Abdulrazak Gurnah is not exactly a household name in much of the English-speaking world. The lucky few who have known his literary production and critical writings over the past three decades, however, were not surprised that he was awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature. He well deserves it.
As the world rushes to learn more about him and read his novels, and rightly so, it would also be good to consider some of his non-fiction critical writings, such as the volumes he has edited on Essays on. African Writing (1993) or The Cambridge Companion to Salman Rushdie (2007). His works of fiction are the product of the same critical spirit.
In its announcement, the Swedish Academy, which is responsible for selecting Nobel Laureates for Literature, said Gurnah was honored with the prize for his “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism”. This “compassionate penetration” (the academy must show better command of idiomatic English) is the result of a life of dispossession, exile, homesickness and being subjected to the horrors of racism and violence. white supremacy. Such thematic traits may define the texture of his works of fiction, but they do not by themselves define its literary significance. We are in the presence of a powerful fiction writer, not a political activist opting for literary disguise.
Born in 1948 in the Sultanate of Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania) and having moved to the UK as a refugee in the 1960s, Abdulrazak Gurnah carries with him – in his mind, body and soul, and in the prose and poetry of his fiction – the story of colonial dispossession and postcolonial bewilderment at being a black man in the cosmopolitan epicenter of British imperialism. His fiction may have started with the terrors of colonialism, but it doesn’t stop there.
When Gurnah was born on this island in the Indian Ocean, the sun was finally starting to set on the British banner of theft and tyranny across the world. The British packed their Union Jacks and left India, while the rest of their colonial possessions were also in arms. Gurnah grew up in the midst of this upheaval and carries this history of British colonialism into a long literary career still ongoing. His fiction is not a literary commentary on the history of European colonialism. He dissolves this story into ennobling prose of our world comings and goings beyond the Asian, African and Latin American theaters of European colonial atrocities.
As a critical thinker, Gurnah is a child of colonialism and, therefore, there is an autobiographical tendency evident in his fiction. From his birthplace to his adapted homeland of the United Kingdom, where he eventually became a professor of English and postcolonial literatures at the University of Kent, he traces the trajectory of generations of Africans rising from desperation to their homeland to neighboring countries. desolation of their colonial executioners. Why are we, postcolonial peoples, all drawn to the epicenters of our colonial tormentors?
Colonial politics, postcolonial prose
Bengali polymath Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913. Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez won it in 1982, and Nigerian playwright, novelist, poet and essayist Wole Soyinka in 1986. These accolades brought up the themes of Asia, Africa and Latin America. lived experiences, and perhaps more importantly, the literary traditions that these writers represent, brought to the attention of the world.
It is precisely for this reason that Gurnah should not be ethnicized and localized in “non-white” or “sub-Saharan African” lockers, diminishing his importance as a literary artist. When Gunter Grass or Doris Lessing won the same award, people didn’t start reading them because they were white – so they shouldn’t start reading Gurnah just because he’s black after receiving the same. acknowledgement.
Writers like Gurnah, Soyinka or African-American novelist Toni Morrison, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, should not be reduced to the political issues that are ingrained in their works of art. The imposing novelist, essayist, and critic Chinua Achebe in Nigeria influenced Morrison in the United States not because he was an African writer writing about colonialism or politics, but because he produced sublime works of fiction. Gabriel García Márquez had a catalytic impact on the literary world not because he wrote about Latin American dictatorships, but because in his fiction he had invented a magical new way of coming to terms with reality.
Even beyond these continental divides, something else is happening in the writing of fiction. Today the idea of being an African or British novelist is changing – protracted and traumatic experiences of migration, to escape economic hardship or violence, have created a new condition for literary and artistic creativity. . Kurdish-Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani wrote his famous autobiographical story No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison (2018) on his iPhone and texted it to a friend for five years while he was incarcerated in a Australian government immigration detention center on Manus Island. Identity politics has long since melted into the urgency of prose that challenges the fictitious boundaries of home and exile.
At the heart of Gurnah’s 10 novels are of course the themes of exile, dislocation, migration, alienation and anomie. In this context, Gurnah’s work can be read in four crucial moments. First, Memory of Departure (1988), where we read the struggles of an African youth growing up under dictatorship and despair. Then in his most famous book Paradise (1994), which follows the life of 12-year-old Yusuf, who grows up in the larger landscape of an entire continent that the author will soon have to leave behind. By the time we get to Admiring Silence (1996), this young man has already moved to England, got married and settled into his double marginality. In By the Sea (2001), the immigrant author is now deeply in tune with the pathological racism of the country in which he has settled. Before Gurnah, other African novelists such as Tayeb Saleh in his Season of Migration to the North (1966) and before him Albert Memmi in The Column of Salt (1955) had explored similar themes. The themes have remained constant, changing is the spirit of the works of fiction they have inspired.
English as an African language
Although his mother tongue is Swahili, Gurnah writes in English. As such, it is integral to how Asian and African migration and diasporic experiences have enriched and modified English language and literature. The overwhelming majority of those who speak, read or write English are not British, let alone English. It is the exponential expansion of English language and literature, rooted in British colonial rule over the world, that explains the incorporation of African or Asian writers into the obvious canons of the language. Calling writers like Gurnah diasporic, exile, or any other self-alienating term conceals the fact that English originated with him even before he set foot in England. The British colonial officers had reported it to him.
Certainly, with Swahili as its first language, Gurnah has a glorious literary reservoir in Arabic and Persian. For centuries, maritime traders sailed from Arabia, Persia and India and mingled with local Bantu populations to eventually give birth to Swahili – which comes from the Arabic word “Sahel / Coast”. Multicultural places like Zanzibar, Malindi, Mombasa and Sofala bear traces of this rich history in which Arabic literature, Persian poetry and Indian philosophies have found their African origin.
The enrichment of the literary worldliness of the Nobel Prize will in turn ennoble the Prize itself in view of its past practices. The Swedish Academy, in general, has no reputation for dealing with the moral depravity of those to whom it awards the Nobel Prize for Literature – just two years ago, it awarded it to the Austrian author Peter Handke, who is best known for his support for the genocidal Serbian regime led by Slobodan Milošević and his denial of the scale of the terror the Serbs inflicted on Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia.
Even beyond such embarrassment, the Nobel Prize for Literature is still predominantly white and disproportionately Euro-American. The massive literary movements of Asia, Africa and Latin America have only symbolic representation in this list. But Gurnah represents an even more emblematic trajectory, which is the realm of migrating literary minds, people born like him in Africa but forced to live in the land of their colonial torment. The territories now under Tanzania were colonized and brutalized by the Germans and the British.
Gurnah went to the UK and now praises his adopted country and the English language in the same way many of us in Asia and Africa are drawn to the countries that were the source of our historical horrors. This attraction begins as a psychopathological mystery, and yet it could end with a Nobel Prize in literature.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.