Abdulrazak Gurnah: what you need to know about the Nobel prize-winning author


Alamy/Bloomsbury

Melanie Otto, Trinity College DublinAbdulrazak Gurnah has been awarded the 2021 Nobel prize for literature. The Tanzanian novelist, who is based in the UK, was awarded the prize for his “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents”.

Migration and cultural uprooting along with the cultural and ethnic diversity of east Africa are at the heart of Gurnah’s fiction. They have also shaped his personal life.

Born in Zanzibar in 1948, Gurnah came to Britain in the 1960s as a refugee. Being of Arab origin, he was forced to flee his birthplace during the revolution of 1964 and only returned in 1984 in time to visit his dying father. Until his retirement, he was a full-time professor of English and postcolonial literatures at the University of Kent in Canterbury.

Gurnah has written ten novels to date, including the Booker-nominated Paradise in 1994 and By the Sea in 2001. His most recent novel, Afterlives, was described by the Sunday Times as “an aural archive of a lost Africa”, and indeed the opening pages of this and many of his other works take the reader directly into the realm of oral storytelling.

Afterlives is set against the backdrop of German rule in east Africa in the early 20th century. It tells the story of a young boy sold to German colonial troops. The novel was shortlisted for the 2021 Orwell prize for political fiction and longlisted for the Walter Scott prize for historical fiction.




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Gurnah’s work is attentive to the tension between personal story and collective history. In particular, Afterlives asks readers to consider the afterlife of colonialism and war and its long lasting effects, not only on nations but also, and perhaps mainly so, on individuals and families.

Influence and style

His writing is heavily influenced by the cultural and ethnic diversity of his native Zanzibar. Shaped by its geographical location in the Indian Ocean off the coast of east Africa, it was at the centre of the major Indian Ocean trade routes.

The island attracted traders and colonists from what was then known as Arabia (modern-day Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the UAE), south Asia, the African mainland, and later Europe.

Gurnah’s writing reflects this diversity with its many voices and its range of references to literary sources. Most of all, it insists on hybridity and diversity in the face of Afrocentrism, which dominated the east African independence movements in the 20th century.

His first novel, Memory of Departure, published in 1987, is set around the time Gurnah left Zanzibar. A coming-of-age story in the form of a memoir, it follows the protagonist’s attempts to leave his birthplace and study abroad.

Consequences of colonialism

His novel Paradise is similarly conceived as a coming-of-age narrative, though set earlier in time, at the turn of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, when Europeans were beginning to establish colonies on the East African coast. Paradise also addresses domestic slavery in Africa, with a bonded slave as the main character.

Above all, Paradise highlights the great diversity of Gurnah’s literary repertoire, bringing together references to Swahili texts, Quranic and biblical traditions, as well as the work of Joseph Conrad.

A narrow street in Zanzibar, Tanzania, where Gurnah was born.
Alamy

Gurnah’s work, with its diverse textual references and its attentiveness to archives, reflects and touches on wider concerns in postcolonial literature. His novels consider the deliberate erasure of African narratives and perspectives as one major consequence of European colonialism.

In highlighting conversations between the individual and the record of history, Gurnah’s work has similarities to Salman Rushdie – another postcolonial writer who is equally attentive to the relationship between personal memory and the larger narratives of history. Indeed, alongside his novels, Gurnah is also the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Salman Rushdie, published in 2007.

Gurnah’s books ask: how do we remember a past deliberately eclipsed and erased from the colonial archive? Many postcolonial writers from diverse backgrounds have addressed this issue, from the aforementioned Rushdie to the Jamaican writer Michelle Cliff, both of whom pitch personal memory and story against a collective history authored by those in power.

Gurnah’s work continues this conversation about the long shadow of colonialism and employs a diversity of textual traditions in the process of commemorating erased narratives.The Conversation

Melanie Otto, Assistant Professor in English, Trinity College Dublin

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Foundation: an introduction to five major themes in the work of science fiction writer Isaac Asimov


Mike Ryder, Lancaster UniversityBased on the award-winning novels by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, the new Apple TV series Foundation follows a band of exiles on a mission to rebuild civilisation after the fall of a galactic empire.

Asimov, for the uninitiated, is one of the most important figures in science fiction and is often regarded as one of the “big three” authors, along with Robert A Heinlein and Arthur C Clarke. Together they helped bring about the so-called “golden age” of science fiction in the mid-20th century.

As a writer, Asimov was remarkably prolific over his 50-year career. In that time he wrote 40 novels, 383 short stories and 280 non-fiction books. Once you finish watching Foundation you might want to delve into some of these. With such a vast body of work, it’s hard to capture it all in a single short article. So instead, here are some of the most important themes in his work to look out for when Foundation has given you the itch to discover more of his stories.

