ZANZIBAR-born novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah on Thursday won the Nobel Literature Prize for his writings on post-colonialism and the trauma of the refugee experience. Gurnah, who grew up on the island of Zanzibar but arrived in England as a refugee at the end of the 1960,is the fifth African to win the Nobel Literature Prize.
The Swedish Academy said Gurnah was honored “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effect of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”
“His novels recoil from stereotypical descriptions and open our gaze to a culturally diversified East Africa unfamiliar to many of the world,” the Nobel Foundation added. Gurnah told the Nobel Prize website he was stunned to get the call from Swedish Academy. “I thought it was prank,” he said. “These things are usually floated for weeks beforehand…..so it was not some thing that was in my mind,” he said. He was published 10 novels and a number of short stories.
The head of the Academy’s Nobel committee, Anders Olsson, said Gurnah’s reflections on the plight of refugees were particular topical. “His writings are extremely interesting right now for many, many people in Europe and around the world,” Olsson told reporters.
His itinerant characters “find themselves in hiatus between culture and continents, between a life that was and a life emerging; it is an insecure state that can never be resolved,” the Academy said. The theme of the refugee’s disruption runs throughout his work, with a focus on identity and self-image, also apparent in the 1996 novel Admiring Silence and By the Sea from 2001.After his win, Gurnah urged Europe to see African refugees as assets, saying that “many of these people who come, come out of need, and also because quite frankly they have something to give.”
“They don’t come empty-handed. A lot of talented, energetic people who have something to give,”Gurnah said.
Born in 1948, Gurnah fled Zanzibar in 1968 to England. He began writing as a 21-years old in England, Although Swahili was his first language, English became his literary tool.
Gurnah is best known for his 1994 breakthrough novel Paradise, set in colonial East Africa during World War I, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction. The novel has obvious references to English author Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novel Heart of Darkness in its portrayal of the innocent young hero Yusuf’s journey to Central Africa and the Congo Basin.
Gurnah has until his recent retirement been Professor of English and Post-colonial Literatures at the University of Kent, focusing principally on writers such as Wole Soyinka, Ngungi wa Thiong’o and Salman Rushdie.
A head of Thursday’s announcement Nobel watchers has suggested the Swedish Academy could choose to give the nod to a writer from Asia or Africa, following a pledge to make the prize more diverse in gender and geography.