Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah is the 2021 Nobel laureate for literature. The Swedish Academy shared the news on October 7th. They praised “his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugees in the gulf between cultures and continents.” Gurnah has published 10 novels and is the 7th African to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, following Albert Camus (1957), Wole Soyinka (1986), Naguib Mahfouz (1988), Nardine Gordimer (1991), J.M Coetzee (2003), and Doris Lessing (2007).
At the news of his win, the African literary community erupted in jubilation. To capture the celebratory mood, we asked African writers on the continent and the Diaspora to share their reactions, which we have collected below. Prof. Wole Soyinka was the first person we approached. It was a symbolic gesture because we wanted him, as a Nobel laureate, to have the first word on what Gurnah’s win meant. The opening line of his statement, “The Nobel returns home,” certainly expresses the history-making significance of the moment.
The collection of responses reflects the diversity of the African literary community. You’ll find veterans such as Tsitsi Dangarembga, Ben Okri, and Nuruddin Farah, but also new voices like Arao Ameny, Nyuol Lueth Tong, and T. J. Benson. Nationalities are diverse, including Rwanda, South Sudan, DRC, Kenya, South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, and many others. Some of the commentators speak of Gurnah’s work from the distance of fandom while someone like Abdourahman Waberi is a dear friend of Gurnah. While many of the responses are celebratory, others are call-to-actions, asking us to interrogate the problems inherent to the Nobel Prize itself and what these problems say about a Euro-America-centered literary industry.
Gurnah’s win is monumental enough, but the collective joy it brings is nearly as significant as the win itself. This collection of responses is an attempt to capture this shared experience and, in the process, say something that truly meets the moment.
It took a lot of administrative labor to put this list together, so I’d like to thank our Assistant Editor Alesia Alexander for dropping everything to work on this with me. Thanks to everyone on the list for taking the time to share their thoughts and to tell their stories.
There can never be too much celebration, so please use the comment section to share your thoughts.
Congrats to Gurnah!
103 Responses to Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Nobel Prize
Our well-kept secret is out in the open! Gurnah’s fans cherish him without shouting about him, so private is the reading experience. He exceeds all others in depicting the lives of those made small by cruelty and injustice, the cowed and put-upon – humiliated women, abused orphans and struggling refugees. Time after time he seduces readers with worlds of stunning beauty caught in the grip of cruelty and harshness.
There are those of us who do not know Gurnah’s work well enough, but that doesn’t stop us from rejoicing that he is our literature Nobel laureate. The fact that Gurnah consistently maintained focus and discipline all these years despite the lack of this thing called “recognition” is immensely inspiring. He writes for the sake of writing and not for prizes or sales. I respect him for that and send him my warmest congratulations.
I’m delighted that an African won. This will do so much for Gurnah, and I hope, for other African writers. It’s about time.
Gurnah’s writing taught me to think of the writer as a “truth-seer.” While working on my play, I read his essay, “Writing and place,” which was honest in its reflection of distance and estrangement. Gurnah’s vivid and delicate recollections of “lost life” and “lost place” gathers histories and memories of the displaced and unremembered and makes a bold declaration that writing should memorialize the forgotten. Congratulations, Mr. Abdulrazak Gurnah for winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021.
I’d been thinking of how I first came across Gurnah’s work as an editor in book publishing many years ago. A number of our edited volumes featured scholarly essays on his novels. It concerned me, however, that like quite a few other vital African writers at that time, he’d remained in virtual obscurity outside academia. I can now sit back and watch with satisfaction as he breaks more fully into the mainstream.
Abdulrazaq Gurnah’s 2021 Nobel Prize win focuses literary and critical interest on Zanzibar and the larger East African Coast, which gave us Swahili—that great culture and language of hybridity. In this, it kickstarts a long-overdue African conversation in these times when all sorts of tribalists and purist-extremists dominate our commons. That Gurnah was not well known before the Nobel is unimportant; the fact that his work will likely start a continental conversation re-centering the cosmopolitan ethos of identity and place being an equal and distinct give-and-take of many causes is everything. Congratulations to Professor Gurnah.
Congratulations to Abdulrazak Gurnah on winning the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature. For many years, he has been one of the trailblazers in African literature, and now his long body of work has not only been recognized by his readers, but also rewarded by receiving the Nobel Prize. This win is also especially important because his work covers the stories of simple but small lives, both past and present, that can remain hidden beneath the noise and chaos of this world, even as they are ultimately most impacted by the effects of colonialism, displacement and immigration.
I see opportunity. Here in the US, Abdulrazak Gurnah’s win is expanding and adding to already existing conversations on why many readers in the US don’t know or aren’t aware of writers from the global South, especially African writers, with the exception of a few. I think this win challenges readers to explore vibrant literary worlds and spaces outside of the US, especially those created by and centering Africa writing.
As a Nigerian, I remember how thrilling it was when the great Wole Soyinka won in 1986. It’s incredible that it’s taken nearly three decades for another Black African writer to receive the Nobel Prize. I am over the moon for Abdulrazak Gurnah whose lyrical, compassionate voice helps illuminate the humans behind labels like “foreigner” and “refugee.” Something we need more of in these divisive times. Huge congratulations sir, and here’s to your books selling out worldwide!
Efe Paul Azino
Gurnah’s bookmakers defying win reinforces the importance of quiet commitment to craft in an age of hollow showmanship. A huge encouragement to the many gifted and dedicated African writers across the continent, and the diaspora, telling the stories that need to be told irrespective of the approval or validation of Western literary power structures.
Abdulrazak Gurnah’s win was a pleasant surprise though I was hoping Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o got it this time. I celebrate this win because Gurnah has done an excellent job of writing about the impact of two issues that are close to my heart: colonialism and migration. I am particularly happy that a writer who portrays the profound effect of dislocation from one’s roots finally gets a well-deserved acknowledgement. Perhaps this win will bring more (about time too) attention to the literature of the marginalized, be it migrants, the refugees, and African literature generally.
The gracious, generous Abdulrazak Gurnah has deservedly received the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature. We Africans now have our fifth Laureate of Words, one who writes from and about a complex place, Zanzibar, and with luminous sentences. Many will now discover his erudite narrators and their subtle journeys. May they also encounter the African scholars who read him so finely, among them his finest interlocutors.
Writings and writers from the African Continent have a long history that is both outside of and indebted to the English metaphysical empire—a history about which we do not know even though we should. If it takes a committee in faraway Sweden to force the world to (re)read Abdulrazak Gurnah, then the existing publishing and media infrastructure need to do better in serving the interests of readers and moving beyond a monolith.
