Abdulrazak Gurnah is not exactly a household name in much of the English-speaking world. Those happy few who have known his literary output and critical writings of the last three decades, however, were not surprised that he received the 2021 Nobel Prize for literature. He richly deserves it.
As the world rushes to learn more about him and read his novels, and justly so, it would also be good to consider some of his non-fiction critical writings, such as the volumes he edited on Essays on African Writing (1993) or The Cambridge Companion to Salman Rushdie (2007). His works of fiction are the product of the same critical mind.
In its announcement, the Swedish Academy, which is responsible for the selection of the Nobel Prize laureates in literature, has said Gurnah was honoured with the award for his “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism”. That “compassionate penetration” (the academy needs to show a better command of idiomatic English) is the result of a lifetime of dispossession, exile, homesickness, and being subject to the horrors of racism and white supremacy. Such thematic traits may define the texture of his works of fiction but they do not on their own define his literary significance. We are in the presence of a powerful writer of fiction, not a political activist opting for a literary disguise.
Born in 1948 in the Sultanate of Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania) and having moved to the United Kingdom as a refugee in the 1960s, Abdulrazak Gurnah carries within him – in his mind, body and soul, and in the prose and poetry of his fiction – the history of colonial dispossession and postcolonial bewilderment of being a Black man in the cosmopolitan epicentre of British imperialism. His fiction may have begun with the terrors of colonialism, but it does not end there.
When Gurnah was born on that island in the Indian Ocean, the sun was finally starting to set on the British banner of thievery and tyranny around the world. The Brits were packing their Union Jack and leaving India, while the rest of their colonial possessions were equally up in arms. Gurnah grew up amid this upheaval and carries this history of British colonialism in one long and still unfolding literary career. His fiction is not a literary commentary on the history of European colonialism. It dissolves that history into an ennobling prose of our global whereabouts beyond the Asian, African and Latin American theatres of European colonial atrocities.
As a critical thinker, Gurnah is a child of colonialism and as a result there is an obvious autobiographical thrust to his fiction. From his birthplace all the way to his adapted home, the UK, where he eventually became a professor of English and Postcolonial Literatures at the University of Kent, he maps out the trajectory of generations of Africans moving from the despair of their homelands to the neighbouring desolation of their colonial tormentors. Why are we, postcolonial people, all drawn to the epicentres of our colonial tormentors?
Colonial politics, postcolonial prose
Bengali polymath Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel prize for literature in 1913. Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez won it in 1982, and Nigerian playwright, novelist, poet, and essayist Wole Soyinka in 1986. These recognitions brought the themes of Asian, African and Latin American lived experiences, and perhaps more importantly, the literary traditions these writers represent, to global attention.
For precisely that reason Gurnah should not be ethnicised and localised into “non-White” or “sub-Saharan African” pigeonholes, diminishing his importance as a literary artist. When Gunter Grass or Doris Lessing won the same prize people did not start reading them because they were white – so they should not start reading Gurnah merely because he is Black after he received the same recognition.
Writers like Gurnah, Soyinka or African American novelist Toni Morrison, who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1993, should not be reduced to the political issues that is embedded in their works of art. Towering novelist, essayist and critic Chinua Achebe in Nigeria influenced Morrison in the US not because he was an African writer writing on colonialism or politics, but because he produced sublime works of fiction. Gabriel García Márquez had a catalytic impact on the literary world not because he was writing about Latin American dictatorships, but because in his fiction he had invented a new magical way of coming to terms with reality.
Even beyond such continental divides, something else is happening to the writing of fiction. Today the ideas of being an African or a British novelist are changing – prolonged and traumatic experiences of migration, in escape of economic hardship or violence, have created a new condition of literary and artistic creativity. The Kurdish-Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani wrote his celebrated autobiographical account No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison (2018) on his iPhone and texted it to a friend over five years while incarcerated in an Australian government immigration detention facility on Manus Island. Identity politics has long since faded into the urgency of a prose that defies fictional frontiers of home and exile.
Central to Gurnah’s 10 novels are of course themes of exile, dislocation, migration, alienation and anomie. In that context, Gurnah’s oeuvre can be read within four crucial moments. First, Memory of Departure (1988), where we read about the struggles of an African youth growing up under dictatorship and despair. Then in his most famous book Paradise (1994), where we follow the life of the 12-year-old Yusuf growing up in the larger landscape of an entire continent the author will soon have to leave behind. By the time we get to Admiring Silence (1996), this young man has already moved to England, married and settled to his dual marginality. In By the Sea (2001), the immigrant author is now deeply into coming to terms with the pathological racism of the country to which he has moved. Before Gurnah, other African novelists like Tayeb Saleh in his Season of Migration to the North (1966) and before him Albert Memmi in The Pillar of Salt (1955) had explored similar themes. Themes have remained constant, changing is the spirit of the work of fiction they have inspired.
English as an African Language
Though his mother tongue is Swahili, Gurnah writes in English. As such he is integral to the manner in which Asian and African migratory and diasporic experiences have enriched and altered English language and literature. The overwhelming majority of those who speak or read or write English are not British, let alone English. It is the exponential expansion of English language and literature, rooted in Britain’s colonial domination of the world, that spells out the incorporation of African or Asian writers into the evident canons of the language. Calling authors like Gurnah diasporic, exilic, or any other such self-alienating term conceals the fact that English was native to him even before he set foot in England. English colonial officers had brought it home to him.
To be sure, with Swahili as his first language, Gurnah has a glorious literary reservoir in Arabic and Persian at his disposal. Maritime traders for centuries have sailed from Arabia, Persia and India and mingled with the local Bantu populations eventually to give rise to Swahili – which comes from the Arabic word “Sahel/Coast.” Multicultural locations like Zanzibar, Malindi, Mombasa and Sofala carry the traces of this rich history in which Arabic literature, Persian poetry, and Indian philosophies have come to their African provenance.
The enriching of the literary worldliness of the Nobel Prize will in turn ennoble the prize itself given its past practices. The Swedish Academy, in general, does not have a stellar record of minding the moral depravity of people to whom it gives the Nobel prize for literature – just two years ago, it gave it to Austrian author Peter Handke, who is best known for his support for the genocidal Serbian regime led by Slobodan Milošević and denial of the extent of the terror Serbs inflicted on Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s in former Yugoslavia.
Even beyond such embarrassments, the Nobel Prize for literature still remains overwhelmingly white and disproportionately Euro-American. The massive literary movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America only have a token representation in this list. But Gurnah represents an even more iconic trajectory, which is the realm of the migratory literary minds, people born like him in Africa but forced into a life in the country of their colonial torment. The territories now under Tanzania have been colonised and brutalised by both Germans and the British.
Gurnah went to the UK and has now brought glory to his adopted country and to the English language the same way that many of us from Asia and Africa are drawn to the countries that have been the source of our historical horrors. This attraction begins as a psychopathological mystery, and yet it could end up with a Nobel Prize in literature.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.