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A Compassionate Observer of the Human Predicament

Gurnah caricature

October 10, (THEWILL) – So did Anders Olsson, chairman of the Swedish Academy’s Nobel Prize Committee, describe Abdulrazak Gurnah winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2021 in a sparsely attended press conference in the Swedish capital, Stockholm early last week. Understandably, COVID-19 pandemic kept much of the international press and distinguished guests away from such an important event, in fact, one of the most important occasions in world literature.

The presentation ceremony that will take place sometime in December may likely follow the same procedure. For the same reason, the winners will not be invited to meet and receive their gold medallion and cash prizes from King Carl XVI Gustaf as it was pre-pandemic.

Even so, Gurnah will be receiving the most satisfying birthday present on or before December 20 when he will turn 73. He was born on December 20, 1948 in his native Zanzibar now Tanzania. He left for England at 18 where English became his literary language. (Another distinguished writer he has been compared with is VS Naipaul who left Trinidad and Tobago in his teenage years for England where he took up writing. Naipaul won a Nobel in Literature exactly 20 years ago.)

In awarding this year’s prize to Gurnah, Mat Malms, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy’s Prize Committee, pointedly noted that it was presented to the African writer “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”

After publishing his very first novel, Paradise in 1994, the Tanzanian writer followed up with nine other novels, Desertion, for instance.

As a refugee himself, Gurnah’s characters have mirrored his own life experiences closely, torn between “cultures and continents, between a life that was and a life emerging; it is an insecure state that can never be reversed.”

Apart from the prestige and world citizenship status the prize is bound to confer on the Tanzanian, he is secure in the knowledge that there is $1.4m as cash prize for the award.

Gurnah is the second black African to have won in the Literature category after Soyinka did in 1986.

Following the announcement last week, THEWILL sought the views of some prominent Nigerian writers home and abroad. Below are their responses:

Nduka Otiono is Associate Professor of African Studies and English, Carteton University, Ottawa, Canada.

Nduka Otiono

“The fact that not many people in our community knew much about the UK-based Zanzibar novelist, Abdurazak Gurnah, calls attention to the fact that great awards are not popularity tests that depend on social media “Likes” or hashtags for influence or impact. Additionally, the fact that another distinguished African writer is awarded the prize three and half decades after Soyinka won speaks volumes about the recent charges of Eurocentricism against the Sweedish committee that administers the Nobel awards, and which has prompted their declaration of commitment to diversity. While recognizing the increased visibility and cultural capital associated with winning the most prestigious literary award in the world, we must not wait for such canonization to continue to celebrate the other spectacular African writers that have not been so recognized by the Swedish Academy. Chief among these writers is the Kenyan writer and perennial nominee, Professor Ngugi wa  Thiong’o. For this reason Black Africa must work out awards to support our rich literary heritage that includes African literatures in indigenous languages. Hence, I hope that Gurnah’s winning the award will highlight the Swahili roots of his works, especially his early writings.”

Helon Habila is professor of Creative Writing at George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia in the United States. He himself is a winner of several literary prizes, notably the Caine Prize for African Fiction in 2001.

Helon Habila

“I think it is a well-deserved win, even though none of us would have predicted it. It shows how much uncelebrated and overlooked talents Africa have. The West always likes to focus on one or two African writers and turn them into kings and queens, making us believe that they are the only ones worth reading. But there are some who won’t play that game, they go about their work quietly and with dignity – Gurnah is a good example of that.”

Uzor Maxim Uzoatu is a poet, novelist, dramatist and senior journalist currently working with Anambra State Government.

“Abdulrazak Gurnah must rank among the noble of winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature. No controversy whatsoever dogs him, and attention seeking is definitely not his forte. It is little wonder then that not many of the literati could dwell much on his person or his writing when he was announced as the 2021 Nobel Prize winner. Even when he was reached on phone to announce his winning the coveted prize, he thought someone was playing a prank on him, that it was all a joke! For a novelist who had been hard at work since 1987 when he published his first novel Memory of Departure, he earned some mention when his 1994 novel, Paradise was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and Whitbread Prize. He has ten novels under his pouch, and the uncommon consistency has won him the coveted of prizes – the Nobel. It is neither here nor there joining the pundits in debating whether Ngugi wa Thiong’o ought to have won the prize instead. This is unnecessary as the unending Nigerian debate on Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe. Eminent writers who could not win the Nobel Prize for Literature included Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekov, Henrik Ibsen, August Stringberg, Mark Twain, Bertolt Brecht, Marcel Proust, F. Scott Fitzgerald, etc, while these relatively unknown worthies, namely Bjornsen, Eucken, Heinderstam, Spitteler, Reymont, Karlfeldt, Jensen, etc, won the prize. The one factor that assures the classic value of a literary life is Father Time and not any prize including the Nobel. It is my sincere prayer that Abdulrazak Gurnah will go the distance.”

Charles Olumuyiwa Moyela is a Pan-African Development Communication, Media and Public Relations Expert.

Charles Olumuyiwa

“We’ve got to celebrate every African who is acknowledged as primus inter pares in their field on the global stage. Abdulrazak Gurnah’s 2021 Nobel Prize is a refreshing moment in history for African Literature and for all lovers of literature on the continent and beyond.

Gurnah needs to be applauded for his fecundity and for his literary output. His novels seek to expose the underbelly of social consciousness against the tide of the multiple cultural and political influences buffeting the continent of his birth. Racism, prejudice, imported inequality and the aftermath of the colonial influence in Africa are the key themes of his novels. Of course, his personal journey from Zanzibar to the United Kingdom als provides fuel for his writings.

So what does Gurnah’s Nobel mean for literature in Nigeria?

This is a clarion call to the emerging generation of writers that the world eagerly awaits to read our stories, which are fermented from the cauldron of our peculiar experiences and circumstances.”

Toni Kan is a renowned Nigerian writer and has a sheaf of international and national literary prizes in his kitty

Toni Kan

“Abdulrazak Gurnah has been working quietly, consciously overtime. I think he deserves this award. The award came at a time when there is renewed attention on African literature and publishing, colonialism and imperialism. In that sense, it came at a good time. In terms of what it means for African writers, he is the second Black African to win the Nobel after Soyinka in 1986. It is a good thing to have this news. I was telling a friend today when the announcement came that Gurnah’s work is informed by trauma, trauma of separation, trauma of having to move abroad at a very young age, being a refugee.”