Gurnah’s name will now rightly be rolling off everyone’s tongue as it should have been, and his books will be discovered by a new audience. In the midst of the celebrations, we must make time to acknowledge his publishers who through 10 books have continued to publish him despite all odds. That’s commitment and belief. It is that commitment and belief from both writer and publisher that has made this Nobel possible.
I’m absolutely thrilled for Abdulrazak. It couldn’t have gone to a more deserving writer, a writer whose works speak so directly to these most turbulent and frenetic of times, in a voice no less eloquent for being so understated. It’s also a great moment for African literature. This truly calls for celebration. Congratulations, Abdulrazak!
Apart from his heartfelt brilliant novels, he has done so much to elevate the work of other African writers in academia. It is a delight to see Prof Gurnah’s gentle genius honored in this way.
Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond
I was thrilled when I got the WhatsApp message that Abdulrazak Gurnah won the Nobel! The friend who messaged me is a Cape Verdean writer, and we had just been speaking the day before about how writing from African authors has not only been gaining more (overdue) attention, but the opportunity this has meant for writers who don’t write in English. I hope the Nobel Committee for Literature also looks to our women writers, someone such as Ama Ata Aidoo, in particular.
Alma-Nalisha Cele and Letlhogonolo Mokgoroane
Congratulations to Prof Abdulrazak Gurnah on his Nobel prize for literature. We started the Cheeky Natives as a space to critically engage with the work of black writers with the reverence and criticality deserved. What a special joy to see one of our own, who has worked so brilliantly to write our experiences into the archive, awarded such a high honor. Congratulations Prof Gurnah. Long may your light shine!
Munyori, magona, madadisa. For years, the world has denied itself the pleasure of our worlds and words. Through your work, may they begin to share in our multitudes.
I am delighted that work which highlights still extant structures of colonialism’s ruinous impact on people’s lives today receives such high recognition and congratulate Abdulrazak Gurnah heartily for this achievement. It is a signal to us to continue our symbolic struggle in literature and proof that the writer’s word can contribute to positive transformation.
I am absolutely delighted by the win, which is a significant one for African writers all over the world, that which tells us that our stories continue to be relevant and worthy of every accolade and recognition. Hearty congratulations to Gurnah.
You can’t hear or see me but I’m ululating – still! Much has been said about Abdulrazak Gurnah’s writing and character – the ways in which the work is an experience so unwaveringly inclusive of the ordinary and careful with the vulnerable speaks volumes. We talk abstractedly about empathy and here you have it across decades as gaze and voice – as active, I think, as story can be. So, I celebrate this too. That the prize has deservedly gone to Gurnah not only gives someone like me a figure to look to, but it is an overdue offering for spaces and countries, that even within postcolonial literary circles, tend to be made absent. I may be wrong, but in my experience, Tanzania is not necessarily the country you hear referenced most often when literature or African or postcolonial literature is mentioned and as we see it is not because the calibre or writing isn’t there. But let us not lose sight of the man – Congratulations to Gurnah!
Ayi Renaud Dossavi-Alipoeh
Text in French:
C’est un plaisir et un honneur de compter un nouveau prix Nobel africain avec Abdulrazat Gurnah. Nos plus chaleureuses félicitations à ce monument de notre littérature et cette nouvelle inspiration pour les auteurs africains que nous sommes. Ce prix est un symbole pour toute l’Afrique, en particulier pour sa jeunesse, c’est le signe que le continent a encore beaucoup à offrir, non seulement au monde mais d’abord à lui-même. C’est aussi un rappel que nous, Africains, devons nous étudier davantage, nous connaître davantage, reconnaître nos plus grands créateurs, les traduire et les partager massivement à travers les régions et les zones linguistiques, et ne pas attendre qu’ils soient “découverts” et célébrés par des instances extérieures, aussi prestigieuses soient-elles. L’Afrique peut s’écrire elle-même, pour elle-même et pour le monde, et merci au grand Gurnah de nous le rappeler. — Ayi Renaud Dossavi-Alipoeh, Ecrivain Poète togolais, Secrétaire général de l’association d’écrivain PEN – Togo, Officier de l’Ordre du Mérite national
Text in English:
It is a pleasure and an honor to have a new African Nobel Prize winner with Abdulrazak Gurnah. Our warmest congratulations to this monument of our literature and this new inspiration for African authors that we are. This prize is a symbol for all of Africa, especially for its youth, and a sign that the continent still has much to offer, not only to the world but first of all to itself. It is also a reminder that we Africans must study ourselves more, know ourselves more, recognize our greatest creators, translate and share them massively across regions and linguistic zones, and not wait for them to be “discovered” and celebrated by external bodies, however prestigious they may be. Africa can write itself, for itself, and for the world, and thousand thanks to the great Gurnah for reminding us of this. — Ayi Renaud Dossavi-Alipoeh, Togolese writer and poet, Secretary-General of the PEN – Togo writer’s association, Officer of the National Order of Merit.
Edwige Renée Dro
Text in French:
Quand on pense connaitre toute la production littéraire africaine, le monde se reveille avec le nom de Abdulrazak Gurnah sur toutes les lèvres comme pour nous rappeler qu’on a seulement effleuré la surface de cette dense production littéraire. ‘Félicitations’ ne rend pas assez justice à ce Prix Nobel de Littérature tant mérité, mais FELICITATIONS!!! Surtout que nous savons que très bientôt, nous dans cette partie de l’Afrique dite francophone, aurons le bonhehur d’aller au-delà de Paradis, Près de la mer ou encore Adieu Zanzibar pour découvrir (ou redécouvrir) la plume magistrale d’Abdulrazak Gurnah
Text in English:
When we think that we know all of Africa’s literary production, the world wakes up to the name of Abdulrazak Gurnah on everyone’s lips as if to remind us that we’ve only scratched the surface of that dense literary production. “Congratulations” does not render enough justice to such a deserved Nobel Prize for Literature, but CONGRATULATIONS!!! Especially as we now know that, very soon, those of us in this part of Africa called francophone Africa will have the joy of going beyond Paradise, By the Sea or Desertion to discover (or rediscover) the fantastic penmanship of Abdulrazak Gurnah.
