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Why the work of Abdulrazak Gurnah, the champion of heartbreak, stands out for me

A copy of "Afterlives" (2021) by Tanzanian-born novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah
A copy of “Afterlives” (2021) by Tanzanian-born novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah. Photo by Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

Abdulrazak Gurnah, the Tanzanian winner of the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature, has some well-deserved seniority within the ever growing ranks of East African writers. He published his first novel, Memories of Departure, in 1987, and nine more since then. Among those, Paradise (1994), was short-listed for both the Booker Prize and the Whitbread Award. Yet another, By the Sea (2001), was long-listed for the Booker Prize and short-listed for the LA Times Book award.

Born in Zanzibar in 1948, Gurnah is also an accomplished scholar of African literature. Until his retirement recently, he was a professor at the University of Kent, in the UK. One crucial aspect of his biography remains his forced migration from Zanzibar to the UK in 1968, amid the turmoil following the 1964 revolution on the island. The trauma of that experience has fed much of his literary imagination and provided a wellspring for his novels of displacement and loss.

The East African region is rich with writers going back to the first post-independence generation. A random sampling of the first Anglophone generation from the three East African nations includes Uganda’s Okot p’Bitek, who translated his own work into English. Grace Ogot and Ngugi wa Thiongo from Kenya and Peter Palangyo and Gabriel Ruhambika of Tanzania also make the list.

More recently, a new generation of writers has obviously emerged. Again, a random sampling include millennials such as the late Binyavanga Wainaina (Kenya), Moses Isegawa (Uganda), and the Ethiopian Dinaw Mengetsu in his Uganda-based novel, All Our Names (2014). Add to these Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Kenya) who, in The Dragonfly Sea (2019), has recently used the Indian Ocean region and the East African littoral setting revisted by Gurnah in many of his novels.

The generational and political transition necessarily reflects the different historical worlds within the region that are represented by East African writers. One writer who started out before Gurnah, for example, is Ngugi wa Thiongo, himself a perennial candidate for the Nobel.

In addition to Ngugi wa Thiongo, the Somali writer Nuruddin Farah has also been tipped frequently for the Nobel Prize. One may be justified to ask, why Gurnah over Ngugi or Farah? The Nobel Committee has often defied local knowledge, in the sense of choosing internationally recognised candidates rather than those more locally celebrated at home.

At the same time, writing “contests” don’t always measure literary talent helpfully. Recognition brings prestige, a larger readership, and more sales, but this impulsion remains part of the infrastructure of a non-local book industry that’s one of the pillars of old and new capitalisms, old and new colonialisms. Even in our digital age, who can afford books, or access, among the larger population? In many cases, only the elites.

Why Gurnah’s work is powerful

Nevertheless, I was very pleased to learn that Gurnah won this year. What stands out for me is Gurnah’s constant exploration of heartbreak. Certainly, he breaks mine. His novels delve deeply into family separation, endless betrayals of core familial relations, and the inexorable pull of the lost past. Each novel exposes another nuance, another hidden aspect, another self-inflicted betrayal.

The Last Gift (2011) harbours an extraordinary secret that is only disclosed at death. Desertion (2005) uses the trope of romance, over three generations, to show the inadequacy of love in the face of social change, be it political or cultural. Paradise (1994) possibly the best known of Gurnah’s novels, is also the first to evoke deep historical and cultural research. It brings home the multiple overlays of both Omani and European colonial power, control and oppression.

The other political landscapes of gender, sexuality, race and class are perhaps more finely tuned, and certainly more robust, in Gurnah’s work than, say, Ngugi and Farah. And this may also account for his good fortune, and within the world of world literature, this well-deserved prize.

For the last three-plus decades, along with M.G. Vassanji, Gurnah has been the Anglophone novelist mining the Tanzanian and Zanzibari – and by extension the Indian Ocean World literary landscape. This setting has underwritten Gurnah’s themes of (forced) migrations to the West, that which the Nobel Committee singled out in their announcement of Gurnah’s award.

At the same time, Gurnah is the one novelist who has always been able to also mine the local Kiswahili (including 19th-century coastal Arabic and Islamic) literary and historical traditions. These, along with colonial archives, both German and British, are incredibly rich but globally overlooked literary confluences.

Read more: Nobel Prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah: an introduction to the man and his writing

Interestingly, Gurnah’s more recent work – such as Afterlives (2021) – has sometimes embraced a more overtly historical dimension of the region. Set at the height of German conquest, until their defeat in the first world war, the novel follows three figures, each of whom resemble in one way or another the protagonist of Paradise. The panoramic historical sweep of the first half of the novel is an authoritative account of the complexities of German colonial power up against extraordinary local resistance. At the same time, it makes visible the alternative choices that German colonialism provided to those already disenfranchised within older colonial systems and local oppressive regimes such as those of gender.

So, while his earlier work obsessively revisits migration and loss, it is almost always buffered or intersected with pretence, outright falsehoods and strategic deceit among his cast of protagonists. These are among the survival strategies born of migration, displacement and alienation.

Gurnah’s use of a form of dramatic irony has been extraordinary. This applies both at the level of familial conflict and separation and at the level of large-scale, brutal colonial social transformations, foreign and home-grown. In other words, the same kinds of circumstances that characterise the Zanzibar of Gurnah’s youth.

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