecution of citizens of Arab origin; massacres occurred. Gurnah belonged to the victimized ethnic group and after finishing school was forced to leave his family and flee the country, by then the newly formed Republic of Tanzania. He was eighteen years old. Not until 1984 was it possible for him to return to Zanzibar, allowing him to see his father shortly before the father’s death. Gurnah has until his recent retirement been Professor of English and Postcolonial Literatures at the University of Kent in Canterbury, focusing principally on writers such as Wole Soyinka, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and Salman Rushdie.
Gurnah has published ten novels and a number of short stories. The theme of the refugee’s disruption runs throughout his work. He began writing as a 21-year-old in English exile, and even though Swahili was his first language, English became his literary tool. He has said that in Zanzibar, his access to literature in Swahili was virtually nil and his earliest writing could not strictly be counted as literature. Arabic and Persian poetry, especially The Arabian Nights, were an early and significant wellspring for him, as were the Quran’s surahs. But the English-language tradition, from Shakespeare to V S Naipaul, would especially mark his work. That said, it must be stressed that he consciously breaks with convention, upending the colonial perspective to highlight that of the indigenous populations. Thus, his novel Desertion (2005) about a love affair becomes a blunt contradiction to what he has called “the imperial romance”, where a conventionally European hero returns home from romantic escapades abroad, upon which the story reaches its inevitable, tragic resolution. In Gurnah, the tale continues on African soil and never actually ends.
In all his work, Gurnah has striven to avoid the ubiquitous nostalgia for a more pristine pre-colonial Africa. His own background is a culturally diversified island in the Indian Ocean, with a history of slave trade and various forms of oppression under a number of colonial powers – Portuguese, Arab, German and British – and with trade connections with the entire world. Zanzibar was a cosmopolitan society before globalization.
Gurnah’s writing is from his time in exile but pertains to his relationship with the place he had left, which means that memory is of vital importance for the genesis of his work. His debut novel, Memory of Departure, from 1987, is about a failed uprising and keeps us on the African continent. The gifted young protagonist attempts to disengage from the social blight of the coast, hoping to be taken under the wing of a prosperous uncle in Nairobi. Instead, he is humiliated and returned to his broken family, the alcoholic and violent father and a sister forced into prostitution.
In the second work, Pilgrims Way from 1988, Gurnah explores the multifaceted reality of life in exile. The protagonist, Daud, is confronted with the racist climate of his new homeland, England. After having tried to hide his past, love for a woman entices Daud to tell his story. He can then recount what happened in his tragic upbringing and the traumatic memories of the political turmoil in Tanzania that forced him into flight. The novel ends with Daud’s visit to Canterbury cathedral where he meditates on the parallels between the Christian pilgrims who visited the place in past times and his own journey to England. He had previously defiantly resisted everything the former colonial power had exulted over, but suddenly, beauty was attainable. The novel shapes into a secular version of a classic pilgrimage, using historical and literary antecedents as interlocutors in issues of identity, memory, and kinship.
Gurnah often allows his carefully constructed narratives to lead up to a hard-won insight. A good example is the third novel, Dottie (1990), a portrait of a Black woman of immigrant background growing up in harsh conditions in racially charged 1950’s England, and because of her mother’s silence lacking connection with her own family history. At the same time, she feels rootless in England, the country she was born and grew up in. The novel’s protagonist attempts to create her own space and identity through books and stories; reading gives her a chance to reconstruct herself. Not least names and name changes play a central role in a novel that shows Gurnah’s deep compassion and psychological adroitness, completely without sentimentality.
