Published October 24, 2021

"The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2021 is awarded to the novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah, born in Zanzibar and active in England, for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fates of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents,” wrote the Swedish Academy in its justification for the prize.

When 72-year-old Gurnah won the coveted award this year, he became only the second person from sub-Saharan Africa to join the exclusive group of 118 laureates, more than 90 of whom have been from Europe or North America. Wole Soyinka from Nigeria won the prize in 1986 and, for many years, the late Chinua Achebe — also from Nigeria — was tipped to win, but it never happened.

In their books, Soyinka, Achebe and Gurnah all explore cultural issues relevant to Africa, and question how things could go so bad in the region’s older as well as more recent history, in spite of people’s good will. But not all people were good, and social structures and mindsets were often outrageously unequal and cruel during colonial times, as well as before and after.

Many aspects of Gurnah’s personal history and that of his country of birth — Zanzibar on the coast of East Africa — are similar to those of West African history, written about so well by Soyinka and Achebe. Let me mention one more distinguished African writer: Ngugi wa Thiong’o from Kenya. It is interesting to know that all of these writers, for security reasons, have had to live most of their productive lives in Europe and America, maybe except for Soyinka, who actually returned to live in Africa.

Abdulrazak Gurnah is only the second person of sub-Saharan African origin to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 120 years

Gurnah is the author of 10 novels and many short stories, as well as several non-fiction works. He has written extensively about the recent 500-year history of the tiny island country of Zanzibar, from the arrival of Portuguese explorers and seafaring traders, to the Indian influence, the Arabs, and German and British colonialism. After a bloody revolution in 1964, Zanzibar entered into a union with what was earlier a British protectorate called Tanganyika. The name of the new nation became the United Republic of Tanzania. The current president — and also the first woman to lead the country — Samia Suluhu Hassan is, like Gurnah, a native of Zanzibar.

Gurnah had to flee Zanzibar when the Arab Sultanate, reigning since 1856, was toppled by the bloody revolution of 1964. Arabs and South Asians began to be targeted by Africans seeking revenge. However, many of Gurnah’s childhood memories are pleasant, of growing up in a house near the bustling harbour, with the sea and sky on all sides and above the house as far as the eye could see, and people everywhere.

Of Arab and Indian descent, the Muslim writer considers himself African, although not all black Africans would see it quite that way. Like Gurnah, the renowned late historian, Professor Ali Mazrui from Kenya, who argued so vividly for African culture, was of Arab appearance, but not everyone would accept either as a full son of the soil. Indeed, both would be saddened whenever anyone said they were not African enough.

Arriving in England at the age of 18, Gurnah studied at the University of Kent in Canterbury, earning a PhD and becoming a professor of English and post-colonial literature at the same university until his retirement. His experiences, especially of Africa, have influenced his work and he has written about individuals and families and the particular contradictions they face when trying to set up a new life abroad.

His experiences, especially of Africa, have influenced his work and he has written about individuals and families and the particular contradictions they face when trying to set up a new life abroad, and how and if they can ever feel at home where they go.

In his books, he discusses fundamental issues in the lives of people who move and migrate, and how and if they can ever feel at home where they go. His debut novel, 1987’s Memory of Departure, is about a young man from an unnamed African country who moves to Kenya. The young protagonist of his 1994 Booker Prize-nominated Paradise is sold to a rich Arab merchant and so, moves from his small village to a cosmopolitan coastal city as World War I looms. In 2001’s By the Sea, a furniture seller from Zanzibar lands at London’s Gatwick Airport, seeking asylum. Abbas from 2014’s The Last Gift is an East African immigrant on his deathbed in Norwich.

Gurnah stresses the fact that refugees don’t come empty-handed to their new lands. They bring with them knowledge, skills, energy, optimism and hope — so essential to all people, both newcomers and those who have hardly travelled outside their home village or town.

In certain ways, Gurnah moves directly into the politics of today’s unresolved issues, of both forced and voluntary migration. But when journalists asked if the Swedish Academy — which awards the Nobel Prize — had thought of this as an extra strength for Gurnah’s candidature, the chair of the Academy’s Nobel Committee, Anders Olsson, declined to respond directly to the question and instead repeated that it was literary value that counted. However, he acknowledged that good literature may handle current issues at particular times and places and, at the same time, be timeless and universal.

Personally, I feel that some of the issues in Gurnah’s body of work belong to the 1960s and ’70s; to the time of my youth, when we were so eager to look critically at social and political issues, trying to contribute to developing a new and better world after the colonial era.

I visited Tanzania many times and had longer stays there as a student, university researcher and diplomat. This was a time when Tanzania was experimenting with its own form of socialist development called ujamaa. I remember we sometimes felt that the country was in the backwaters, not moving anywhere and not really holding deeper discussions about it. This felt especially true of Zanzibar, which — even with potential for the future — was small and away from the cosmopolitan land that Gurnah claims existed, and which he highlights in his homeland’s history. But then, Gurnah won the Nobel Prize in literature, not in history or the social sciences, which do not have a category in the awards.

Gurnah’s language is soft and easy to read, influenced by his mother tongue Swahili and sometimes dotted with humour and anecdotes. In his speech when the prize was announced, Olsson appeared to share Gurnah’s sentiments, saying that Zanzibar was cosmopolitan long before today’s era of globalisation. As far as language is concerned, that may be considered true to some extent — it is a fact that some 30 percent of Swahili has Arabic roots, many words come from Portuguese, Hindi and Urdu, and plenty come from the African Bantu and Nilotic languages on the African mainland.

On that note, I would like to draw attention to the language issue in the works of Gurnah and others who write in English, but have other mother tongues. They write in the language of the colonisers, at the same time as they criticise what the colonisers did. Thiong’o has written in Kikuyu and Gurnah would have probably written in Swahili, had he remained where he was born and bred. And Soyinka and Achebe would perhaps have written in Yoruba and Igbo had they lived in Nigeria. But then, Gurnah and the others are products of their English language education. Besides, Gurnah began writing after he had migrated to Britain. Hence, English is also his language, close to a mother tongue.

In Pakistan, too, we have great authors who write in English and who probably feel proud of their English language and background — as they should. These issues go directly into the many intriguing issues about cultural change and identity; about who we are and who we want to be, yes, and also who the writers want to reach through their works. In addition, more books must be translated into languages that people feel comfortable reading.

Paradise and The Last Gift are already available in Swedish translations, published by the small press Celanders Förlag. As Gurnah’s visibility ramps up in the aftermath of the prize, the press is sure to have a chance of some ‘golden rains’ coming its way — unless a big publishing house outmanoeuvres it to make money off the new laureate’s great, but hitherto unknown, books.

The writer is a senior Norwegian scientist engaged in education, culture, refugees and human rights in Africa and Asia.

He can be contacted at

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 24th, 2021



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