Tanzanian writer Abdulrazak Gurnah wins 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature

The 10 million Swedish kronor ($1.5 million Cdn) prize, which has been given out since 1901, recognizes authors who have "in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction." 
Abdulrazak Gurnah, a Tanzanian novelist, has won the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature. (Bloomsbury)

Tanzanian writer Abdulrazak Gurnah has won the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature.

The 10 million Swedish kronor ($1.5 million Cdn) prize, which has been given out since 1901, recognizes authors who have "in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction." 

Gurnah was recognized "for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents."

The prize was announced in Stockholm by Mats Malm, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy.

"I'm absolutely excited," he told The Associated Press. "I just heard the news myself."

A novelist known for exploring migration, colonialism

Born in Zanzibar in 1948 and based in England, Gurnah is a professor at the University of Kent.

He left Zanibar — off the coast of East Africa — in the midst of political turmoil and violence in the late 1960s. He arrived in Canterbury, England, where he pursued engineering, then switched to English literature, and eventually started writing.  

He has said he "stumbled into" writing after arriving in England as a way of exploring both the loss and liberation of the emigrant experience.

He has written 10 novels and one short story collection throughout his career. His first book, the novel Memory of Departure, was published in 1987.

Gurnah is best known for his 1994 novel Paradise, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Whitbread Prize. His other notable works include 2005's Desertion and 2001's By the Sea. His most recent work is the 2020 novel Afterlives.

Gurnah spoke with Eleanor Wachtel on the CBC Radio show Writers & Company in 2017. In their wide-ranging conversation, Gurnah talked about the xenophobia and racism he's witnessed in cities around the world — a major theme in his novel Gravel Heart.

"When you go to London, you notice it's a multicultural city. In other cities you see the same thing. Visibly things look different. But the language with which outsiders are spoken of and the language which the state treats outsiders is actually, in some cases, worse. The register has simply evolved into something else rather than becoming more humane," said Gurnah in his interview.

"I'm afraid something still needs to be done — people still need to be saying things and campaigning and persuading and so on —  when it should be perfectly obvious that we should be past these inhumane and obnoxious, confused notions of privilege and race."

Anders Olsson, chairman of the Nobel committee for literature, called him "one of the world's most prominent post-colonial writers."

He said Gurnah's characters "find themselves in the gulf between cultures ... between the life left behind and the life to come, confronting racism and prejudice, but also compelling themselves to silence the truth or reinventing a biography to avoid conflict with reality."

Gurnah, whose native language is Swahili but who writes in English, is only the sixth African-born writer to be awarded the Nobel for literature.

News of the award was greeted with excitement in Zanzibar, where those who knew Gurnah described him as soft-spoken and modest.

"The reaction is fantastic. Many are happy but many don't know him, though the young people are proud that he's Zanzibari," said Farid Himid, who described himself as a local historian whose father had been a teacher of the Quran to the young Gurnah. "I have not had the chance to read any of his books, but my family talked about it."

Gurnah didn't often visit Zanzibar, he said, but he has suddenly become the talk of young people in the semiautonomous island region.

"And many elder people are very, very happy. Also me, as a Zanzibari. It's a new step to make people read books again, since the internet has taken over."

LISTEN | Abdulrazak Gurnah on Writers & Company: 

Abdulrazak Gurnah writes about immigrant life, dislocation, power and shame. He talks to Eleanor about his new book, Gravel Heart — a powerful story of a young man's experience as an immigrant to England, which reflects elements of Gurnah's own life. 52:06

COVID impacts prize ceremony for second year

In his will, Swedish industrialist and inventor of dynamite, Alfred Nobel specifically designated the Swedish Academy as the institution responsible for the Nobel Prize for literature.

The winners are always announced in October and the Nobel Prizes are presented on the Dec. 10 anniversary of Nobel's death in 1896.

Normally, the prizes are presented in Sweden, alongside a lecture by the 2021 recipients. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the lectures and the ceremony will be virtual. The 2020 and 2021 laureates will be invited to a ceremony in Stockholm, when it is possible to do so safely.

WATCH | The 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature announcement:

A prize with recent controversy in its long history

American poet Louise Glück won the prize last year for her "unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal."

Glück was a popular choice after several years of controversy. In 2018 the award was postponed after sex abuse allegations rocked the Swedish Academy, the secretive body that chooses the winners.

The awarding of the 2019 prize to Austrian writer Peter Handke caused protests because of his strong support for the Serbs during the 1990s Balkan wars.

FILE - A Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020 file photo of a Nobel Prize medal. (AP)

Two Canadians have won the prize in the past: Saul Bellow (a Canadian-born American) in 1976 and Alice Munro in 2013.

Other past winners include American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, Russian historian and essayist Svetlana Alexievich, Irish poet Seamus Heaney and American novelist Toni Morrison.

Other Nobel Prizes awarded this week

Nobel prizes are also given for chemistry, physics, medicine, peace and economic science.

German scientist Benjamin List and Scottish-born scientist David MacMillan won the chemistry award for finding an "ingenious" new way to build molecules that can be used to make everything from medicines to food flavourings.

 Americans David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their discoveries into how the human body perceives temperature and touch.

 The physics award was split between Giorgio Parisi of Italy for explaining disorder in physical systems and Japan's Syukuro Manabe and Germany's Klaus Hasselmann for their work in developing forecast models of Earth's climate.

The peace prize will be announced on Friday, Oct. 8.

The economic science prize will be announced on Monday, Oct. 11.

With files from the Associated Press

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