Gurnah’s fourth novel, Paradise (1994), his breakthrough as a writer, evolved from a research trip to East Africa around 1990. The novel has obvious reference to Joseph Conrad in its portrayal of the innocent young hero Yusuf’s journey to the heart of darkness. But it is also a coming-of-age account and a sad love story in which different worlds and belief systems collide. We are given a retelling of the Quran’s story of Joseph, against the background of a violent and detailed description of the colonization of East Africa in the late 19th century. In a reversal of the Quran story’s optimistic ending, where Joseph is rewarded for the strength of his faith, Gurnah’s Yusuf feels forced to abandon Amina, the woman he loves, to join the German army he had previously despised. It is characteristic of Gurnah to frustrate the reader’s expectations of a happy ending, or an ending conforming to genre.
In Gurnah’s treatment of the refugee experience, the focus is on identity and self-image, apparent not least in Admiring Silence (1996) and By the Sea (2001). In both these first-person novels, silence is presented as the refugee’s strategy to shield his identity from racism and prejudice, but also as a means of avoiding a collision between past and present, producing disappointment and disastrous self-deception. In the first of these two novels, the prejudiced narrator chooses to hide his past from his English family and invent a life story better suited to their commonly constructed world. But it is a twinned silence since he is also hiding his life in exile from his family in Zanzibar, who are unaware that he has a new family in England and a seventeen-year-old daughter. In By the Sea, another drama of disappointment and self-deception ensues. Saleh, the narrator of the first part, is an old Muslim from Zanzibar applying for asylum in England with a visa forged in the name of a bitter enemy. When he meets the enemy’s son, Latif, the narrator of the book’s second part, it is only because Latif has coincidentally been delegated to help Saleh adjust to his new home country. In their impassioned quarrels, Saleh’s suppressed past in Zanzibar rears up within him. But where Saleh despite all tries to remember, Latif does everything to forget. It creates a peculiar tension in the novel, where the choice of two narrators dissolves the fiction’s plotted path and direction, as well as the narrators’ authority and self-perception.
Gurnah’s itinerant characters find themselves in a hiatus between cultures and continents, between a life that was and a life emerging; it is an insecure state that can never be resolved. We find a new version of this hiatus in Gurnah’s above-mentioned seventh novel, Desertion, where a tragic passion is employed to illuminate the vast cultural differences in colonized East Africa. The long first part is masterfully forged. Set around the turn of the 20th century it describes how Englishman Martin Pearce, collapsing unconscious in the street, is helped by a local merchant and taken through the city’s labyrinths into a world where the culture and religion are alien. But Pearce speaks Arabic, one of the preconditions for closer contact with the family and for him to fall in love with their daughter Rehana. Gurnah knows full well that the era he is portraying is not, as said in the novel, “the age of Pocahontas when a romantic fling with a savage princess could be described as an adventure” and is uninterested in a melodrama about Martin and Rehana’s scandalous life in Mombasa with inevitable separation as a consequence. Instead, he lets the subsequent parts of the novel revolve around a completely different story of forbidden love a half-century later, but just as marked by the cultural barriers that endure. Perhaps nowhere else does Gurnah so clearly articulate his mission as a writer than in the end of the first section, in a meta-fictitious “interruption”, where the grandson of Rehana, surfaces as the narrator of the novel. He is, by his existence, proof that Rehana’s life did not end in catastrophe but had a continuation, and he now says that the story is not about him: “It is about how one story contains many and how they belong not to us but are part of the random currents of our time, and about how stories capture us and entangle us for all time.”
Underpinning the novel is Gurnah’s own youth in Zanzibar, where for centuries a number of different languages, cultures, and religions have existed side by side but also fought each other for hegemony. Even if his novels are written in an intriguing alliance with an Anglo-Saxon tradition, the cosmopolitan backdrop provides their distinctiveness. Dialogue and the spoken word play an important role, with noticeable elements of Swahili, Arabic, Hindi, and German.
The Last Gift, from 2011, relates thematically to Pilgrims Way and ends with something of the same bitter brew when the ailing refugee Abbas dies and bequeaths the gift of the book’s title, consisting of a tape recording of a cruel history unknown to the surviving family.