It was gratifying to hear of Abdulrazak Gurnah winning the Nobel Prize. This is particularly so because his is a quiet literary intelligence in a calm, unassuming and self-effacing personality. His humility is such that some sections of the global reading public are caught unawares by this obviously ‘unpopular’ writer. So unpopular that the now ritualistic and annual Nobel prospect guessing games did not mention his name at all. However, Gurnah has been a prolific and large literary presence in the European university curriculum and literary festival circuits since the early 1990s.
It is awesome to have Gurnah’s name added to the greats who have won the Nobel. For many who are strangers to his great body of work, which deals with longing, belonging and beyond all of that, I believe this prize will acquaint them.
Abdulrazak Gurnah has been a very close friend for many years, and I am delighted that he has received the prize this year. His writing is like no other, his sentences are elegant, his prose is precise, and he is an artist of the highest degree. I am full of joy.
This win by Abdulrazak Gurnah, whose work I was only introduced to recently upon the announcement that he will be headlining the 2021 Ake Festival, is a reaffirmation that patience and intentionality is still rewarded and very important in producing quality work. As Michaela Coel mentioned, we live in a world that now requires writers to be hyper-visible in order to succeed. Gurnah’s win becomes a personal reminder that one should write not for the promised success that may come but simply because one is compelled to. Congratulations to Abdulrazak Gurnah on a well-deserved win that has inspired younger generations of writers.
I came to know about Abdulrazak Gurnah through his criticism, which introduced me to new ways of feeling and thinking about African literature. Eventually I found my way to his fiction, which enlivened my heart and mind. I could not be happier that he won the Nobel. It’s a fabulous achievement—for him, obviously, and for all of Africa. His win is also a reminder to all writers to keep the faith. Great art will find its moment.
I couldn’t be more thrilled. Quietly industrious, Abdulrazak Gurnah has consistently produced wok of great beauty and power, from Memory of Departure, Paradise, all the way to Afterlives. Personally, I’m delighted both because he inspired me to write historical fiction, and because I just love Zanzibar. As an amateur cultural anthropologist, I wonder if his win makes him as much of a tourist attraction there as Freddie Mercury!
Big congratulations to Abdulrazak Gurnah — one of post-colonial literature’s extraordinarily compassionate and assured voices — on winning the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature. This is a deserving win for a gifted writer, scholar, and critic. Also, it is heartwarming that this win has rubbed off on African and Black writing and is an inspiration for the unsung and the diligent.
The awarding of the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature to Abdulrazak Gurnah may have come as a surprise to many readers and scholars of fiction, especially those who only seem to understand literature in its narrow nationalist sense, but not to those of us who believe that there is no contradiction to being African and postcolonial. Rejecting the rush to a facile globalization and its simple hashtags, Gurnah’s novels, like his critical essays, have always been attuned to the nature of identities lived across the historical ruptures that defined the long twentieth century—the trauma of colonial conscription, the anxieties of a belated potscolonialism, and the pain and pleasure of exile and displacement. His novel are constant reminders of the capacity of literary language and the imagination to heal the wounds of the past.
Hawa Jande Golakai
Congratulations to Abdulrazak Gurnah, our father and brother in ink! This win is his honor as much as it is ours…another step in highlighting African art as global art.
Pumla Dineo Gqola
The award of the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature to Abdulrazak Gurnah is wonderful recognition of the body of work and thinking by a writer and intellectual who has consistently invited us, as readers of his work and as teachers of the same, to think again about the messy business of belonging. Gurnah’s writing asks that we pause on the meanings we ascribe to the long afterlives of slavery and colonialism, whose shadows continue to complicate what home is both in our imaginations and for our bodies. Zanzibari, Swahili, Tanzanian, Arab, African. He is all these things, of course. And his words on the page allow us to infuse these places with increasing possibility.
Gurnah’s win has come as a surprise–not because he is undeserving in any way, but because in America and the UK, prizes have become too much about king making and bestowing of prestige on only a few select writers. With Gurnah the Scandinavians have shown us that it is possible to work diligently and honestly outside the limelight and to be recognized someday for the work itself. Bravo.
Gurnah’s win was a wonderful surprise and a joy for us lovers of African literature. I was delighted to see a master craftsman receive the ultimate recognition for his body of work. Congratulations to him, to Tanzania, and all the appreciative readers of his work.
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim
Gurnah’s win is a delightful surprise, not only because of his race, or his long-almost forgotten link to Nigeria. His writing has always had a way of percolating under one’s skin and staying there and I am delighted that because of this win, more readers will seek out his work. But what is even more surprising though is the fact that Gurnah becomes only the second black, African to win the Nobel. I hope it will be just one of many to come.
More than nationality, race, sex, and creed is the brilliance of the writing, the depth and breadth of a stellar literary career, the profundity of thought, uniqueness of perspective, originality of voice, invocation of scholastic interest, and the quality of the contribution to the human experience that marks the stature of the mind of the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Abdulrazak Gurnah is such a mind. An academic soul content with the rigors of research, critique and writing while bestriding the realities of multiple existences in near populist anonymity. The one who though great, is more renowned for his critically acclaimed study of the greats. Although I am proud to call him an African and exhilarated that the prize has once again berthed in black Africa, I am prouder that there was no social media campaign, heated scholarly dialogue or nationalist, publicized angst that could be construed as an attempt to arm-twist the Nobel committee into crowning another black African after a more than three decades hiatus by those who share his hue, creed, nationality or heritage before a talented, erudite, courageous and independent minded human like he is was chosen worthy of such an honor. It is this light, that like the unexpected laureates before him, literature as a high art in the amorphous spectrum of its existence and the Nobel as an attestation of greatness and expert mastery is all the much better for this award. Congratulations to you, sir. You inspire.
It comes with a shared pride to see Abdulrazak Gurnah awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. To see a lifetime of work appreciated. There is always the hope that a day will come when wins like these are no longer recognized for being “firsts” for a group of people. When this is taken for granted. That Abdulrazak is a great writer and we are happy he won. When good writing, important writing, is rewarded for what it is. Today is a good day. I am happy.
Cutting to the chase now, Abdulrazak Gurnah is a thoughtful, deep and serious writer who has devoted his life to the craft of writing. It feels great to have the prize come to Africa, and such an African, again. Our stories are being told by some of the finest storytellers on earth, and this award simply amplifies the pertinence of what we want the world to know.
Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Nobel should be celebrated. It is a major achievement for a prize, which, as Bhakti Shringarpure, co-founder of Radical Books Collective, characterizes it, has “always favored the whitest and the most European of all literature.” I don’t have to repeat the statistics here, but they are abysmal: 4 black winners, 6 Africans (two of them white South Africans and a white Zimbabwean), and the first African only won one in 1986.
