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


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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.
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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.

Nobel winner Abdulrazak Gurnah’s fiction traces small lives with wit and tenderness


Abdulrazak Gurnah captivatingly draws readers into the experiences and vivid lifeworlds of his characters
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Tina Steiner, Stellenbosch UniversityFor those of us who have read and reread, taught, and written about the fiction of Abdulrazak Gurnah, the Nobel Prize in Literature committee has confirmed what we knew all along. His superb writing deserves much wider recognition and readership.

Gurnah was born in Zanzibar, the archipelago off the Tanzanian coast, in 1948. Then still a British Protectorate, Zanzibar gained independence in December 1963, only to be thrown into the turmoil and violence of the Zanzibar Revolution of January 1964. These are historical events to which he returns in his fiction repeatedly.

He left for the UK in 1967 and has lived there ever since, except for a short teaching stint at Bayero University Kano in Nigeria in the 1980s. He taught in the English department at the University of Kent in Canterbury until his recent retirement.

Even though he has lived most of life in England, all his novels – except for Dottie (1990), which is set entirely in the UK – are set either fully or partially on the Eastern African Swahili Coast or in Zanzibar. To date he has published ten immensely readable novels and many short stories. These are written in clean and uncluttered prose. It makes him a master storyteller, captivatingly drawing the reader into the experiences and vivid lifeworlds of the characters depicted.

Connecting people and geographies

The work of the imagination to follow the storyteller’s attention creates connections that in their intangibility might seem elusive. And yet any reader will know these to be powerful and potentially transformative. As Ben Okri, a Nigerian writer, reminds us, such threads, which interweave stories and life, are deeply significant. This is because stories “can infect a system, or illuminate a world”. The ambiguity in Okri’s description of the effect of stories captures the way in which stories potentially open up the world and contest narratives that circumscribe and preclude mutuality. It also talks to the danger of stories when they participate in and serve as justification for structures of domination, exclusion and violence.

Gurnah, the storyteller, probes the efficacy of stories to connect people and geographies. Yet at the same time he is acutely attentive to the divisive nature of stories of certainty: of colonial domination, of patriarchal scripts, of racism, of xenophobia towards strangers from elsewhere. His work points to the way in which such certainties furnish people with a belief in the rightness of the violence they wreak on others, in the destruction of other people’s lives which they deem to matter less than their own.

Instead, Gurnah’s work asks the reader to consider stories as provisional accounts that cannot claim closure or complete knowledge. Ambiguity, multiple viewpoints of the same events, complex focalisation, self-reflexive irony and narrative wit are some of the features of his writing. They make his writing so incredibly compelling. It elides narrative certainty. The narrative mode is often oblique. Perhaps we can imagine it like this, or perhaps it happened otherwise. This mode is particularly apt to illuminate the itinerant lives of people who find themselves on the move and who do not seem to belong anywhere.

Migration and other forms of displacement, as Gurnah’s stories suggest, are common occurrences in Africa and across the globe. Therefore, it is important to see others in relation to ourselves, to perceive their right of abode even if they cannot claim national belonging. However, it is precisely the humanity of the stranger that is at stake once the status of citizenship is in question. Hospitality is revealed as conditional in the current hostile immigration climate. The asylum seeker, the refugee and the migrant are hardly afforded the dignity which the recognition of a common humanity would demand.

It is this refusal to recognise the humanity of the other and its terrible consequences that Gurnah’s stories explore in detail. He crafts carefully delineated juxtapositions between hostile, implacable environments in which his characters find themselves with little room to manoeuvre, and pockets of hospitality that gesture towards alternative social imaginaries where kindness and joie de vivre become possible.

In contrast to an essentialist view of a citizen as someone who is described in terms of appearance or ancestry, Gurnah sets the complexity of centuries of intermingling along the East African shores of the Indian Ocean. In this way his stories question ideas of purity and difference. They emphasise the cultural and linguistic heterogeneity of East African coastal regions and their place within the continent, the Indian Ocean world, and the globe in order to stress a common humanity.

