Abdulrazak Gurnah has won the prestigious ‘Nobel Prize for Literature’ this year for his uncompromising and compassionate presentation of the effects of colonialism. Gurnah is the first black African author to have won the award since Wole Soyinka in 1986 and is the fifth African writer to win this prize. The Nobel Committee for Literature said in a statement, “Abdulrazak Gurnah’s dedication to truth and his aversion to simplification are striking.” Abdulrazak Gurnah published ten novels, including Paradise and Desertion. His literary creations highlight the theme of the refugee’s disruption. He began writing in English as a 21-year-old in exile, although Swahili is his first language, his literary language is English. Abdulrazak Gurnah consciously breaks with convention, upending the colonial perspective to highlight that of the indigenous populations.
Born in Zanzibar in 1948, Gurnah arrived in England as a refugee in the late 1960s when the global situation was different. Today more and more people are forced to leave their motherland out of terror and the world is much more violent than it was in the 1960s. Abdulrazak Gurnah grew up on the island of Zanzibar in the Indian Ocean. He was a Professor of English and Postcolonial Literature at the University of Kent, Canterbury just before winning this prize.
Gurnah is the fifth writer from Africa to win, joining Wole Soyinka, Naguib Mahfouz, Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee. Refugee crisis, their displacement and deprivation from education stand as global problems around the world and Gunrah’s works talk about these issues that drew the attention of the world committee.
If we look at his great novel `Paradise’ which was published in 1994, it deals with a boy growing up in Tanzania in the early 20th Century. Paradise is at once the story of an African boy coming of age, a tragic love story, and a tale of the corruption of traditional African patterns by European colonialism. It presents a major African voice to American readers - a voice that prompted Peter Tinniswood to write in the London Times, reviewing Gurnah’s previous novel. From the simple life of rural Africa, Yusuf is thrown into the complexities of precolonial urban East Africa – a fascinating world in which Muslim black Africans, Christian missionaries, and Indians from the subcontinent coexist in a fragile, subtle social hierarchy.
The story took place in the town of Kawa in Tanzania at the turn of the Twentieth century. At the age of 12, Yusuf was sold by his father (who was in debt) to a powerful Arab merchant named Mr. Aziz. To pay for his father’s debt, Yusuf had to work as an unpaid servant for Mr. Aziz. Later in the story, Yusuf joined Mr. Aziz on a caravan journey. Together with Mr. Aziz and his workers, Yusuf traveled far to Central Africa and Congo Basin. During his travels, Yusuf met different kinds of African tribes, wild animals, and faced difficult terrains. Yusuf also learned the ways of the world as he encounters an Africa rife with tribal warfare, superstition, disease, child slavery and marriage. In the middle of the story, Yusuf hopelessly fell in love with Amina, Mr. Aziz’s very young wife. As Yusuf returned home, World War I began. Mr. Aziz helped the German Military in recruiting young African men as soldiers.
Abdulrazak Gurnah’s second novel ‘Pilgrims Way’ (1988), a story of a hospital orderly, Daud, a disillusioned Zanzibari migrant living a melancholic and marginal life in Britain in the 1970s. Daud, the protagonist of the novel Pilgrim’s Way, lives in a small town somewhere in Britain, sometime in the seventies. For a long time, little is mentioned about his origins. Daud has lived in England for nearly five years. After dropping out of the university, he works as an assistant nurse in a hospital. His most telling character trait is an almost paranoid vigilance. He senses danger everywhere. And he encounters it everywhere. Daud confronts the situation with a mixture of resignation and scathing cynicism. He does not try to combat the myriad of prejudices. Instead, he reacts to the role assigned to him by playing it to a radical degree. Just when his situation seems utterly hopeless and inescapable, a young Englishwoman named Catherine comes into his life. It is not Daud’s first affair with a white woman. The representation of melancholia in the protagonist, Daud, is confronted with the racist climate of his new homeland, England. After having tried to hide his past, love for a woman entices Daud to tell his story. He can then recount what happened in his tragic upbringing and the traumatic memories of the political turmoil in Tanzania that forced him into flight. The novel ends with Daud’s visit to Canterbury cathedral where he meditates on the parallels between the Christian pilgrims who visited the place in past times and his own journey to England.
Since the introduction of the Nobel Prize in 1901, 118 literature laureates have won it. But the interesting thing is that more than 80 per cent or total 95 of them belong to Europe or North America, which raises questions about the honesty of the organisation. In 2021, Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah won it for his dealing with the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugees in the gulf between cultures and continents. The entire world is now witnessing a refugee and humanitarian crisis, people are dying and being hurt around the world. The issue of refugees must be taken seriously into consideration and Gurnah hopes that his getting this prize will sensitise the global leaders to start discussion on the issue. We endorse his views and hope to see a world free from all sorts of refugee crises and its ultimate effect.
The writer works for BRAC Education and is the President of English Teachers’ Association of Bangladesh (ETAB)