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U.K.-based Tanzanian writer Abdulrazak Gurnah wins Nobel Prize in Literature

U.K.-based Tanzanian writer Abdulrazak Gurnah, whose experience of crossing continents and cultures has fed his novels about the impact of migration on individuals and societies, won the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday.

His novel Paradise was shortlisted for Booker Prize in 1994; works explore themes of migration, displacement

Tanzania-born writer Abdulrazak Gurnah is pictured at his home in Kent, Britain, on Thursday after being announced as the 2021 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

U.K.-based Tanzanian writer Abdulrazak Gurnah, whose experience of crossing continents and cultures has fed his novels about the impact of migration on individuals and societies, won the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday.

The Swedish Academy said the award was in recognition of his "uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents."

Gurnah, who recently retired as a professor of post-colonial literature at the University of Kent, got the call from the Swedish Academy in the kitchen of his home in southeast England — and initially thought it was a prank.

He said he was "surprised and humbled" by the award.

Gurnah said the themes of migration and displacement that he explored "are things that are with us every day" — even more now than when he came to Britain in the 1960s.

"People are dying, people are being hurt around the world. We must deal with these issues in the most kind way," he said.

"It's still sinking in that the Academy has chosen to highlight these themes which are present throughout my work, it's important to address and speak about them."

6th Africa-born writer to win prize

Born in 1948 on the island of Zanzibar, now part of Tanzania, Gurnah moved to Britain as a teenage refugee in 1968, fleeing a repressive regime that persecuted the Arab Muslim community to which he belonged.

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.

Gurnah is the author of 10 novels, including Memory of DeparturePilgrims WayParadise — shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994 — By the Sea and Desertion. Many of his works explore what he has called "one of the stories of our times": the profound impact of migration both on uprooted people and the places they make their new homes.

Gurnah, whose native language is Swahili but who writes in English, is only the sixth Africa-born writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, which has been dominated by European and North American writers since it was founded in 1901.

Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, who won the Nobel Literature prize in 1986, welcomed the latest African Nobel laureate as proof that "the arts — and literature in particular — are well and thriving, a sturdy flag waved above depressing actualities" in "a continent in permanent travail."

Anders Olsson, chairman of the Nobel Committee for literature, called Gurnah "one of the world's most prominent post-colonial writers." He said it was significant that Gurnah's roots are in Zanzibar, a place that "was cosmopolitan long before globalization."

"His work gives us a vivid and very precise picture of another Africa not so well known for many readers, a coastal area in and around the Indian Ocean marked by slavery and shifting forms of repression under different regimes and colonial powers: Portuguese, Indian, Arab, German and the British," Olsson said.

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."

Luca Prono said on the British Council website that in Gurnah's work, "identity is a matter of constant change." The academic said Gurnah's characters "unsettle the fixed identities of the people they encounter in the environments to where they migrate."

An employee holds a copy of Afterlives at Waterstones bookshop in central London on Thursday. Many of Gurnah's works explore what he has called 'one of the stories of our times': the profound impact of migration both on uprooted people and the places they make their new homes. (Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images)

Pride, excitement following announcement

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 Qur'an 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."

The prestigious award comes with a gold medal and 10 million Swedish kronor (more than $1.44 million Cdn). The prize money comes from a bequest left by the prize's creator, Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, who died in 1896.

Last year's prize went to American poet Louise Gluck for what the judges described as her "unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal."

Gluck 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.

The Nobel Committee awarded prizes for medicine, physics and chemistry earlier this week.

Still to come are prizes for outstanding work in the fields of peace and economics.

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