Empathetic storytelling

Across his oeuvre, which traverses settings in Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam, Bagamoyo, Mombasa, Lake Tanganyika, Nairobi, Muscat, Bahrain and several locales in England, Gurnah traces a long history of transnational and transoceanic movements. His work references the Eastern African slave trade and indenture, German and British colonial oppression and less legible but equally destructive forms of social exclusion to do with economic precarity and migration. While his characters are often caught in violent and unequal plots not of their own making and beyond their control – since Gurnah’s stories tend to focus on people whose lives are deemed insignificant and small – his empathetic storytelling subtly points to the importance of social connections, however unexpected, that offer reassurance and warmth.

In this way, his novels also cautiously celebrate the polyglot cosmopolitanisms and generous forms of accommodation that emerged on the Swahili coast within broader structures of ambivalent encounter in the monsoon trade and imperial conquest. In a passage in By the Sea, Gurnah’s sixth novel, published in 2001, seven-year-old Saleh Omar, one of the protagonists and narrators, describes his first encounter with a map of an Africa embedded in the wider world of the Indian Ocean:

As [the teacher’s] story developed, he began to draw a map on the blackboard with a piece of white chalk: the coast of North Africa which then bulged out and tucked in and then slid down to the Cape of Good Hope. As he drew, he spoke, naming places, sometimes in full sometimes in passing. Sinuously north to the jut of the Ruvuma delta, the cusp of our stretch of coast, the Horn of Africa, then the Red Sea coast to Suez, the Arabian peninsula, the Persian Gulf, India, the Malay peninsula and then all the way to China. He stopped there and smiled.

This moment of the unbroken chalk line is pivotal, not just in relation to this particular novel, but perhaps to Gurnah’s oeuvre as a whole. It makes visible the ocean on which so many of his stories float. And I suspect that this teacher’s smile is also the soryteller’s. It is the subtle humour which suffuses his writing that give his stories a lightness of touch, despite the harrowing aspects of the narratives. It contributes enormously to the pleasure of reading.

There is the acerbic sarcasm which exposes racial aggression and renders it absurd. And there is the self-deprecating humour of the migrant in the face of an immovable and indifferent environment, which staves off self-pity and sets in motion processes of disalienation. The dry wit of the narratives allows Gurnah to forge a bond with readers, who come to appreciate it as a mode of interaction that can liquefy ossified social categories by opening up spaces of irony and ambiguity and remind us of the fragility of the human condition we all share.The Conversation

Tina Steiner, Associate Professor in the English Department, Stellenbosch University

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

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


Abdulrazak Gurnah during the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2017.
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Lizzy Attree, Richmond American International UniversityThe Nobel Prize in Literature, considered the pinnacle of achievement for creative writers, has been awarded 114 times to 118 Nobel Prize laureates between 1901 and 2021. This year it went to novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah, who was born in Zanzibar, the first Tanzanian writer to win. The last black African writer to win the prize was Wole Soyinka in 1986. Gurnah is the first black writer to win since Toni Morrison in 1993. Charl Blignaut asked Lizzy Attree to describe the winner and share her views on his literary career.

Who is Gurnah and what is his place in East African literature?

Abdulrazak Gurnah is a Tanzanian writer who writes in English and lives and works in the UK. He was born in Zanzibar, the semi-autonomous island off the east African coast, and studied at Christchurch College Canterbury in 1968.

Zanzibar underwent a revolution in 1964 in which citizens of Arab origin were persecuted. Gurnah was forced to flee the country when he was 18. He began to write in English as a 21-year-old refugee in England, although Kiswahili is his first language. His first novel, Memory of Departure, was published in 1987.

He has written numerous works that pose questions around ideas of belonging, colonialism, displacement, memory and migration. His novel Paradise, set in colonial east Africa during the first world war, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994.

Comparable to Moyez G. Vassanji, a Canadian author raised in Tanzania, whose attention focuses on the east African Indian community and their interaction with the “others”, Gurnah’s novel Paradise deploys multi-ethnicity and multiculturalism on the shores of the Indian Ocean from the perspective of the Swahili elite.