Sometimes, the rules don’t work

Asimov is perhaps most famous for his book I, Robot (1950), a collection of short stories that introduce us to Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics”. These are a set of rules designed to protect humans from harm and ensure peaceful coexistence between humans and machines:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Plus the zeroth law: “A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.”

Picture of Asimov.
Issac Asimov was a scientist and one of the greatest science fiction writers of his age.
Everett Collection Historical/Alamy

These laws have become so ubiquitous in science fiction over the years, you may have heard of them without realising where they came from.

However, as the I, Robot stories go to show us, the Three Laws of Robotics don’t actually work. This is because any rule, when applied fully and to the letter, cannot ever work as intended in all cases.

A blurring of genres

One of the things that makes science fiction so compelling for its fans is the way that it can so seamlessly shift between genres, and incorporate many different ideas in a single form. Asimov was one of the first great proponents of this blurring of genres. This can be seen in early works such as The Caves of Steel (1953), which blends science fiction with the detective story.

Book cover of The Caves of Steel.
The caves of steel doubleday cover.
Wikimedia

Many of our most loved science fiction TV series owe a great deal to Asimov and his pioneering work blending genres. It’s thanks to him that we can now enjoy such madcap concepts as wild-west-in-space (Firefly) and the isolating madness of being trapped three million years in the future with only a robot, a hologram and a creature descended from a domestic cat for company (Red Dwarf).

Science is important

It may seem a strange thing to say about a science fiction writer, but Isaac Asimov did place great weight on the importance of science in his work. When he wasn’t writing award-winning short stories and novels, he published widely in the non-fiction scene, including the likes of Isaac Asimov’s Guide to Earth and Space (1991).

Of course, all this work in the realm of science fed into his fiction work too. His books abound with talk of quasars and quarks, and ponderings on the nature of the strong nuclear force. You’re also likely to find thinking about how such developments might impact upon society and what effect new technologies might have on the way we live our lives.

Sustainability, the environment and other problems

Asimov is perhaps underrated for his work in this area, but his 1974 Nebula Prize-winning novel The Gods Themselves gives a fascinating insight into a world of over-consumption, where the solution to the energy “problem” is to simply pump it in from elsewhere using a device known as an Electron Pump.

Unfortunately, the “elsewhere” in this case happens to be another dimension where a race of intelligent beings starts to suffer the consequences of a cooling universe. Meanwhile, it transpires that the device used to pump in the so-called “free” energy is also altering the laws of physics in our world as well – with the inevitable consequence that it will soon cause the sun to explode – and destroy Earth with it.

This is but one example of many in Asimov’s work where he warns against the dangers of hubris, and extrapolates real-world problems – and their perceived solutions – and takes them to their absurd and often terrifying conclusion.

Where next for humanity?

Of course, no discussion of Asimov would be complete without mention of his famous Foundation series, which features some of his most ambitious and important novels.

The series follows mathematician Hari Seldon and his followers as a galaxy-spanning empire goes into decline. Seldon has developed a theory of psychohistory, a mixture of history, sociology, and mathematical statistics, which he uses to make general predictions about the fate of future populations. While the decline of civilisation is impossible to stop, Seldon devises a plan to deflect the onrushing events with incremental changes in the present which have big effects in the future, lessening the impact of the worse parts of his prediction.

What makes Foundation so compelling is just how familiar some of the themes feel even today, some 70 years after the first novel’s publication. Partly, this is due to Asimov’s deep understanding of science and the potential consequences of where certain technologies, and certain ideas, might lead. And, as you’ll discover as you delve into his vast back catalogue, in an age of climate crisis, global pandemics and sinister corporations, his warnings about the future of humanity are as pertinent as ever.The Conversation

Mike Ryder, Teaching Fellow in Marketing, Lancaster University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why the work of Abdulrazak Gurnah, the champion of heartbreak, stands out for me


A copy of “Afterlives” (2021) by Tanzanian-born novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah.
Photo by Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

Fawzia Mustafa, Fordham UniversityAbdulrazak Gurnah, the Tanzanian winner of the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature, has some well-deserved seniority within the ever growing ranks of East African writers. He published his first novel, Memories of Departure, in 1987, and nine more since then. Among those, Paradise (1994), was short-listed for both the Booker Prize and the Whitbread Award. Yet another, By the Sea (2001), was long-listed for the Booker Prize and short-listed for the LA Times Book award.