As a result, not surprisingly, initial appreciations of Gurnah’s win, particularly on social media, have played up his racial identity; that is his Africanness and Blackness. That is fine, but Gurnah is from Zanzibar, an island nation (now in a confederation with Tanzania) that is at the crossroads of the Indian Ocean, Arabia, and Africa. And, as a Tanzanian friend reminded me, mainlanders and Zanzibaris exchanged words online over who could claim him. Even more significantly, Gurnah himself has fought these categories. And as we’ve learned in the last few days, the politics of publishing, especially some of the parochialism of the US, is again being exposed. Lily Saint, the literary scholar, tweeted right after his win: “The US literati’s silence on Twitter re Gurnah’s Nobel win is an admission of ignorance by omission, without the willingness to reckon with the reasons for that ignorance.”
Gurnah’s award proves how central highly-texture African writing is to the idea of World Literature. His imagination radiates from Zanzibar, which is both a “small place” and a global nexus saturated in centuries of encounters at the intersection of the continent and the Indian Ocean, and Gurnah’s writing has always encapsulated this phenomenon by boldly telling the most intimate and locally-inflected stories. He writes with the confidence that Zanzibar is the center of its own world, and a portal into understanding the great crises of our time – migration, civil unrest, ecological precarity.
My hope with Gurnah’s recognition as this year’s Nobel laureate is that the world will more willingly turn its gaze towards Africa and be more open to accepting and engaging with the stories that we have to tell on this continent.
Richard Ali A Mutu K.
Text in French:
Le choix porté cette année sur l’auteur tanzanien, le professeur Abdulrazak Gurnah, comme Nobel de littérature est très significatif pour nous et cela se justifie par la joie immense et la fierté que nous avons tous ressenti une fois que son nom a été cité! Écrivains et jeunes écrivains du Congo-Kinshasa, nous remercions le comité Nobel pour ce choix et félicitons vivement l’heureux lauréat qui, pour nous, à coté d’autres grands noms de littérature du continent, devient un vrai modèle et source de fierté pour cette passion des mots qui nous singularise et surtout l’engagement dans l’écriture qui devrait souvent nous caractériser. Que vive Abdulrazak !!!
Text in English:
The choice of the Tanzanian author, Professor Abdulrazak Gurnah, as this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature is very significant for us and is justified by the immense joy and pride we all felt once his name was mentioned! Writers and young writers from Congo-Kinshasa, we thank the Nobel Committee for this choice and congratulate the lucky winner who, for us, alongside other great names of literature from the continent, becomes a true model and source of pride for this passion for words that sets us apart and especially the commitment in writing that should often characterize us. Long live Abdulrazak!!!
It’s so incredible. I was lucky to interview Gurnah a long time ago in Zanzibar. For me, it’s his unwillingness to compromise and produce works that have more mainstream Western readability and continue with his amazingly immersive East African Coastal worlds and their subtle complexities while all the time talking to ongoing contemporary postcolonial debates on migration and movement and being rewarded for it that I’m so happy about. It tells me that I can continue doing my own thing.
This was a surprise but a well-deserved win. I say surprise because when we speak of African writers or East African writers, for that matter, Gurnah is not among the first to come to mind. But he has been working quietly and consistently over the years. He now has his time in the sun as Nobel laureate and headliner for this year’s Ake festival. In terms of what the Nobel committee described as “his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fates of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents,” I believe that much of Gurnah’s work stems from trauma brought about by the forceful departure from his homeland and being “twice Othered” as persecuted Arab and refuge seeking African. That trauma and the experience of exile and seeking refuge have informed his works. As a postcolonial writer, Gurnah chose a more nuanced narrative as his way of writing back to the empire in books like Paradise and By the sea, the two I am familiar with. In Paradise, as Yusuf journeys to the Congo with Aziz’s caravan one seems to be reading a new version of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness but without the absence. While Achebe chose a polemical response to Conrad, Gurnah chose a less strident and direct approach which, as we now see, is also an equally valid response.
As an African writer living in the diaspora, I am inspired by Professor Abdulrazak Gurnah’s life story and the unflinching gaze of his art. Over the past week, much has been said about obscurity. I think this is a win for possibilities.
I’m absolutely thrilled to hear that Abdulrazak Gurnah has won the Nobel Prize in Literature. His sensitive exploration of belonging, his keen eye for how power affects human relationships, his beautifully crafted sentences, and his humor drew me to his novels and made me a devoted reader of his. It really is so wonderful to see him recognized in this way. (It doesn’t hurt that he’s also one of the nicest writers I’ve ever met!) If you’re new to his work, I recommend starting with By the Sea and Paradise. (Originally posted on Instagram).
As the first black writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature since Toni Morrison in 1993, Gurnah’s win is a tremendous achievement. In addition to introducing his work to a larger audience, I hope the prize will lead people to pay more attention to Tanzanian writers as well as the immense body of work produced in Kiswahili.
Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse
As an East African, I am immensely happy that Gurnah’s stories will be given a wider audience à travers le monde. As a francophone, knowing how hard it is to find Gurnah’s books translated in French, I can only hope that this Nobel will eventually catch the interest of french speaking publishers.
I’ve been dancing and drinking. This is as unexpected a moment as it is beautiful and wonderful but also special for East African literature. Will this do? This moment, this recognition are the blocks that bolster our self-belief and determination. It is such perfect timing when Africa writing is enjoying a renaissance that writers who have been nourished by Gurnah’s work will be thinking, ‘I can do that.’
Sarah Ladipo Manyika
Congratulations to Abdulrazak Gurnah on winning the Nobel Prize for Literature! May Gurnah’s win be an inspiration to all writers who quietly and consistently—often in the absence of recognition—dedicate themselves to writing the important untold stories.
Africa in Dialogue’s Fiction Interviewer, Saliha Haddad, had an interview with Abdulrazak Gurnah about his novel, Afterlives, earlier this year. Their conversation, titled “The Retrieval of Life after Trauma,” left a lasting impression on me, just as Gurnah’s work has done over the years. In response to a question about love being present in a story that has “very harsh subjects” at its core, Gurnah said: “It is one of the things that keeps people going: affection and small kindnesses that we extend to each other even in the most difficult times.” On Gurnah receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature, Haddad said to me, “I’m happy that a writer from Africa received the Prize. With all the great talent we have, awarding him feels much like awarding all these amazing talents.”
