Gurnah is the first African writer to receive the award in over a decade. |Photo: Reuters
Gurnah is the first African writer to receive the award in over a decade. |Photo: Reuters

Abdulrazak Gurnah, who was born in Tanzania, has been awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature for his "uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee."

Tanzanian-born novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah received the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday for works that explore migration experiences, living between cultures, and the impact of colonialism on uprooted peoples.

The Swedish Academy, the award-giving body, praised Gurnah’s "uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents."

Life and works

Gurnah, 72, is one of the five black writers to receive the prize.

Born in Zanzibar, which is now part of Tanzania, he arrived in England as a refugee in the late 1960s. Gurnah recently retired as a professor of postcolonial literature at the University of Kent.

He began writing at the age of 21 and chose English over his first language, Swahili, for his literary works. His published writings include 10 novels and several short stories.

Displaced people trying to come to terms with their checkered identities are the main theme of most of Gurnah’s works. His writings draw attention to how racism and prejudice against targeted communities and religions perpetuate cultures of oppression.

On the self-image of the refugee

In his novels "Admiring Silence" (1996) and "By the Sea" (2001), Gurnah explores the refugee experience, focusing on identity and self-image. 

In "By the Sea" the narrator is Saleh Omar, a 65-year-old merchant from Zanzibar, who applies for asylum in England. The book describes the cruelty of British immigration officials and "a dystopian bureaucracy that underpins the resettlement efforts, as Saleh is eventually shuttled to a quiet seaside town," a reviewer from The New York Times wrote. "It is extraordinarily moving when Saleh Omar does find his own kind of refuge in friendship, an asylum made of experience that is shared."

Europe should greet migrants with compassion

Europe should rethink its approach to migration, Gurnah said in an interview with Reuters after he was informed about the prize.

"Currently, it seems the government is rather nasty about people seeking asylum or people seeking admittance into this country," he said. "It seems such a surprise to them that people coming from difficult places would want to come to a country that is prosperous. Why would they be surprised? Who wouldn't want to come to a country that is more prosperous? There is a kind of meanness in this response."

Gurnah praised the determination and courage of those who traveled so far to escape their own countries for a new life.

"This somehow is constructed as if it is immoral - you know they use this phrase 'economic migrant' - as if to be an economic migrant is some kind of crime. Why not?" he said and added that "millions of Europeans over centuries left their homes for precisely that reason and invaded the world for precisely that reason."

The other side of the equation, he said, was what prompted people to feel they had to embark on such perilous journeys to begin a new life.

"You have to ask the question: what is so horrible about where they are that they will do such things, that they will take such risks?" he said.

Europe's approach to migration should be "with greater compassion rather than with barbed wire," he said,"rather than a kind of discourse that Europe is going to be destroyed."

Gurnah said he was not advocating free-for-all "open season" migration but that there should not be an antagonistic and abusive representation of migrants.

The prize comes with a gold medal and 10 million Swedish kronor (over €980,000).

"I dedicate this Nobel Prize to Africa and Africans and to all my readers. Thanks!" Gurnah tweeted after the announcement.

With Reuters



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