The 2021 Nobel prize for literature has been awarded to an African: Tanzania’s Abdulrazak Gurnah. He was noted “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”
According to The Guardian, Gurnah discovered his win whilst in the kitchen at home. He said: “I thought it was a prank. 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?”
African theme in his literature
Born in 1948, Gurnah grew up in Zanzibar but arrived as a refugee in England in the 1960s during the Zanzibar revolution. His experiences have shaped 10 novels and a series of short stories that the Nobel committee recognised as the thread running through his work.
He is the first black African writer to win the prize since Wole Soyinka in 1986, and the first Tanzanian writer.
His most popular work Paradise was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994. The novel describes a young Tanzanian boy’s journey through parts of Central Africa as World War I begins. The work is considered a rarity given its portrayal of the German colonial influence in Africa.
Germany quickly invaded Africa in 1884, taking countries left by the British and French and becoming the third-largest colonial empire at the time. It was only at the end of the First World War that they were forced to relinquish control on the continent.
Gurnah’s latest work, Afterlives, continues the theme of German colonial rule, and the implications for a young married couple. Revisiting the impacts of colonialism and war, he emphasises the need to remember these narratives, often obscured and left out of the history books. The continued emission of African perspectives to this chapter of history is further proof that Gurnah’s work is not just moving, but it is valuable.