As we celebrated Gurnah’s momentous win, another team member, Creative Nonfiction Interviewer, Adhiambo Edith Magak, was on her way to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to attend the 4th edition of the African Writers Conference. How serendipitous that the awards were being held in the home country of the newly-announced Nobel Prize laureate! I am proud to lead a team of interviewers who engage, daily, with the work of African writers. This win feels personal for us as curators, an affirmation of what Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka said to Brittle Paper in his response to Gurnah’s win, to which we collectively raise our glasses: “May the tribe increase!”
For decades Abdulrazak Gurnah has been writing novels and essays that have pushed back against historical erasures. His books shift the narrative lens of history to center those who have been written out of textbooks and ignored in global conversations about colonialism and migration. In doing so, he has helped to reshape what we know of the world.
Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Nobel win is already doing important work in swiveling the eyes of the literary and publishing worlds towards Africa, a powerhouse of creative richness, especially in literature. The uncertainties about which laureates hail from the continent (Naguib Mahfouz was left out of a lot of the initial reports), and the question of why towering figures such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Nuruddin Farah and Chinua Achebe have been overlooked all point to the need for the compass needle to swing in this direction. So, we celebrate Gurnah with delight, and I personally dream of one day seeing Ivan Vladislavić’s name up there.
Congratulations to Abdulrazak Gurnah on such a significant win. One of my favorite writers, his work is a tool of resistance and radical compassion. His writing, which exhorts us to see one another, touches not only Africans on the continent and in the diaspora, but all people in the world. I hope that this win is yet another push (although not yet enough) for our writing to be not only “African literature,” but also “writing in the world of literatures,” with the aim of making the world more imaginative, a bit more human, and enriched by our stories.
It was pleasantly surprising to hear the news about the Nobel Prize honoring Gurnah, an author originally from a country that is often overlooked when it comes to African Literature. As a young African writer, I know first-hand how often African writers are ignored and barely supported, while expected to compete and do well despite the sidelining. Congratulations to Professor Gurnah for this incredible feat. It is so well deserved! May his incredible work continue to educate and shine throughout the world.
My first reading rebellion was to look away from literature that had little familiarity with my own life, to turn towards African writing, where I found a plethora of incredible writers, writing across the continent, across the diaspora. My second reading rebellion was to look away from that rebellion, to rebel against my own rebellion, to find something else. Then I thought something on the edges, but there’s no such thing, everything is the center of someone else’s existence. This is how I arrived at Abdulrazak Gurnah’s By the Sea. Gurnah’s Nobel Prize win is, thus, the needed violent jerking of reading habits, an evidence of other writing. Foremost, this win is for an author with an excellent oeuvre, which is now in the limelight, as it should.
When I heard Abdulrazak Gurnah won the Nobel Prize for Literature, I was proud in that sentimental — though not especially useful — way in which I am always happy to hear of an honor bestowed upon an African. The stronger feeling, however, was one of embarrassment because I had never read his work, nor had I even encountered his name, in spite of my own position as an African reader and writer concerned with precisely the same questions of belonging, memory and dignity about which Gurnah writes.
There is a sadness in this for me. I understand my ignorance to be a function of a creeping laziness, an intellectual incuriosity that is a function of many factors including time and a sort of inevitable narrowing that creeps into our reading practice over time. I see clearly in this moment that I have come to rely too heavily on simply reading what I happen to come across in the mainstream media — in the big magazines and papers of America. Gurnah’s win is a reminder to myself of the necessity to seek, to search, to look for texts that are not circulating in the obvious places. At the same time of course there is in this award the thrill and excitement of “discovery”— even if as is always the case with discovery—Gurnah’s books have been here all the time.
I salute the Nobel’s jury who, beyond the Tanzanian author Abulrazak Gurnah, rewards and honors African intellectuals. But the African continent also has intellectual women among its ranks. I hope that, one day, a female writer from Black Africa will enter the pantheon of Nobel laureates.
Abdulrazak Gurnah has made history in many ways with this award. He is the first Black winner of the award since Toni Morrison in 1993, the second Black African person after Wole Soyinka and the first East and Southern African. His achievement has been received with unabashed joy by the literary communities in the region who have embraced one of their own winning the most sought-after prize in world literature.
I am so thrilled with the news of Professor Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Nobel Prize win. I was lucky to meet him when I was a graduate student at the University of Kent, where he was one of my teachers. He is an inspiring literary figure: a gifted novelist and brilliant scholar of postcolonial African literature. He is a quiet force of nature, and rightly so, getting his due recognition.
To see Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah win the world’s highest award for literature was a surprise for many people. Indeed, Tanzanian literature is not the best known of African literature. This nomination is a great opportunity to highlight this literature, and also an inspiration to all young African novelists around the world. African stories told by Africans have their place in the great international literary family. Afrolivresque.com congratulates Abdulrazak Gurnah for this great achievement.
Dear Gurnah, the distinction you have just received marks a symbol of Hope; the voice of Youth is raised to praise the opportunity you mean, as writing is becoming more than a passion in our lives. We thank you for the effort and patience you represent. This Nobel Prize is a new dawn that we promise to cherish and make greater with more quality in our books. Thank you for simply being our spark through the night. Congratulations!
In awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature to Abdulrazak Gurnah, the Swedish Academy has toed a familiar line: according recognition to relatively unknown but undeniably consequential writers. Gurnah’s oeuvre is magisterial on several levels, his career distinguished, his fiction invested with moral gravitas and sustained excellence of craft, even if he doesn’t have the fame and breadth of a writer like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o–one of my favorite writers and a perennial odds makers’ contender for the Nobel. By any measure, Gurnah is a worthy addition to Africa’s roster of laureates: Wole Soyinka, Naguib Mahfouz, Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee. I celebrate this honor to a writer of dazzling talent.
Mukoma wa Ngugi
This is a huge recognition for African literature and East African writing. Certainly I would have been happier if my father, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o had won and brought the medal to our hometown, Limuru but Africa is home and this a great milestone for the African literary tradition. A warm and hearty congratulations to Gurnah, who I should point out was on the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize’s board of trustees until a few weeks ago. We should have begged him to stay on!
Soyinka. Morrison. Gurnah. Three black Nobel Laureates in Literature in my lifetime, across the life of these Prizes first awarded in 1901. While whole-heartedly celebrating this win by Zanzabari novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah – whose incantatory and deeply affecting writing spans ten tomes, deliciously inflected by mother tongues from Swahili to Arabic – I truly hope this moment is emblematic of a sea change. A sign of bigger wins and greater recognition for the deep well of literary talent in Africa and its diaspora.
