Abdulrazak Gurnah is first Tanzanian novelist to win Nobel Prize in Literature

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Abdulrazak Gurnah on Thursday was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature 2021 for his “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.” He is the first Tanzanian writer to receive the prestigious award. 

Gurnah was born in 1948 in Zanzibar, now part of Tanzania, but he arrived in England as a refugee at the end of the 1960s as a student. He was a professor at the University of Kent’s department of English until his recent retirement. 

Gurnah has published 10 novels, including Paradise, By the Sea and, his most recent work, Afterlives, alongside a handful of short stories. He is the first Black person to win the prize since Toni Morrison in 1993 and the first African to win the award in almost two decades. 

 In an interview with the Swedish Academy shortly after being announced the winner, Gurnah said he wasn’t expecting to win the award.

“I was just thinking ‘I wonder who’ll get it,” he said. “I thought it was a prank, I really did.”

When asked about humanity’s particular moment in time now — being in the middle of a refugee crisis, particularly people from Africa coming to Europe — Gurnah said that our divisions aren’t permanent or somehow insurmountable, but there is a “kind of miserliness” concerning refugees, “as if there isn’t enough to go around.”

“When many of these people who come, come out of first need, and because quite frankly they have something to give … They don’t come empty-handed,” Gurnah said. “A lot of them are talented, energetic people, who have something to give.”

Gurnah’s works have engaged with themes of displacement, exile, identity and belonging throughout his career, having experienced these issues himself and being “surrounded by people who experienced these things firsthand,” he said in an interview earlier this year with Africainwords about his recent book Afterlives. 

“These stories have been with me all along and what I needed was time to organize them into this story,” he said.

Anders Olsson, chair of the Nobel committee, wrote in a statement that “Gurnah’s dedication to truth and his aversion to simplification are striking. … 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.”

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