Born in Zanzibar in 1948, Gurnah is also an accomplished scholar of African literature. Until his retirement recently, he was a professor at the University of Canterbury, in the UK. One crucial aspect of his biography remains his forced migration from Zanzibar to the UK in 1968, amid the turmoil following the 1964 revolution on the island. The trauma of that experience has fed much of his literary imagination and provided a wellspring for his novels of displacement and loss.

The East African region is rich with writers going back to the first post-independence generation. A random sampling of the first Anglophone generation from the three East African nations includes Uganda’s Okot p’Bitek, who translated his own work into English. Grace Ogot and Ngugi wa Thiongo from Kenya and Peter Palangyo and Gabriel Ruhambika of Tanzania also make the list.

More recently, a new generation of writers has obviously emerged. Again, a random sampling include millennials such as the late Binyavanga Wainaina (Kenya), Moses Isegawa (Uganda), and the Ethiopian Dinaw Mengetsu in his Uganda-based novel, All Our Names (2014). Add to these Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Kenya) who, in The Dragonfly Sea (2019), has recently used the Indian Ocean region and the East African littoral setting revisted by Gurnah in many of his novels.

The generational and political transition necessarily reflects the different historical worlds within the region that are represented by East African writers. One writer who started out before Gurnah, for example, is Ngugi wa Thiongo, himself a perennial candidate for the Nobel.

In addition to Ngugi wa Thiongo, the Somali writer Nuruddin Farah has also been tipped frequently for the Nobel Prize. One may be justified to ask, why Gurnah over Ngugi or Farah? The Nobel Committee has often defied local knowledge, in the sense of choosing internationally recognised candidates rather than those more locally celebrated at home.

At the same time, writing “contests” don’t always measure literary talent helpfully. Recognition brings prestige, a larger readership, and more sales, but this impulsion remains part of the infrastructure of a non-local book industry that’s one of the pillars of old and new capitalisms, old and new colonialisms. Even in our digital age, who can afford books, or access, among the larger population? In many cases, only the elites.

Why Gurnah’s work is powerful

Nevertheless, I was very pleased to learn that Gurnah won this year. What stands out for me is Gurnah’s constant exploration of heartbreak. Certainly, he breaks mine. His novels delve deeply into family separation, endless betrayals of core familial relations, and the inexorable pull of the lost past. Each novel exposes another nuance, another hidden aspect, another self-inflicted betrayal.

The Last Gift (2011) harbours an extraordinary secret that is only disclosed at death. Desertion (2005) uses the trope of romance, over three generations, to show the inadequacy of love in the face of social change, be it political or cultural. Paradise (1994) possibly the best known of Gurnah’s novels, is also the first to evoke deep historical and cultural research. It brings home the multiple overlays of both Omani and European colonial power, control and oppression.

The other political landscapes of gender, sexuality, race and class are perhaps more finely tuned, and certainly more robust, in Gurnah’s work than, say, Ngugi and Farah. And this may also account for his good fortune, and within the world of world literature, this well-deserved prize.

For the last three-plus decades, along with M.G. Vassanji, Gurnah has been the Anglophone novelist mining the Tanzanian and Zanzibari – and by extension the Indian Ocean World literary landscape. This setting has underwritten Gurnah’s themes of (forced) migrations to the West, that which the Nobel Committee singled out in their announcement of Gurnah’s award.

At the same time, Gurnah is the one novelist who has always been able to also mine the local Kiswahili (including 19th-century coastal Arabic and Islamic) literary and historical traditions. These, along with colonial archives, both German and British, are incredibly rich but globally overlooked literary confluences.




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Nobel Prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah: an introduction to the man and his writing


Interestingly, Gurnah’s more recent work – such as Afterlives (2021) – has sometimes embraced a more overtly historical dimension of the region. Set at the height of German conquest, until their defeat in the first world war, the novel follows three figures, each of whom resemble in one way or another the protagonist of Paradise. The panoramic historical sweep of the first half of the novel is an authoritative account of the complexities of German colonial power up against extraordinary local resistance. At the same time, it makes visible the alternative choices that German colonialism provided to those already disenfranchised within older colonial systems and local oppressive regimes such as those of gender.

So, while his earlier work obsessively revisits migration and loss, it is almost always buffered or intersected with pretence, outright falsehoods and strategic deceit among his cast of protagonists. These are among the survival strategies born of migration, displacement and alienation.

Gurnah’s use of a form of dramatic irony has been extraordinary. This applies both at the level of familial conflict and separation and at the level of large-scale, brutal colonial social transformations, foreign and home-grown. In other words, the same kinds of circumstances that characterise the Zanzibar of Gurnah’s youth.The Conversation

Fawzia Mustafa, Emerita Professor of English, Comparative Literature, African American and African Studies and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Fordham University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.