The prize shining a light on Abdulrazak Gurnah, whose wide recognition is long overdue, is nothing short of a gift to us readers across the world.
Another great win that illustrates the richness of literary thought and practice that flows from the continent.
Quite by serendipity, allowing mostly his work–most especially, Paradise–to speak for him, Gurnah’s Nobel Prize honour is a testament to the power of the craft trumping showmanship. This is a writer who embodies the writer’s space with a singularity of purpose like few do. I’m beyond joyful!
Over here in Stockholm, it has been interesting getting “congratulations” from friends and colleagues! It feels like WE have all won something. It is particularly refreshing to have someone with such grace and humility win. I am Nigerian and yet I have celebrated as if I were his next-door neighbor once upon a time in Zanzibar. I even cooked jollof rice. I have since ordered his books for our school library.
What a brilliant win for Abdulrazak Gurnah and African literature! Congratulations on the great achievement.
I’d like to think that Gurnah’s win would allow us all a moment to meditate on the notion of movement—upward movement, we often hope for. We might think of this in terms of migration, immigration, asylum seeking, etc. Such movements often come with human rights violations when those in power seek to prevent the movement. In that sense, in discussing Gurnah’s win, we cannot help but engage, also, with the idea of reparations (as a colleague of mine puts it, “the point where debt and guilt meet”). Certainly, by choosing Gurnah, the Nobel Committee is making an important statement about movement. (You decide what the statement is), which is all just to say that Gurnah’s win is an important statement, not just for Tanzania, or for the continent, but for the world as a whole.
A wonderful moment for Africa, for literature, and for black people. Gurnah has been writing with quiet force since the eighties. Very proud of his achievement.
When I read Gurnah’s Paradise a few years ago, I was struck by his powerful voice, his unflinching prose, and his characters that are full of soul. His stories, like many others, is why I included a lot of African writers as required reading for the Introduction to Literature course I teach freshmen and sophomore students. And it has been such a joy seeing how my students have responded to these stories and the in-depth critical analyses our conversations have produced. Gurnah’s winning feels like an icing. I shouted when I heard the news. He is a thoughtful writer who explores themes of colonialism, migration, love, and family—themes we discussed, alongside many others, during class conversations. I feel so proud. I am so glad. I look forward to teaching his work and more like his next spring.
I was so excited when I heard the news. I’ve read and enjoyed quite a few of his novels and now the whole world is going to get the opportunity to do the same.
It is exciting to have an African win this year. Regardless of how we feel about foreign prizes, it feels like a brother or sister won something significant. And that leaves an automatic smile on one’s face. While most people of African descent have been just as excited as I am, there have been questions about Mr Gurnah, and a so-called “obscurity.” Many of us write because we are driven to, because we have something we think is important to say, for the love of language. Many of us will write, obscurity or fame notwithstanding. But, I thought to myself that it is surely a dream, a beautiful dream, to wake up one morning and realize that others see, indeed the whole world sees the gift you are, that you probably always knew of, that your writing bears. Surely there is something African about that.
E. C. Osondu
I remember exactly where I was when I heard that Abdulrazak Gurnah had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I immediately posted a picture of his novels in my collection on Twitter. It was like hearing that a team you have always admired had won both the Premier League championship and the Champions League, to borrow a soccer analogy. I read Paradise, years ago—Gurnah’s Booker shortlisted novel—and the only word that describes it is “radioactive ” because the story has not left me after all these years. It accomplishes in less than 250 pages what many novels twice its size are unable to do. Speaks to colonialism, debt peonage, tribal antagonism and illicit love and rootlessness. For those who claim they’ve never heard of him—alas you now have a chance to redeem yourselves by reading his magisterial novels. Again, Africa wins!
Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
There is something so poignant in the Nobel Prize for Literature’s selection of Abdulrazak Gurnah to be awarded their 2021 prize. Poignant because he is one of the quiet toilers at the anvil of art, whose self-effacing gentleness, his courtliness does not seek to attract attention to itself and conceals his stature as a literary giant. I can imagine that he will be the most startled at having been spotted and in such a dramatic manner. It is beautiful that more of the world will get to encounter and experience his works with their quiet subversiveness, their casual affirmation of the long history of African cosmopolitanism, of an African oceanic imaginary that is so often neglected or ignored, in his tenderness to flawed and very human characters, his lyrical stylisation, and the storytelling that implants a long resonance in the reader’s heart. His is a panoptic vision where most can find aspects of themselves, their contents and discontents. There is something of the family win in this choice, for Professor Gurnah has so gently, unwaveringly guided, nurtured, supported, cheered on so many new writers, doing so quietly and never failing to offer his endorsement as they set out on assorted literary paths. A heart-warming decision.
I was thrilled to learn of Gurnah’s Nobel Prize win because his work means a great deal to me. I first encountered his novel Paradise in my thirties, and I was furious that it had taken me so long to find him. I hope that this win means that his work will rise to the global prominence it has long deserved.
For far too long, the contributions of writers from regions outside of Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe have been minimized in the global literary landscape. It is my hope that Abdulrazak Gurnah’s much deserved Nobel Prize recognition heralds an expansive and more inclusive engagement with literatures by Continental and Diaspora African writers.
What a joy to see the Nobel Prize come to an African writer of such breadth, compassion and literary magnificence! 2021 is now officially a banner year for readers worldwide, as this prize shines a long-merited light on Abdulrazak Gurnah’s powerful books and their ability to bring humanity into deeper understanding and empathy with one another through brilliant storytelling which also works seamlessly as a vessel for conveying historical truths.
I am personally especially drawn to the way his books explore and honor the courage it takes to pursue that hunger for freedom; that desire to seek a new, more meaningful life by taking the risks and accepting the costs of becoming a migrant to another country and culture, just as my main character does in An Ordinary Wonder, and as I did by putting down roots first in the UK, and then in the United States.
I am also incredibly delighted to be participating, alongside many amazing writers, in one of the best festivals on the African continent and the entire planet; the Aké Arts and Book Festival. It is headlined this year by Abdulrazak Gurnah, and I very much look forward to his conversation with Maaza Mengiste. Hearty congratulations to Professor Gurnah on winning the 2021 Nobel Prize in literature!
