The winner of the 2021 Nobel Prize in literature has been announced as Abdulrazak Gurnah, the first Black African writer to win in 35 years.
The novelist’s work was described as an “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents”.
Gurnah was born in Zanzibar in the 1940s. The country went through a revolution in 1964, and Arab citizens were persecuted. Gurnah was forced to flee the country, coming to England as a refugee where he began to write. The 21-year-old chose to write in English, even though his first language is Swahili. He published his first novel, Memory of Departure, in 1987. He worked as professor of English and postcolonial literatures at the University of Kent, until his recent retirement.
His novels have reflected the feeling of displacement that many refugees and immigrants have experienced.
The chair of the Nobel committee, Anders Olsson, said that Gurnah’s novels “recoil from stereotypical descriptions and open our gaze to a culturally diversified East Africa unfamiliar to many in other parts of the world”.
When informed of his win, Gurnah couldn’t believe it:
“I thought it was a prank,” he said. “These things are usually floated for weeks beforehand, or sometimes months beforehand, about who are the runners, so it was not something that was in my mind at all. I was just thinking, I wonder who’ll get it?”
“I am honoured to be awarded this prize and to join the writers who have preceded me on this list. It is overwhelming and I am so proud.”
The novelist’s Bloomsbury editor for many years, Alexandra Pringle, said his win was “most deserved”.
“He is one of the greatest living African writers, and no one has ever taken any notice of him and it’s just killed me. I did a podcast last week and in it I said that he was one of the people that has been just ignored. And now this has happened,” she said.
Pringle explained how Gurnah’s themes of displacement are written “in the most beautiful and haunting ways of what it is that uproots people and blows them across continents”.
“It’s not always asylum seeking, it can be so many reasons, it can be trade, it can be commerce, it can be education, it can be love,” she said. “The first of his novels I took on at Bloomsbury is called By the Sea, and there’s this haunting image of a man at Heathrow airport with a carved incense box, and that’s all he has. He arrives, and he says one word, and that’s ‘asylum’.”
“His writing is particularly beautiful and grave and also humorous and kind and sensitive. He’s an extraordinary writer writing about really important things.”