A short introduction to the 2021 Nobel Literature Prize winner: Refugee-turned-novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah

Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/ TT / NTB
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Author Abdulrazak Gurnah (72) received this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. The former refugee writes, among other things, about colonialism and the fate of refugees.

From Tanzania to the UK

Gurnah was born in 1948 on the island of Zanzibar. He arrived in England as a refugee in the late 1960s. 

Since then, he has written ten novels and several short stories.

Gurnah was a professor of literature at the University of Kent until he retired.

A leading postcolonial writer

“He is considered one of the leading postcolonial writers from Africa,” the Swedish Academy’s Secretary Anders Olsson said when the prize winner was presented.

“His stories bear traces of the Koran and A Thousand and One Nights,” Olsson emphasized.

The Nobel Prize explained that Gurnah received the 2021 Literature award “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 academy’s permanent Secretary Mats Malm spoke to Gurnah shortly before the winner was announced. “We have talked about practical things, since everything is complicated this year as well,” Malm said when he announced the winner’s name in Stockholm.

Due to the pandemic, it will not be possible to gather the Nobel Prize winners in Stockholm in December this year either. Instead, awards will be sent digitally, and Nobel lectures will be arranged in the vicinity of the award recipients.

Gurnah and last year’s award winner Louise Glück have an open invitation to Stockholm whenever it will be possible.

Translated into Norwegian

Three of Gurnah’s novels have been published in Norwegian. His book By the Sea was published in 2002, Island of Silence in 1999, and Paradise in 1996.

“It was almost 20 years ago. Thus, these have not been on sale on paper for a while. That means we have the fun task of throwing ourselves around and making these publications available to Norwegian readers as quickly as possible,” said Publishing Manager Nora Campbell in Aschehoug to NTB.

She is looking forward to reading the three books in the last part of the autumn holidays and believes that they will be relevant today as well.

“I think that authorship that sheds light on colonial history is a topic that is no less interesting for Norwegian readers now than 20 years ago,” Campbell noted.

A past visit to Stavanger

72-year-old Gurnah has himself been to Norway before, during the Kapittel festival in Stavanger in 1999. The festival is a literature festival with an international profile, held annually in the “Oil City.”

“I remember him as a very knowledgeable and humble type. He was in Stavanger for a few days since the festival lasted from Wednesday to Sunday. He was present to hold readings and lectures about the time of colonialism since the theme of the festival that year was post-colonialism,” the then-Head of Chapter Helge Lunde told Nettavisen.

And he added:

“He was critical of the West’s way of behaving towards colonized countries. He expressed this during the visit.”

A Nobel change?

“In this case, they have found a Black author from Africa for the second time in the history of the Nobel Prize, which is excellent. They have also found an author who succeeds with totally surprising both the general public and those who work with literature,” said cultural director Björn Wilman in Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter to TT.

In Sweden, the fact that the prize went to Gurnah has been claimed to be a clear sign of change in the Swedish Academy, which awards the prize.

A few years ago, the academy was shaken by a major scandal in which the husband of one of the members was convicted of rape. It has also been criticized for prioritizing Western and male writers.

“I think that this is a clear result of the academy having fundamentally changed. It is quite clearly a result of the new Nobel Prize operations, where you work with external experts,” said Wilman.

Source: ©️ NTB Scanpix / #NorwayTodayTravel

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