Nii Ayikwei Parkes
Abdulrazak gave the keynote speech at the first African Book Festival we curated in London in 2012, and I was struck by how many people on our mailing list (for the African Writers’ Evening series) admitted that they had never read his work. I say “admitted,” because many readers of fiction from Africa would not admit to not having read Achebe, Okri, Ngugi, Gordimer or Soyinka; such is the level of importance attached to their work. Much of that importance comes not just from the work, but also the persistence with which their work is marketed in the West. Writers like Gurnah, whose work speaks to the complexity of African identities, the West has found difficult to market as it is too far from the monolithic idea of Africanness or European settler narratives that they are comfortable with. For me, that’s the true significance of Gurnah’s Nobel win. It means that the work of writers like Zoë Wicomb and Tahar Ben Jelloun, whose work mines similar complexities might now get more attention in the global market as Western publishers, notorious for trend chasing, seek to find the next big ‘African writer’.
Abdulrazak Gurnah is one of that rare breed of writers that is able to combine subtlety with nuance and incisiveness. He is one of the most subtle prose stylists in African literature and everything that he writes is suffused with an aura of newness, whether he is writing about his native Zanzibar, or as is often the case, about the many lands of European sojourn in which his characters find themselves. His Nobel Award is another win for African writing as a form of meticulous craftsmanship.
I’m so happy about Abdulrazak Gurnah winning the Nobel prize for literature. It’s such uplifting news amidst the dystopias of the past year. His work brings a cultural complexity to conversations about race, identity and belonging which have lately been dominated by a singular type of narrative. The award also shines a welcome light on the underemphasized breadth of writing grappling with the postcolonial experience. A treasure trove in every way.
Africa has some of the most exciting and complex stories to tell right now, and Gurnah is among the best storytellers.
Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah
It’s so great to have this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature go to an author who deals so incisively with social justice issues. Huge congratulations to Mr Gurnah, I am personally excited for all the people who are going to discover his work as a result of this win.
The Nobel Prize comes home. It so happens that this has been a period of extensive interviews and cultural encounters for me across continents. And my easiest question has always been in relation to the Arts, especially after being obliged to concede the bleak truths over a continent in permanent travail. To be able to respond that the Arts – and literature in particular – are well and thriving, a sturdy flag waved above depressing actualities by a young, confident generation has always made those conversations bearable, even combative. Now, unquestionably, my audiences will find themselves compelled to admit that I do not exaggerate. May the tribe increase!
My warmest congratulations to Prof. Abdulrazak Gurnah on this historic recognition of his decades-long work. He has used much of his considerable talent to evocatively explore the lives of everyday people who are often displaced by or carried on the sweep of history and so, in a sense, it is fitting that his name is now etched into history and will carry on, into the future, as more readers discover and migrate toward his work. He has joined a pantheon of African literary giants for us to look up to.
Congratulations to Mr Gurnah. I’m excited and pleased because more people will get to read his brilliant works on the impact of colonialism and what community and belonging means.
Nyuol Lueth Tong
My encounter with Abdulrazak Gurnah’s work, well-nigh a decade ago, was perhaps gratuitous. I was a rising junior undergrad at Duke University, and quite tired of philosophy and game theory. Boredom, the stern governess of the exiled, the displaced, or refugees—we wretched crumbs that fall through the cracks of history’s enjambments—led me to Perkins Library’s shelves and the African Fiction sections in particular. I browsed a little. The titles, to my Anglo-American philosophy major sensibility, were supposed to be depressing as ever: Things Fall Apart, Nervous Conditions, Weep Not, Child, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, Half of a Yellow Sun. I had read many of them before but I wanted to discover a new title, hopefully equally despondent and uncompromising in its evocation of misfortune and sorrow of whatever African history, consciousness, or frustrated dream. The search was rather brief: Desertion leapt at me in a short while. I read the thing overnight and understood very little. But the title—Desertion—has haunted me ever since. It’s uncomfortably ambiguous and categorically implicating. Desertion by who and of whom? I still can’t answer that question with any appreciable candor or conclusiveness. A writer’s writer, Gurnah’s impressive novels constitute an indispensable cartography of spaces otherwise considered shapeless, borderless, and even timeless. Not anymore.
In my hasty celebration of the win on twitter, I called Gurnah ‘Africa’s second Nobel Laureate in Literature’. I was wrong, of course, but the reason I made the mistake both shocked and fascinated me about what it said about the unconscious bias in my perception of African literature and its guiding lights. Still, in many ways, Gurnah’s win is historical in how it renews the relevant conversations about the denizens of this continent, and the complex dimensions of our humanity in relation with the larger world. Also, who doesn’t love a good surprise!
Uganda, FEMRITE join the rest of Africa and the world to recognize and celebrate the hard work and resilience of Abdulrazak Gurnah. His win is a natural response that confirms the sometimes denied truths about Africa’s literary canon. It will not be a surprise when more laureates come from the continent, for this is one of the pointers that when you look for something, you find it. His story of dislocation at a young age is a story of many African communities and beyond, a story of then and today, a story of continued human distress. Gurnah has held the light high; he will inspire generations, as only the fifth black writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Congratulations neighbors Tanzania.
On October 7th, I shared a Nobel Prize poster and rooted for the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami or the Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’O to win. Minutes later on WhattsApp, Nnamdi Anyadu and I argued on my choice of Haruki. He wanted Chimamanda Adichie.
Hours later, I was in a meeting and the television tuned to the BBC when the breaking news announced Abdulrazak Gurnah as the winner of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature. Nnamdi reached out to inform me that he is the headliner of this year’s Ake Festival.
I announced that Gurnah’s Nobel Prize is a win for Africa, more so as what many prefer to call “African literature” suffers neglect. It is saddening that a writer in the status of Abdulrazak Gurnah, who has written close to ten books, been shortlisted for The Booker Prize and who is an authority on Salman Rushdie and Ngugi would be unknown to the point that western journalists are quick to tag him “obscure.”
This revives the discourse on literature and its gatekeepers. That all the prominent publishers, critics, agencies, prizes and fellowships are in the west—which, like the proverbial Igbo god who holds both the yam and the knife, chooses who to cast their light on, who to sell to the world and who to validate or not—is troubling, to say the least.
Therefore, Abdulrazak Gurnah’s win should awaken Africans. We need to build a stronger literary industry in Africa with platforms that promote and market our best writers and artists to the world, without depending on the generosity of western journalists, academics and prizes.
