Abdulrazak Gurnah: A Nobel Award Winner

Abdulrazak Gurnah has published 10 novels, short stories and essays in his 35 years of career. His most recent work is Afterlives.

Abdulrazak Gurnahat will be arriving at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2023 in January on a high note, same as the Tanzanian-born British author was awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature for his amazing work. In his four decades of career, he has received many awards for his commendable work. He was the first Black writer to win the award since American novelist Toni Morrison in 1993. Gurnah is also the first African novelist to receive the award, following South African writer and political activist Nadine Gordimer in 1991.

The award was given “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fates of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents”. Global recognition is extremely personal and adds to its uniqueness. He also admits that it has made his life more hectic than usual, which is understandable. According to a 2021 New York Times report, it was difficult to find Gurnah’s books after his victory for a variety of reasons, but that has now changed. “Some books were available here and others there, but they now have new editions and are more widely available. Some books must be translated. That is the most satisfying aspect of this recognition “He contributes.

His first novel , Memories of Departure, published in 1987, and was followed by others such as a Paradise in 1994 and âBy The Sea in 2001, both of which were nominated for the Booker Prize, among other honours.

Lives of refugees and literature

Particularly the most recent award comes at a time when the world’s refugee crisis is at its peak, and it is very different from when he left the Sultanate of Zanzibar. He arrived in the United Kingdom As an 18-year-old refugee following the Zanzibar Revolution in 1964 he came to United Kingdom. He is skeptical that the award will inspire many other refugee authors to write about their experiences. “I hope it will be interesting for those who are compelled by this very important subject, but I really can’t tell whether it will be harder or easier for others to voice their opinions,” he says.

Gurnah also acknowledges that the refugee crisis has changed a lot over the years, and not for the better. “I think it has become harder than easier,” he shares, continuing, “There seems to be a kind of panic in Europe and America about this idea of refugees. Previously, I believe, there were measures that restricted refugees. It was not a criminalising narrative, nor was there a state panic that allowed people to drown in the seas or detained them rather than helping them.

They have been detained in appalling conditions, which can be fatal in some cases.” However, he observes changes in the fact that now more people are aware of the crisis as a result of others speaking out, protesting, and saying it is not human to treat people as we see in the world today.

Challenges of writing in English

Gurnah wrote about how people deal with displacement, trauma, and hopelessness in various forms, he had not any intention as such to inform or change a reader’s mind.  Author, who is also a professor emeritus of English and Postcolonial Literature at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom, wrote about what he saw in front of him. “I don’t think a writer begins the process by saying that I am going to change your mind through this book. I write about what I know and what I see, and I don’t expect people to do anything as a result of what they read. It really depends on where the reader is in their own life and what they bring to that process and that is unpredictable,” he shares.

He received an education in English in Tanzania therefore he writes in English despite his first language being Swahili. In order to learn the new language more fluently he did alot of reading and writing in UK. He wrote in English, but used many non-English words from Swahili, Arabic, and German in his works. H

He goes on to say, “Italicizing words simply implies that they are exotic. This is an unusual word, an unusual idea, and something you are unfamiliar with. However, by not italicising it, you are allowing different ways of speaking, writing, and thinking to enter naturally and organically into how we think in English, making it familiar. Make it unusual by drawing attention to it.” He believes, however, that it is not an urgent issue and that it will change gradually when people become more familiar with and accepting of other words describing different types of states of mind or culture.

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