ew announcements could give greater pleasure to followers of the broad church of African literature than that of the East African-born novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah as winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. We would all like to give the honorific Swahili greeting shikamoo – “I touch your feet” – but we can’t do that literally right now, and he wouldn’t like it anyway, I reckon, being a very self-effacing man, despite his great talent.
Born in 1948 on Zanzibar, then still a British colony, Gurnah came to the United Kingdom in 1968. This was the year of Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech and four years after the violent Zanzibar revolution that eventually led to the union of Zanzibar and Tanganyika as present-day Tanzania – a moment later dramatized in his debut novel, Memory of Departure (1987). He studied at Canterbury Christ Church University and earned a PhD at the University of Kent in 1982, before teaching for a few years at a university in northern Nigeria. He then returned to Kent, rising through troublesome academic ranks to become Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, until his retirement in November 2018, an occasion on which I was honoured to give a valedictory lecture. At the end of that peroration, I rashly predicted the likelihood of Nobel laurels. The best bet I never made. Gurnah’s academic work during this period, like that of his fellow laureate J. M. Coetzee, focused on colonial and post-colonial writing – branching out, when the field went mainstream, into some creative-writing tuition.
All through this time – the early part of which saw post-colonial writing going against the grain of predominantly white, neocolonial establishment authority – Gurnah was writing groundbreaking fiction. To date, he has produced ten novels that grapple with the subjects of the immigrant experience, displacement, memory and colonialism. These concerns – the transnational, the trauma narrative – are very current now, but they were just a speck on the horizon when Gurnah began developing his oeuvre. He was a prime mover in this respect, and that is part of what has catalysed this award. As the chair of the Nobel committee, Anders Olsson, remarked, “Gurnah has consistently and with great compassion penetrated the effects of colonialism in East Africa, and its effects on the lives of uprooted and migrating individuals”.
This element of compassion was clearly an important factor for the Nobel committee.
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