I am delighted that this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature went to Abdulrazak Gurnah. It is an impressive win for African literature, and it is worth celebrating across the continent. I never knew that Gurnah briefly lived in Nigeria at one time until my doctoral supervisor at the University of Alberta, Dr. Lahoucine Ouzgane, mentioned it while we were discussing the novels of Chinua Achebe and Tayeb Salih a few years ago. Anyway, I remember reading Gurnah’s short story titled “Cages” about a shy shopkeeper and a self-assured maid while working on my short story “Rain.” Not much happens in his story by way of drama, but what I find striking is how Gurnah conveys through austere and pithy prose so much insight into the intensities of belonging and how longings contour places.
Equally remarkable is how Gurnah presents the dynamic between the shopkeeper and the maid in a subtle and affecting manner such that we can relate to the dilemma each faces. That story helped me to think deeply about the confluence of desire and belonging. Later, I would come to recognize these qualities of subtlety and poignancy in Gurnah’s fictions about longing and belonging, home and migration. His writing speaks to our times, especially these times of anti-immigration and the fear of foreigners. Doubtless, Gurnah has a fantastic body of work, but of singular importance to me is that his vision of humanity is oceanic. For me, this epitomizes a cosmopolitan ethos that every writer should evince in their relationship with the world.Buki Papillon – Author of An Ordinary Wonder.
That it took so long for Abdulrazak Gurnah’s work to be acknowledged, at 73 years of age, almost made my heart drop. With Gurnah’s Nobel Prize win, African literature is sitting where it deserves to sit, at the top of literary discourse told by Africans and not whitewashed by Europeans or any other continent for that matter trying to diminish its relevance, depth of stories, varied perspectives, riches in its narrative and its capacity to retell our story of colonialism as seen through our eyes for the very first time and not the tinted colored narratives colonial apologists will have us believe.
We’ve been celebrating Gurnah’s win since the news first came in. This son of East Africa has made us all proud and put our region back on the map. It’s a reminder of just how critical our voices are and I can already see young writers from East Africa feeling encouraged by this. Gurnah’s work resonates with many of us and it’s great to see it receive the global recognition it deserves.
For years, we’ve waited for the Nobel in Literature to return to Africa, not as a validation of the place of African literature in the world or anything of the sort, but rather as an acknowledgement of it. Gurnah absolutely deserves it. He’s an incredible writer whose works are also accessible. I’m glad for the widened readership he’s sure to gain.
Abdulrazak Gurnah, congratulations! For African authors all over the world, it is a significant honor to have him win at a time like this. It is always encouraging to see awards given to people who are simply expressing themselves through their art and allowing their writing to tell their stories. This only serves to highlight the continent’s enormous and diverse potential. Greatness is in every corner of this continent, and when we leave, we carry it with us. Gurnah is a great writer, Nobel Prize or not, but we need awards like this to help those who are not familiar with his work, see how hugely talented he is.
I am so humbled and privileged to call Abdulrazak Gurnah a friend. He has been an older brother since the first minute we met in 1996 in Brussels. I reviewed two of his three novels available in French and helped republish the third in paperback because I admire his books and want to share my sheer pleasure with French speaking readers. Characters such as Yusuf, Daud, Martin or Rehana cast on us a halo of eternity.
I have many memories, private and public, that I keep for me. And I still recall these three magnificent days in the HKW halls, Berlin, among fellow African writers and artists including Abdulrazak, Warsan Shire and the late Binya. We rushed from the four corners of the world to celebrate another giant of Africa: Nuruddin Farah. Our voices, ideas and laughter: one splendid East African tapestry.
Figures such as Derek Walcott and Abdulrazak Gurnah convinced me that small lands are also inhabited by the fertile dragons of transfiguration and imagination. That’s why I keep working hard. One word at a time. And, yes, the Nobel returns home. Asante sana, Abdulrazak! Hasta la vista!
It’s a joy, and frankly a relief, to hear the news of this year’s laureate. Reading By the Sea was, for me, an introduction to a writer who has that rare capacity, to make a place never visited seem as real as one’s own neighbourhood. A global writer whose restrained, cautious, and ever-thoughtful prose remain with a reader years after the first encounter. As a junior editor at Penguin, I asked Professor Gurnah many years ago to introduction Ngũgĩ’s A Grain of Wheat as it was brought into the Modern Classics. His generosity, both in his response to me and in ho\is words on another East African writer we both admired, were both encouragement and balm. Lucky are the readers who are discovering him for the first time. And those who have known his work, and it’s great worth, from some time, will feel, as I do, blessed and buoyed by this recognition.
I came late to Abdulrazak Gurnah as will sometimes happen with the work of great writers who are on the gentle side, as he is. Paradise was the first book of his I read and I kicked myself for my late arrival. I have since enjoyed Gravel Heart and of course his latest, Afterlives. This came as a surprise because of course, we are now so used to names that are on some list by bookies but a most delightful and beautiful surprise. I am also so delighted that Lola Shoneyin was inspired enough to have him as headliner for Aké Festival this year. This win is not only for him alone as it is for many who get the writing done and the books out. In giving it, the Academy said “we see you and your work.” What better honour for a tireless writer such as he? Now I shall be hunting down the rest of his books.
Abdulrazak Gurnah’s win is a very popular one that’s been met with widespread rejoicing. It is due recognition for a long-distance runner who really kept the flame burning with solid work over so many years, even in the face of muted though respectful acclaim, just quietly doing the work. And let’s remember that much of his career has been to soldier through before the current boom in African writing, contributing to the presence of African letters in the UK especially, a bridge between writing on the continent and Black British writing. This win is a deserved honour for his immense contributions but also a reminder that African writing is not domiciled in just one or two corners of our vast continent. In a week of wonderful news for people of African descent on medical breakthroughs on Sickle Cell Anemia and Malaria, a new African Nobel laureate is just the tonic.
Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Nobel Prize speaks to the diversity of creative sensibilities on the continent and its diaspora, even those voices often rendered inaudible by the forces of institutional recognition in the global literary marketplace. But the fact that Wikipedia, which is one of the spaces I routinely check to gauge the visibility of African writers, contains very scant information on Gurnah is telling and digitally reiterates that lack of attention accorded to his excellent body of works. Hopefully, his page on that platform will come alive, but it also presses the urgency of making more explicit in our digital moment the multiple narrative traditions across Africa. Many African thinkers and cultural producers are producing ideas that need to become more visible. We need to be strategically invested in this process ourselves. Taking more seriously how digital infrastructures shape the politics of visibility in knowledge production is one way to start.