Tanzania’s Abdulrazak Gurnah wins 2021 Nobel Prize in literature

Swedish Academy recognises Tanzanian novelist’s ‘uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee’.

Gurnah has published 10 novels and a number of short stories [Gareth Cattermole/Getty]

Tanzanian author Abdulrazak Gurnah has won the 2021 Nobel Prize in literature, the award-giving body said.

The prestigious prize was awarded on Thursday by the Swedish Academy, which cited Gurnah’s “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents”.

Born in Zanzibar and based in England, Gurnah recently retired as a professor of post-colonial literature at the University of Kent.

He has published 10 novels and a number of short stories. He is best known for his 1994 novel “Paradise”, set in colonial East Africa during World War I, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction.

Gurnah got the call from the Swedish Academy in the kitchen of his home in southeast England.

“I think it’s just brilliant and wonderful,” Gurnah told Reuters news agency when asked how he felt to win the prize. “It’s just great – its just a big prize, and such a huge list of wonderful writers – I am still taking it in,” he said.

“It was such a complete surprise that I really had to wait until I heard it announced before I could believe it.”

Anders Olsson, chairman of the Nobel Committee for Literature, called him “one of the world’s most prominent post-colonial writers”.

The prestigious award comes with a gold medal and 10 million Swedish kronor ($1.14m).

Gurnah would have normally received the Nobel from King Carl XVI Gustaf at a formal ceremony in Stockholm on December 10, the anniversary of the 1896 death of scientist Alfred Nobel who created the prizes in his last will and testament.

But the in-person ceremony has been cancelled for the second straight year due to the pandemic and replaced with a televised ceremony showing the laureates receiving their awards in their home countries.

Of the 118 literature laureates since the first Nobel was awarded in 1901, 95 – or more than 80 percent – have been Europeans or North Americans.

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

Gluck 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.

Jens Liljestrand, a journalist and literature critic, told Al Jazeera that Gurnah was a little known figure.

“In my decades of watching the Nobel prize and writing about literature, this is the biggest surprise – the most jaw-dropping announcement so far,” he said.

“No one just appears on this list automatically, you have to be there for a while,” he added.

“So I don’t believe that recent developments in the world, or world politics, or the refugee crisis has affected this choice – but I think that probably the need to watch post-colonial literature more closely, and to pay attention to this literature [means] the importance and the acuteness of this literature has been emphasised in recent years.”

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

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

Benjamin List and David WC MacMillan were named as laureates of the Nobel Prize for chemistry on Wednesday for finding an easier and environmentally cleaner way to build molecules that can be used to make compounds, including medicines and pesticides.

Still to come are prizes for outstanding work in the fields of peace and economics.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies