Speed Reads


2021 Nobel Prize in literature awarded to British-Zanzibari post-colonial novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah

The Swedish Academy awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday to Abdulrazak Gurnah, a writer who grew up in Zanzibar before arriving in England as a refugee in the late 1960s, "for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents." Anders Olsson, chairman of the Nobel Committee for literature, called Gurnah "one of the world's most prominent post-colonial writers."

Gurnah was born in the British colony of Zanzibar, now part of Tanzania, in 1948, and until his recent retirement he was a professor of English and post-colonial literature at the University of Kent, England. He published the first of his 10 novels, Memory of Departure, in 1987, and his latest, Afterlives, in 2020. His fourth novel, Paradise — which Olsson calls his "breakthrough as a writer" — was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994. Olsson calls Afterlives, a continuation of Paradise, "magnificent."

Gurnah's work is suffused with "the theme of the refugee's disruption," Olsson writes. "He began writing as a 21-year-old in English exile, and even though Swahili was his first language, English became his literary tool." Gurnah's "novels recoil from stereotypical descriptions and open our gaze to a culturally diversified East Africa unfamiliar to many in other parts of the world," he adds. "In Gurnah's literary universe, everything is shifting — memories, names, identities. This is probably because his project cannot reach completion in any definitive sense. An unending exploration driven by intellectual passion is present in all his books, and equally prominent now, in Afterlives, as when he began writing as a 21-year-old refugee."

Winners of the Nobel literature prize "are famously hard to predict," and Gurnah was not among the favorites for this year, according to British bookmakers, The Associated Press reports. Gurnah will receive a gold Nobel medal and about $1.14 million in prize money.