Abdulrazak Gurnah: the truth-teller’s tale

Winning the Nobel Prize in literature means his work could add essential nuance to the global conversation about identity and belonging

Abdulrazak Gurnah, winner of the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature, poses at his home in Canterbury. Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo/Henry Nicholls

Until recently, Abdulrazak Gurnah, a professor of English and postcolonial literatures at the University of Kent in Canterbury, had little media attention other than a brief mention in stories about refugees.

As a refugee who arrived in England from Zanzibar in 1968, and as a novelist who wrote about refugees and immigrants from east Africa, Gurnah would sometimes be mentioned in newspaper stories on asylum and migration. After the 2016 Brexit referendum and that notorious anti-immigrant UK Independence Party poster, his name was mentioned among other writers who championed a less insular worldview. And after the Windrush scandal, when the children of Caribbean migrants who had come to the UK decades ago were asked for paperwork to prove their right to live in Britain, Gurnah’s opinion was sought. He was, after all, a refugee himself.

Fast forward to 3 October this year, and Gurnah was conspicuous by his absence on a Guardian reading list compiled by well-known writers of colour. That list was supposed to recommend overlooked fiction and to nudge the discerning public towards writing by Black authors that “deserves to sit alongside the classics”. Gurnah’s longtime editor, Alexandra Pringle tweeted with disappointment: “Rewriting the canon as always proceeds with no mention of Abdulrazak Gurnah, whose consistently superb novels have for years told stories of the winds of politics, trade, war and love that blow people across continents.” She added: “After 20 years of publishing him and keeping the faith that his time will come, hope begins to seep away.”

Four days after that snub, Gurnah was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. In a flash, the world changed — for 73-year-old Gurnah; for Pringle; for Gurnah’s publisher Bloomsbury, and for the ten novels Gurnah has written in the past 41 years, some of which the author has said were probably out of print.

Seemingly oblivious to the irony of his post-Nobel acknowledgement of Gurnah, Hari Kunzru, one of the writers who had failed to pick the new literature laureate for the Guardian list, tweeted congratulations to the “quiet stalwart of the London book scene”.

Clearly, Gurnah could no longer be ignored, and nor would he be.

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PhD. Journalism by trade & inclination. Sign up for free email updates on https://www.rashmee.com email me at rashmee@rashmee.com http://muckrack.com/rashmeerl

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Rashmee Roshan Lall

Rashmee Roshan Lall

PhD. Journalism by trade & inclination. Sign up for free email updates on https://www.rashmee.com email me at rashmee@rashmee.com http://muckrack.com/rashmeerl

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