The critical choice

October 17, 2021

The Swedish Academy’s decision to confer this year’s award for literature on Abdulrazak Gurnah may have lifted the shadow of euro-centricity a bit

The critical choice

Secrecy is a critical ingredient that separates the Nobel Prize for Literature from other awards that recognise the talents of creative writers. Since the process of selection and list of nominees remain clouded in mystery, a slew of inaccurate predictions are the only yardstick to determine the winner of the prestigious award. The annual guessing-game that precedes the announcement from the Swedish Academy acts as a benchmark of eligibility. The game is practically futile as the Nobel Committee isn’t stirred by any form of speculation frenzy. The final outcome brings with it an element of surprise. Even so, the decision bears the distinct power to draw attention to a literary voice that has either been overlooked or deserves to be better known across the world.

In recent years, the writers who have received the accolade have been predominantly European. This compromises on the global appeal of the prize. The Swedish Academy’s decision to confer this year’s award on Abdulrazak Gurnah may have lifted the shadows of euro-centricity a bit.

The recipient of the prize was born in Zanzibar, an autonomous region in the modern-day Tanzania. He migrated to Britain three years after the Zanzibar Revolution of 1964. Barring a brief stint as a lecturer at a Nigerian university in the 1980s, he has lived and taught in Canterbury where he has cultivated an image as a noted academic, critic and writer. Sceptics who may raise concerns about Gurnah’s somewhat tenuous link with his homeland are advised to shed their reservations. In a world characterised by the searing realities of migration and exile, the concept of home is a composite one and cannot be viewed through a narrow lens.

Gurnah’s decision to write in the English language rather than his native Kiswahili is another point of contention. Despite the fact that Gurnah’s work bears inflections of Kiswahili, Arabic and German, his Nobel win may be construed as an attempt to reassert the dominance of the English language in Africa. Such criticism stands the danger of being grossly unfair.

Wittingly or unwittingly, this year’s choice acts as a counter to the prevailing trends of racism and white supremacy that have wreaked havoc in the West. Gurnah is the first writer of African origin to win the award in over a decade and the first non-white writer from the continent to be conferred the honour in over thirty years. Since the inception of the prize in 1901, only six writers from Africa have been selected. If cold facts are to serve as a gauge, Gurnah is the second Black African writer to clinch the award since Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka won the prize in 1986. He is also the first Black writer after Toni Morrison to bag the prestigious honour.

Be that as it may, Gurnah is a relatively obscure choice for the prize. His work isn’t widely known beyond the UK and East Africa, and he has only sold a modest number of copies in the US. Prior to becoming a Nobel laureate, Gurnah was known more for his literary criticism than his fiction. Mainstream popularity has never been a criterion in choosing the recipient for the Nobel Prize for Literature. At any rate, Gurnah doesn’t inhabit a neglected literary sphere and has enjoyed the occasional brush with the mainstream. He has been published by fairly renowned presses and his work has been nominated for the Booker Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, the Whitbread Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

The critical choice

Gurnah is the first writer of African origin to win the award in over a decade and the first non-white writer from the continent to be conferred the honour in over thirty years. Since the inception of the prize in 1901, only six writers from Africa have been selected.

What sets Gurnah apart from other writers who have made significant contributions to postcolonial literature is his evocation of East Africa in the throes of strife and revolution. At its core, Gurnah draws on his own experiences as a migrant to explore the displacement and alienation that accompanies voluntary and involuntary exile from one’s homeland. Memory is a vital mechanism that allows his work to become a site for a tug of war between individual and collective perceptions of the past.

Critics have also pointed out that Gurnah’s work captures the diversity of East African cultures and the dark side of Afro-centricity. A familiar motif that emerges in the Nobel laureate’s novels is that of the hostilities faced by people of Arab descent in Zanzibar after the British left. In addition, Gurnah’s work is embedded in East Africa’s Muslim culture.

Even a cursory glance at Gurnah’s oeuvre brings to the fore the elements that the Nobel Committee has identified and appreciated. The author’s work reflects his “uncompromising and compassionate penetration” of the impact of colonialism and the challenges faced by refugees.

Gurnah’s first novel, Memory of Departure (1987) is a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of the Zanzibar Revolution. His second novel, Pilgrim’s Way (1988) chronicles the experiences of a Tanzanian student who carves a niche for himself amid the crippling realities of Britain in the 1960s. Gurnah’s protagonist has to reckon with racial stereotypes fuelled by a long history of imperialism.

Dottie (1990) seeks to retrieve the history of antagonism and mistrust faced by Britain’s black population through a moving account of a young girl. Paradise (1994), which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, engages with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness from an East African standpoint and points towards Swahili complicity in the slave trade. In Admiring Silence (1996), Gurnah examines the stark differences between perceptions and realities of the homes we leave behind. Afterlives, his most recent novel, turns back the clock to the Maji Maji uprising. It is an indictment of European colonial presence in Africa.

Gurnah’s work uses migration and the fate of refugees as a lens into East Africa’s history – a subject that is seldom highlighted in the mainstream. Suffused with a Muslim sensibility and the pathos of colonial atrocities, his novels make a voyage between Africa and the West, and reflect the complexities of belonging.

Unsurprisingly, Gurnah’s Nobel win has come as a surprise. There is no shortage of writers that the Swedish Academy could have selected for this distinguished award. In a similar vein, countless writers have used the power of their pen to explore the themes of migration and the plight of refugees.

Instead of engaging in heated debates about whether Gurnah is a worthy choice or an unpredictable one, we should focus on understanding the broader implications of his victory. Moving the politics surrounding Gurnah’s win, we must try to recognise the ways in which his work opens a portal into an unfamiliar world that is often ignored. The Nobel Committee believes that the author has an unswerving commitment to highlight the issues of migration and exile at a time when they are most pertinent. It is time to delve into Gurnah’s oeuvre to determine why he has earned this distinction.

The writer is a    freelance journalist and author of Typically Tanya

The critical choice