In Gravel Heart (2017) Gurnah further develops his theme of a young person’s confrontation with evil and uncomprehending surroundings. This exciting and austerely recounted first-person narrative depicts the fate of the young Salim up until the conclusion’s terrifying revelation of a family secret kept from him but decisive for his entire trajectory as a rootless individual in exile. The book’s first sentence is a brutal declaration: “My father did not want me.” The title is a reference to Shakespeare’s drama Measure for Measure and the Duke’s words in the third scene of the fourth act, “Unfit to live or die! O gravel heart.” It is this double incapability that has become Salim’s fate.
Gurnah’s latest novel, the magnificent Afterlives from 2020, takes up where Paradise ends. And as in that work, the setting is the beginning of the 20th century, a time before the end of the German colonization of East Africa in 1919. Hamza, a youth reminiscent of Yusuf in Paradise, is forced to go to war on the Germans’ side and becomes dependent on an officer who sexually exploits him. He is wounded in an internal clash between German soldiers and is left at a field hospital for care. But when he returns to his birthplace on the coast he finds neither family nor friends. History’s capricious winds rule and as in Desertion we follow the plot through several generations, up until the Nazis’ unrealized plan for the recolonization of East Africa. Gurnah again uses name-changing when the story shifts course and Hamza’s son Ilias becomes Elias under German rule. The denouement is shocking and as unexpected as it is alarming. But in fact, the same thought recurs constantly in the book – the individual is defenceless if the reigning ideology – here, racism – demands submission and sacrifice.
Gurnah’s dedication to truth and his aversion to simplification are striking. This can make him bleak and uncompromising, at the same time as he follows the fates of individuals with great compassion and unbending commitment. 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. In Gurnah’s literary universe, everything is shifting – memories, names, identities. This is probably because his project cannot reach completion in any definitive sense. An unending exploration driven by intellectual passion is present in all his books, and equally prominent now, in Afterlives, as when he began writing as a 21-year-old refugee.
Bibliography – a selection
Works in English
Memory of Departure – London : Jonathan Cape, 1987
Pilgrims Way – London : Jonathan Cape, 1988
Dottie – London : Jonathan Cape, 1990
Paradise – London : Hamish Hamilton, 1994
Admiring Silence – London : Hamish Hamilton, 1996
By the Sea – London : Bloomsbury, 2001
Desertion – London : Bloomsbury, 2005
The Last Gift – London : Bloomsbury, 2011
Gravel Heart – London : Bloomsbury, 2017
Afterlives – London : Bloomsbury, 2020
Works in Swedish
Paradiset / översättning av Helena Hansson. – Lund : Celander, 2012. – Originaltitel: Paradise
Den sista gåvan / översättning av Helena Hansson. – Lund : Celander, 2014. – Originaltitel: The Last Gift
Works in French
Paradis / traduit de l’anglais par Anne-Cécile Padoux. – Paris : Denoël, 1995. – Traduction de: Paradise
Près de la mer / traduit de l’anglais par Sylvette Gleize. – Paris : Galaade, 2006. – Traduction de: By the Sea
Adieu Zanzibar / traduit de l’anglais par Sylvette Gleize. – Paris : Galaade, 2009. – Traduction de: Desertion
Works in German
Das verlorene Paradies : Roman / übersetzt von Inge Leipold. – Frankfurt am Main : Krüger, 1996. – Originaltitel: Paradise
Donnernde Stille : Roman / übersetzt von Helmuth A. Niederle. – München : Kappa, 2000. – Originaltitel: Admiring Silence
Ferne Gestade : Roman / übersetzt von Thomas Brückner. – München : Kappa, 2001. – Originaltitel: By the Sea
Schwarz auf Weiss : Roman / übersetzt von Thomas Brückner. – München : A-1-Verlag, 2004. – Originaltitel: Pilgrims Way
