Abdulrazak Gurnah

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Abdulrazak Gurnah

AbulrazakGurnahHebronPanel (cropped).jpg
Gurnah in May 2009
Born (1948-12-20) 20 December 1948 (age 72)
Sultanate of Zanzibar
OccupationNovelist, professor
LanguageEnglish
Education Canterbury Christ Church University (BA)
University of Kent (MA, PhD)
Notable works
Notable awards Nobel Prize in Literature (2021)
Website
rcwlitagency.com

Abdulrazak Gurnah FRSL (born 20 December 1948) is a Tanzanian-born novelist and academic who is based in the United Kingdom. He was born in the Sultanate of Zanzibar and moved to the United Kingdom in the 1960s as a refugee during the Zanzibar Revolution. [1] His novels include Paradise (1994), which was shortlisted for both the Booker and the Whitbread Prize; Desertion (2005); and By the Sea (2001), which was longlisted for the Booker and shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Contents

Gurnah was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2021 "for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fates of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents". [1] [2] [3] He is Emeritus Professor of English and Postcolonial Literatures at the University of Kent. [4]

Early life and education

Abdulrazak Gurnah was born on 20 December 1948 [5] in the Sultanate of Zanzibar, which is now part of present-day Tanzania. [6] He left the island at the age of 18 following the overthrow of the ruling Arab elite in the Zanzibar Revolution, [3] [1] arriving in England in 1968 as a refugee. He is of Arab heritage. [7] Gurnah has been quoted saying, "I came to England when these words, such as asylum-seeker, were not quite the same – more people are struggling and running from terror states." [1] [8]

He initially studied at Christ Church College, Canterbury, whose degrees were at the time awarded by the University of London. [9] He then moved to the University of Kent, where he earned his PhD, with a thesis titled Criteria in the Criticism of West African Fiction, [10] in 1982. [6]

Career

From 1980 to 1983, Gurnah lectured at Bayero University Kano in Nigeria. He went on to become a professor of English and postcolonial literature at the University of Kent, where he taught until his retirement [3] [11] in 2017, and where he is now professor emeritus of English and postcolonial literatures. [12]

Writing

Alongside his work in academia, Gurnah is a writer and novelist. He is the author of many short stories, essays and ten novels. [13]

While his first language is Swahili, he has used English as his literary language. However, Gurnah integrates bits of Swahili, Arabic, and German throughout most of his writings. He has said that he had to push back against publishers to continue this practice, while they would have preferred to "italicize or Anglicize Swahili and Arabic references and phrases in his books." [11] Gurnah has criticized the practices in both British and American publishing which want to "make the alien seem alien" by marking 'foreign' terms and phrases with italics or by putting them in a glossary. [11]

Gurnah began writing out of homesickness during his 20s. He started with writing down thoughts in his diary, which turned into longer reflections about home; and eventually grew into writing fictional stories about other people. This created a habit of using writing as a tool to understand and record his experience of being a refugee, living in another land, and the feeling of being displaced. These initial stories eventually became Gurnah's first novel, Memory of Departure (1987), which he wrote alongside his Ph.D. dissertation. This first book set the stage for his ongoing exploration of the themes of "the lingering trauma of colonialism, war and displacement" throughout his subsequent novels, short stories and critical essays. [11]

Themes

Consistent themes run through Gurnah's writing, including exile, displacement, belonging, colonialism, and broken promises on the part of the state. Most of his novels tell stories about people living in the developing world, affected by war or crisis, who may not be able to tell their own stories. [14] [15]

Much of Gurnah's work is set on the coast of East Africa, [16] and all but one of his novels' protagonists were born in Zanzibar. [17] Though Gurnah has not returned to live in Tanzania since he left at 18, he has said that his homeland "always asserts himself in his imagination, even when he deliberately tries to set his stories elsewhere." [11]

Literary critic Bruce King posits that Gurnah's novels place East African protagonists in their broader international context, observing that in Gurnah's fiction "Africans have always been part of the larger, changing world". [18] According to King, Gurnah's characters are often uprooted, alienated, unwanted and therefore are, or feel, resentful victims". [18] Felicity Hand suggests that Gurnah's novels Admiring Silence (1996), By the Sea (2001), and Desertion (2005) all concern "the alienation and loneliness that emigration can produce and the soul-searching questions it gives rise to about fragmented identities and the very meaning of 'home'." [19] She observes that Gurnah's characters typically do not succeed abroad following their migration, using irony and humour to respond to their situation. [20]

Novelist Maaza Mengiste has described Gurnah's works, saying: "He has written work that is absolutely unflinching and yet at the same time completely compassionate and full of heart for people of East Africa [...] He is writing stories that are often quiet stories of people who aren’t heard, but there’s an insistence there that we listen." [11]

Other work

Gurnah edited two volumes of Essays on African Writing and has published articles on a number of contemporary postcolonial writers, including V. S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie and Zoë Wicomb. He is the editor of A Companion to Salman Rushdie (Cambridge University Press, 2007). He has been a contributing editor of Wasafiri magazine since 1987. [21] He has been a judge for awards including the Caine Prize for African Writing, [22] the Booker Prize. [23] and the RSL Literature Matters Awards. [24]

Awards and honours

Gurnah's 2004 novel Paradise was shortlisted for the Booker, the Whitbread and the Writers' Guild Prizes, as well as the ALOA Prize for the best Danish translation. [25] His novel By the Sea (2001) was longlisted for the Booker and shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, [25] while Desertion (2005) was shortlisted for the 2006 Commonwealth Writers' Prize. [25] [26]

In 2006, Gurnah was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. [27] In 2007, he won the RFI Témoin du Monde ("Witness of the world") award in France for By the Sea. [28]

On 7 October 2021, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2021 "for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fates of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents". [2] [3] [1] Gurnah was the first Black writer to receive the prize since 1993, and the first African writer since 2007. While author Giles Foden has called him "one of Africa's greatest living writers", prior to winning the prestigious award Gurnah's writing had not achieved the same commercial success of other Nobel winners. [11]

Personal life

Gurnah lives in Canterbury, England, [29] and has British citizenship. [30] He maintains close ties with Tanzania, where he still has family, and where he says he goes when he can: "I am from there. In my mind I live there." [31]

Writings

Novels

Short stories

Essays, criticism, and non-fiction

As editor

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References

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Sources

Further reading