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Nobel Prize in Literature 2021: Abdulrazak Gurnah, a committed look at colonialism and refugees


Published in

Diario de Navarra

Sarali Gintsburg

Principal Investigator of MYOUROPE, Institute for Culture and Society, University of Navarra, Spain.

In 1986, Wole Soyinka made history in the history of the Nobel Prizes: he was the first black African writer to receive the award in the Literature category. It has taken 35 years for the Swedish Academy to once again award the award to another black African, this time to the Tanzanian Abdulrazak Gurnah. With him there are only seven writers born in Africa who have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, despite the fact that it is a continent with a very rich and long tradition of oral and written literature.

This is an important milestone in world literature since, although there are many excellent African and Arab writers, their names are little known to the general public. In fact, only three of Gurnah's ten novels have been translated into Spanish.

It is also of special interest that this year's winner is a novelist from Zanzibar, the lost paradise of the Arab world, traditionally referred to as the "al-Andalus of the East". This country is at the crossroads of African, Arab, Iranian and Indian cultures. 

Gurnah, of Arab origin, knows firsthand the reality he reflects in his works. He had to flee Zanzibar in 1964, when he was 18 years old, for fear of being killed like thousands of other Zanzibaris of Arab and Indian origin. This was also the case of Freddie Mercury's family. He settled in England - a country where he arrived with refugee status - where he currently lives and where he has worked until his recent retirement as professor of English and postcolonial literature at the University of Kent in Canterbury.

One aspect that has convinced the Swedish Academy is the richness of his descriptions of Africa, which move away from the stereotypes that abound in literature and offer a different view through stories that give prominence to the indigenous population. 

Although he was forced to flee so young, Gurnah had time during his childhood and adolescence to absorb the richness of Zanzibari culture. In fact, all his works are in some way filled with the writer's memoirs. In them sample his knowledge of West Africa and Bantu culture, as well as Arab culture. 

His novels also reflect the history of the Bantus and the Arabs, both inside and outside his native country. For example, in his first work, Paradise, the writer describes the history of contemporary slavery that repeats the routes of the famous slave trader Tippu Tip to the Congo Basin. At the same time, another of his novels, By the Sea, invites us to learn more and think about the lives of African migrants totally lost between two worlds: the African and the Western.

The jury wanted to highlight his "uncompromising and compassionate incursion into the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the abyss between cultures and continents". It is not surprising that this edition has opted for an author who is an expert in post-colonialism and colonialism, in a global context in which the discussion on the reception of refugees and racism are more present than ever -the latter, fueled by the Black Lives Matter movement-