Die Abtrünnigen : Roman / übersetzt von Stefanie Schaffer-de Vries. – Berlin : Berlin-Verlag, 2006. – Originaltitel: Desertion
Other texts by the author
“Bossy” in African Short Stories / selected and edited by Chinua Achebe and C. L. Innes. – Oxford : Heinemann, 1985
“Cages” in The Heinemann Book of Contemporary African Short Stories / edited by Chinua Achebe and C. L. Innes. – Oxford : Heinemann, 1992
Essays on African Writing 1: A Re-evaluation / edited and with an introduction by Abdulrazak Gurnah. – Oxford : Heinemann, 1993
“Transformative Strategies in the Fiction of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o” in Essays on African Writing 1: A Re-evaluation / edited and with an introduction by Abdulrazak Gurnah. – Oxford : Heinemann, 1993
“The Fiction of Wole Soyinka” in Wole Soyinka: An Appraisal / edited by Adewale Maja-Pearce. – Oxford : Heinemann, 1994
“Outrage and Political Choice in Nigeria : A Consideration of Soyinka’s Madmen and Specialists, The Man Died, and Season of Anomy.” [Conference publication] – Braamfontein : University of the Witwatersrand, 1994
“Bossy” in African Rhapsody : Short Stories of the Contemporary African Experience / edited by Nadezda Obradovic. – New York : Doubleday, 1994
Essays on African writing 2: Contemporary Literature / edited and with an introduction by Abdulrazak Gurnah. – Oxford : Heinemann, 1995
“‘The mid-point of the scream’: The Writing of Dambudzo Marechera” in Essays on African Writing 2: Contemporary Literature / edited and with an introduction by Abdulrazak Gurnah. – Oxford : Heinemann, 1995
“Displacement and Transformation in The Enigma of Arrival and The Satanic Verses” in Other Britain, Other British: Contemporary Multicultural Fiction / edited by A Robert Lee. – London : Pluto Press, 1995
“Escort” in Wasafiri 23, 1996 / by Association for the Teaching of Carribean, African, Asian and Associated Literatures. – London : Instructa, 1996
“From Pilgrim’s Way ” in Extravagant Strangers : A Literature of Belonging / edited by Caryl Phillips. – London : Faber and Faber, 1997
“Imagining the Postcolonial Writer” in Reading the “New” Literatures in a Postcolonial Era. Essays and Studies, 2000. – Cambridge : D S Brewer, 2000
“An Idea of the Past” / Annual African Studies Lecture, University of Leeds, 24 April 2002. – Leeds African Studies Bulletin, 65, March 2003
The Collected Stories of Abdulrazak Gurnah. – Alexandria : Alexander Street Press, 2004
“Writing and place” in World Literature Today, May-August, 2004
“My Mother Lived on a Farm in Africa” in NW 14 : The Anthology of New Writing : Volume 14 / selected by Lavinia Greenlaw and Helon Habila. – London : Granta Books, 2006
“Introduction” in The Cambridge Companion to Salman Rushdie / edited by Abdulrazak Gurnah. – New York : Cambridge University Press, 2007
“Themes and Structures in Midnight’s Children” in The Cambridge Companion to Salman Rushdie / edited by Abdulrazak Gurnah. – New York : Cambridge University Press, 2007
“Introduction” in A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. – New York : Penguin, 2012
“The Arriver’s Tale: As Told to Abdulrazak Gurnah” in Refugee Tales / edited by David Herd & Anna Pincus. – Manchester : Comma Press, 2016
“The Urge to Nowhere : Wicomb and Cosmopolitanism” by Abdulrazak Gurnah in Zoë Wicomb & the Translocal : Writing Scotland & South Africa / edited by Kai Easton and Derek Attridge. – London : Routledge, 2020
“Abdulrazak Gurnah with Susheila Nasta (2004)” in Writing Across Worlds : Contemporary Writers Talk / edited by Susheila Nasta. – London ; New York : Routledge, 2004
Bardolph, Jacqueline, “Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Paradise and Admiring Silence: History, Stories and the Figure of the Uncle” in Contemporary African Fiction / edited by Derek Wright. – Bayreuth : Breitinger, 1997
Bosman, Sean James, Rejection of Victimhood in Literature : by Abdulrazak Gurnah, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Luis Alberto Urrea. – Leiden : Brill, 2021
