Tanzania’s Abdulrazak Gurnah wins 2021 Nobel Prize in literature

Updated: Oct 11, 2021


The Nobel prize in literature has been awarded to novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah, for his “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents”.


No black African writer has won the prize since Wole Soyinka in 1986. Gurnah is the first black writer to win since Toni Morrison in 1993.


Born in Zanzibar and based in England, Gurnah recently retired as a professor of post-colonial literature at the University of Kent.


With over 10 published novels and a number of short stories, he is best known for his 1994 novel “Paradise”, set in colonial East Africa during World War I, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction.


Anders Olsson, chair of the Nobel committee, said that the Gurnah’s novels – from his debut Memory of Departure, about a failed uprising, to his most recent, Afterlives – “recoil from stereotypical descriptions and open our gaze to a culturally diversified East Africa unfamiliar to many in other parts of the world”


The prestigious award comes with a gold medal and 10 million Swedish kronor ($1.14m).


Gurnah, in normal times, would have received the Nobel from King Carl XVI Gustaf at a formal ceremony in Stockholm on December 10, the anniversary of the 1896 death of scientist Alfred Nobel who created the prizes in his last will and testament.


However, the in-person ceremony has been cancelled for the second straight year due to the pandemic and replaced with a televised ceremony showing the laureates receiving their awards in their home countries.


Gurnah, who was in the kitchen when he was informed of his win, said that he believed it was a wind-up.


“I thought it was a prank. These things are usually floated for weeks beforehand, or sometimes months beforehand, about who are the runners, so it was not something that was in my mind at all. I was just thinking, I wonder who’ll get it?”

Image credit: Getty

“I am honoured to be awarded this prize and to join the writers who have preceded me on this list. It is overwhelming and I am so proud.”


His longtime editor, Alexandra Pringle at Bloomsbury, said Gurnah’s win was “most deserved” for a writer who has not previously received due recognition.


“He is one of the greatest living African writers, and no one has ever taken any notice of him and it’s just killed me. I did a podcast last week and in it I said that he was one of the people that has been just ignored. And now this has happened,” she said.


Gurnah was born in 1948, growing up in Zanzibar. When Zanzibar went through a revolution in 1964, citizens of Arab origin were persecuted, and Gurnah was forced to flee the country when he was 18. He began to write as a 21-year-old refugee in England, choosing to write in English, although Swahili is his first language. His first novel, Memory of Departure, was published in 1987.


Past and present recipients

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.


On Monday, the Nobel Committee awarded the prize in physiology or medicine to Americans David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian for their discoveries into how the human body perceives temperature and touch.

The Nobel Prize in physics was awarded on Tuesday to three scientists whose work found order in seeming disorder, helping to explain and predict complex forces of nature, including expanding our understanding of climate change.

Benjamin List and David WC MacMillan were named as laureates of the Nobel Prize for chemistry on Wednesday for finding an easier and environmentally cleaner way to build molecules that can be used to make compounds, including medicines and pesticides.

Journalists, Maria Ressa, the chief executive and co-founder of Rappler, and Dmitry Muratov, the editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, were named as this year’s laureates by Berit Reiss-Andersen, the chair of the Norwegian Nobel committee.