That’s the stuff of the awards clichÃ©. A caller from the ennobling institution telephones the recipient to relay the news. Caught cold and in the kitchen, there is only one answer to the question “Who is speaking?”
“Come on, get out of here!” Leave me alone. âLater, the surprised winner reveals,â I thought it was a prank. âSo goes the story of how Abdulrazak Gurnah learned he was the Nobel Laureate in Literature for 2021.
The 73-year-old retired Zanzibar-born novelist and literary scholar becomes the sixth African to win a Nobel Prize in literature, after Nigerian playwright, poet and novelist Wole Soyinka (1986), Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz (1988) , South African novelists Nadine Gordimer (1991) and JM Coetzee (2003), and Zimbabwean novelist, memoir and science fiction pioneer and women’s rights writer Doris Lessing (2007).
We can argue if there are six or four Africans. Coetzee lived in Adelaide, Australia for most of this millennium, and the late Gordimer delighted in writing and publicly emphasizing that he was no longer South African. Mahfouz has been widely celebrated as the first Arab writer to win the Nobel Prize, although geography surely wins: Egypt is in Africa, after all.
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It’s fascinating to go through their five Nobel Prize acceptance speeches and wonder what Gurnah will be focusing on in his. Soyinka and Gordimer spoke of politics, and writer Soyinka launched a worldwide rallying cry against apartheid and Gordimer, on a more serious note, did the same. Mahfouz paid homage to the civilizations, Pharaonic and Islamic, which made it. Coetzee read a short story, philosophical contemplation, and narrative imagination of the relationship between Robinson Crusoe creator Daniel Defoe and his character Man Friday. Lessing spoke of rural Zimbabwe and the irrepressible urge to read.
Decades before it became a global reality and literary fad, Gurnah wrote about migrants, the displaced and the dispossessed. Much of this came from the extreme disruption of his own life, forced to flee Zanzibar at the age of 18, two years after the 1964 revolution which saw Arab citizens tracked down, beaten, imprisoned, tortured and killed. . Swahili was Gurnah’s first language but that didn’t matter: the language was not the test of belonging in those turbulent times.
A teenage refugee, Gurnah arrived in England. More than half a century later he retired as Professor of English and Postcolonial Literatures at the University of Kent, an astonishing life course and an all the more remarkable job for the Quiet Margin and powerful of his career as a novelist. Ten novels were what the Nobel Literature Committee had to assess its relevance; in his citation for the award, he noted the âuncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the plight of refugees into the chasm between cultures and continentsâ.
The literary Nobel is not without its problems, as it is for the company as a whole, with the preponderance of white winners from the northern hemisphere particularly glaring. Worse yet, in its 121 years, Nobel Prizes have only been awarded to 59 women, not even 7% of all Nobel Prizes awarded. Recent winners have both diminished the literary stature of the award – Bob Dylan – and its own claim that it goes to “the person who will have produced the most outstanding work in literature in an ideal direction” – Peter Handke. The latter is a provocative and unrepentant denial of the Srebrenica genocide, when the Serbs murdered thousands of Muslim boys and men.
Gurnah’s award appears to be on origin and race, literary quality, and ethical correctness. More than any of these hypothetical assumptions, however, he is simply a superb writer, sometimes compared to Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian novelist often automatically described as “the father of the African novel”. (An honor that South Africans could claim for Sol Plaatjie and his novel Mhoudi, but leave aside the parochial spirit.)
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The comparison with Achebe highlights that he was ignored by the Nobel committee, another terrible omission of the Nobel. This anti-Achebe stance is attributed, very plausibly, to Western Europe’s reaction to Joseph Conrad’s withered view of Achebe and in particular Conrad’s short story. Heart of darkness, a portrayal of a part of Africa seemingly unrecoverable because of what Conrad’s narrator believes to be its savagery, barbarism and obscurity.
It is fanciful to suggest that Gurnah is a laureate in part to make up for Achebe’s forgetfulness, as well as to insult two great writers. But it is a huge triumph for a writer who has never insisted on his work, never demanding the foreground and never pontificating on the problems of the day.
Instead, his novels spoke for him, of the terror and horror of being uprooted, of the flight abroad, of the fear of the new and of the threat, of the delicate tendrils of hope that grow in the unknown and the strange, and what the house means and where it is. In these are written all our stories. And so an artist of the particular shows again, to all who have forgotten, that in the carefully studied and captured detail of the small and singular life lie the vast universals of human life.