Callahan, David, “Exchange, Bullies and Abuse in Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Paradise” in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 38; Iss. 2, January, 2000
Chambers, Claire, British Muslim Fictions : Interviews with Contemporary Writers. – Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan, 2011
The Contemporary British Novel / edited by James Acheson and Sarah C E Ross. – Edinburgh : Edinburgh University Press, 2005
Deckard, Sharae, “Paradise Rejected: Abdulrazak Gurnah and the Swahili World” in Paradise Discourse, Imperialism, and Globalization: Exploiting Eden. – London : Routledge, 2014
Falk, Erik, Subject and History in Selected Works by Abdulrazak Gurnah, Yvonne Vera, and David Dabydeen. [Diss.] – Karlstad : Karlstad University Press, 2007
Kaur Boparai, Mohineet, The Fiction of Abdulrazak Gurnah: Journeys through Subalternity and Agency. – Newcastle-upon-Tyne : Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2021
Lee, A Robert, “Long Day’s Journey: The Novels of Abdulrazak Gurnah” in Other Britain, Other British: Contemporary Multicultural Fiction / edited by A Robert Lee. – London : Pluto Press, 1995
Malak, Amin, “The Qur’anic Paradigm and the Renarration of Empire: Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Paradise” in Muslim Narratives and the Discourse of English. – Albany : State University of New York Press, 2005
Maslen, Elisabeth, “Stories, Constructions and Deconstructions: Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Paradise” in Wasafiri 24, September, 1996
Mirmotahari, Emad, “Paradises Lost: A Portrait of the Precolony in Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Paradise” and “Situational Identities: Exiled Selves in Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Memory of Departure and Pilgrim’s Way” in Islam in the Eastern African Novel. – New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2011
Moorthy, Shanti, “Abdulrazak Gurnah and Littoral Cosmopolitanism” in Indian Ocean Studies: Cultural, Social, and Political Perspectives / edited by Shanti Moorthy and Ashraf Jamal. – London : Routledge, 2010
Nasta, Susheila, “Abdulrazak Gurnah, Paradise” in The Popular and the Canonical: Debating Twentieth Century Literature 1940-2000 / edited by David Johnson. – London : Routledge, 2005
Newns, Lucinda, “Homelessness and the Refugee: Abdulrazak Gurnah’s By the Sea” in Domestic Intersections in Contemporary Migration Fiction : Homing the Metropole. – London : Routledge, 2020
Nyman, Jopi, “Migration and Melancholia in Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Pilgrims Way” in Displacement, Memory, and Travel in Contemporary Migrant Writing. – Leiden : Brill-Rodopi, 2017
Olaussen, Maria, “Refusing to Speak as a Victim: Agency and the arrivant in Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Novel By the Sea” in Africa Writing Europe: Opposition, Juxtaposition, Entanglement / edited by Maria Olaussen and Christina Angelfors. – Amsterdam : Rodopi, 2009
Ruberto, Marco Neil, Itinerant Narratives : Travel, Identity and Literary Form in Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Fiction. [Diss.] – Nottingham : Trent University, 2009
Schwerdt, Dianne, “Looking In on Paradise: Race, Gender and Power in Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Paradise” in Contemporary African Fiction / edited by Derek Wright. – Bayreuth: Breitinger, 1997
Weedon, Chris, “Becoming Foreign : Tropes of Migrant Identity in Three Novels by Abdulrazak Gurnah” in Metaphor and Diaspora in Contemporary Writing / edited by Jonathan P. A. Sell. – Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan, 2014
Zamorano Llena, Carmen, “‘Memories of lost things’. Narratives of Afropolitan Identity in Abdulrazak Gurnah’s By the Sea and Gravel Heart” in Fictions of Migration in Contemporary Britain and Ireland. – Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan, 2020