A distinguished academic and critic, he recently sat on the board of the Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African literature and has served as a contributing editor for the literary magazine Wasafiri for many years.

He is currently Professor Emeritus of English and Postcolonial Literatures at the University of Kent, having retired in 2017.

Why is Gurnah’s work being celebrated – what is powerful about it?

He was awarded the Nobel

for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fates of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.

He is one of the most important contemporary postcolonial novelists writing in Britain today and is the first black African writer to win the prize since Wole Soyinka in 1986. Gurnah is also the first Tanzanian writer to win.

Copies of Afterlives by Tanzanian-born novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah.
Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images

His most recent novel, Afterlives, is about Ilyas, who was taken from his parents by German colonial troops as a boy and returns to his village after years of fighting against his own people. The power in Gurnah’s writing lies in this ability to complicate the Manichean divisions of enemies and friends, and excavate hidden histories, revealing the shifting nature of identity and experience.

What Gurnah work stands out for you and why?

The novel Paradise stands out for me because in it Gurnah re-maps Polish-British writer Joseph Conrad’s 19th century journey to the “heart of darkness” from an east African position going westwards. As South African scholar Johan Jacobs has said, he

reconfigures the darkness at its heart … In his fictional transaction with Heart of Darkness, Gurnah shows in Paradise that the corruption of trade into subjection and enslavement pre-dates European colonisation, and that in East Africa servitude and slavery have always been woven into the social fabric.

The tale is narrated so gently by 12-year-old Yusuf, lovingly describing gardens and assorted notions of paradise and their corruption as he is pawned between masters and travels to different parts of the interior from the coast. Yusuf concludes that the brutality of German colonialism is still preferable to the ruthless exploitation by the Arabs.

Like Achebe in Things Fall Apart (1958), Gurnah illustrates east African society on the verge of huge change, showing that colonialism accelerated this process but did not initiate it.

Is the Nobel literature prize still relevant?

It’s still relevant because it is still the biggest single prize purse for literature around. But the method of selecting a winner is fairly secretive and depends on nominations from within the academy, meaning doctors and professors of literature and former laureates. This means that although the potential nominees are often discussed in advance by pundits, no-one actually knows who is in the running until the prize winner is announced. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, for example, is a Kenyan writer whom many believe should have won by now, along with a number of others like Ivan Vladislavic from South Africa.

Winning puts a global spotlight on a writer who has often not been given full recognition by other prizes, or whose work has been neglected in translation, thus breathing new life into works that many have not read before and deserve to be read more widely.The Conversation

Lizzy Attree, Adjunct Professor, Richmond American International University

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

2021 ‘NIBs’ Longlist


The link below is to an article reporting on the longlist for the 2021 Nib Literary Awards.

For more visit:
https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2021/08/30/192249/nib-literary-award-2021-longlist-announced/

2021 National Biography Award Winner


The link below is to an article reporting on the winner of the 2021 National Biography Award, Cassandra Pybus for ‘Truganini – Journey Through the Apocalypse.’

For more visit:
https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2021/08/27/192214/pybus-wins-2021-national-biography-award-for-truganini/

2021 New South Wales Premier’s History Awards Winners


The link below is to an article reporting on the winners of the 2021 NSW Premier’s History Awards.

For more visit:
https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2021/09/06/192708/nsw-premiers-history-awards-2021-winners-announced/

2021 Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award Winner


The link below is to an article reporting on the winner of the 2021 Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award.

For more visit:
https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2021/09/03/192512/wright-wins-2021-carmel-bird-digital-literary-award/

2021 Accessible Books Consortium Award Shortlist


The link below is to an article reporting on the shortlist for the 2021 Accessible Books Consortium Award.

For more visit:
https://publishingperspectives.com/2021/09/shortlist-named-for-the-2021-accessible-books-consortium-award/

2021 New Australian Fiction Prize Shortlist


The link below is to an article reporting on the shortlist for the 2021 New Australian Fiction Shortlist.

For more visit:
https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2021/09/01/192333/readings-announces-2021-new-australian-fiction-prize-shortlist/