The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded on Thursday to Abdulrazak Gurnah for “his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”
Gurnah was born in Zanzibar, which is now part of Tanzania, in 1948, but he currently lives in Britain. He left Zanzibar at age 18 as a refugee after a violent 1964 uprising in which soldiers overthrew the country’s government. He is the first African to win the award — considered the most prestigious in world literature — in almost two decades.
Gurnah’s 10 novels include “Memory of Departure,” “Pilgrims Way” and “Dottie,” which all deal with the immigrant experience in Britain; “Paradise,” shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994, about a boy in an East African country scarred by colonialism; and “Admiring Silence,” about a young man who leaves Zanzibar for England, where he marries and becomes a teacher.
Gurnah’s first language is Swahili, but he adopted English as his literary language, with his prose often inflected with traces of Swahili, Arabic and German.
Anders Olsson, the chair of the committee that awards the prize, said at the news conference on Thursday that Gurnah “is widely recognized as one of the world’s more pre-eminent post-colonial writers.” 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,” he added.
The characters in his novels, Olsson said, “find themselves in the gulf between cultures and continents, between the life left behind and the life to come, confronting racism and prejudice, but also compelling themselves to silence the truth or reinventing biography to avoid conflict with reality.”
Laura Winters, writing in The New York Times in 1996, called “Paradise” “a shimmering, oblique coming-of-age fable,” adding that “Admiring Silence” was a work that “skillfully depicts the agony of a man caught between two cultures, each of which would disown him for his links to the other.”
In an interview with the website Africainwords earlier this year, Gurnah spoke about how, in his recent book, “Afterlives,” he was seeking to illuminate how people affected by war and colonialism are shaped but not defined by those experiences, and how it grew out of stories he heard growing up in Zanzibar.
“I was surrounded by people who experienced these things firsthand and would talk about them,” he said. “These stories have been with me all along and what I needed was time to organize them into this story. My scholarly work has also shaped these stories.”
Gurnah noted that throughout his career, he has been engaged with the questions of displacement, exile, identity and belonging.
“There are different ways of experiencing belonging and unbelonging. How do people perceive themselves as part of a community? How are some included and some excluded? Who does the community belong to?” he said.
In the prelude to this year’s award, the literature prize was called out for lacking diversity among its winners. The journalist Greta Thurfjell, writing in Dagens Nyheter, a Swedish newspaper, noted that 95 of the 117 past Nobel laureates were from Europe or North America, and that only 16 winners had been women. “Can it really continue like that?” she asked.
Who else has recently won the prize?
The American poet Louise Glück was awarded last year’s literature prize for writing “that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal,” according to the citation from the Nobel committee. Her award was seen as a much-needed reset for the prize after several years of scandal.
In 2018, the academy postponed the prize after the husband of an academy member was accused of sexual misconduct and of leaking candidates’ names to bookmakers. The academy member’s husband, Jean-Claude Arnault, was later sentenced to two years in prison for rape.
The following year, the academy awarded the delayed 2018 prize to Olga Tokarczuk, an experimental Polish novelist. But the academy came in for criticism for giving the 2019 prize to Peter Handke, an Austrian author and playwright who has been accused of genocide denial for questioning events during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s — including the Srebrenica massacre, in which about 8,000 Muslim men and boys were murdered.
Lawmakers in Albania, Bosnia and Kosovo denounced the decision, as did several high-profile novelists, including Jennifer Egan and Hari Kunzru.
Who else won a Nobel Prize this year?
David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian were awarded the prize in physiology or medicine on Monday for their discoveries about how people sense heat, cold, touch and their own bodily movements.
Three scientists whose work “laid the foundation of our knowledge of the Earth’s climate and how humanity influences it” were awarded the prize for physics on Tuesday: Syukuro Manabe of Princeton University; Klaus Hasselmann of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany; and Giorgio Parisi of the Sapienza University of Rome
Benjamin List and David W.C. MacMillan were awarded the chemistry prize on Wednesday for developing a more environmentally friendly tool to build molecules.