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Tanzanian novelist Gurnah wins 2021 Nobel Prize for depicting impact of colonialism and migration

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STOCKHOLM, Oct. 7 (Reuters) – Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah has won the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the plight of refugees,” the organization that awarded them said Thursday .

Based in Britain and writing in English, Gurnah, 72, joins Nigerian Wole Soyinka as the only two non-white writers from sub-Saharan Africa to have won what is widely regarded as the world’s most prestigious literary award.

Her novels include “Paradise”, set in colonial East Africa during World War I and shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction, and “Desertion”.

“The itinerant characters of Gurnah in England or on the African continent find themselves in the chasm between cultures and continents, between the life left behind and the life to come,” Anders Olsson, chairman of the Nobel committee of Swedish Academy literature.

“I dedicate this Nobel Prize to Africa and Africans and to all my readers. Thank you ! Gurnah tweeted after the announcement.

Gurnah told Reuters by phone that the price was “such a complete surprise that I really had to wait to hear the announcement before I could believe it.”

He left Africa as a refugee in the 1960s amid the persecution of citizens of Arab descent on the Indian Ocean archipelago of Zanzibar, who would unite with the mainland of Tanganyika to form the Tanzania. He was only able to return in 1984, seeing his father shortly before his death.

Its selection for Highest Honor in Literature comes at a time of global tensions around migration, as millions flee violence and poverty in places like Syria, Afghanistan and Central America, or are displaced by climate change, often taking enormous risks during their passage.

Olsson said the committee’s choice was not a response to recent headlines and that he has been following Gurnah’s work for years.

In an interview later Thursday with Reuters, Gurnah, however, expressed astonishment at the resolve and courage of those who have traveled so far to flee their own country for a new life.

“It’s kind of constructed as if it’s immoral – you know they use that term ‘economic migrant’ – as if being an economic migrant is some kind of a crime. Why not?”

“Millions of Europeans over the centuries have left their homes for precisely this reason and invaded the world for precisely this reason,” he said in his garden in the English city of Canterbury. Read more

“CONSCIOUSNESS BREACH OF THE CONVENTION”

Although Swahili is his mother tongue, English became Gurnah’s literary tool when he started writing at the age of 21.

Abdulrazak Gurnah is reading for a Canterbury Cathedral project in Canterbury, Britain in June 2021, in this screenshot obtained from a video on social media. Video recorded in June 2021. CANTERBURY CATHEDRAL CHAPTER / via REUTERS

He drew inspiration from Arabic and Persian poetry as well as the Koran, but the English-speaking tradition, from William Shakespeare to VS Naipaul, will particularly mark his work, the Swedish Academy said.

“That said, it must be emphasized that it knowingly breaks with convention, upsetting the colonial perspective to highlight that of the indigenous populations,” said the academy, a 235-year-old Swedish language institute that awards the prize and the 10 million Swedish kronor ($ 1.14 million) that goes with it.

It was the second year in a row that the Nobel Prize for Literature had been awarded to a writer in English, and the fourth of the last six, an unusually long period for the prize to be dominated by a single language.

In an interview with the Academy, Gurnah said that many Europeans misunderstood the idea of ​​migration.

“When a lot of these people who come in come out of both need, and also because, quite frankly, they have something to give,” he said. “They don’t come empty-handed. A lot of them are talented, energetic people with something to give.”

“So that could be another way of looking at it. You don’t just accept people like they’re miserable nonsense.

Eliah Mwaifuge, professor of literature at the University of Tanzania in Dar es Salaam, said Gurnah “really deserves this award”, although the writer’s work is better known abroad than in Tanzania itself.

“AN INCREDIBLE UNDERSTANDING”

Peter Morey, professor in the Department of English Literature at the University of Birmingham, highlighted Gurnah’s “fearless understanding of the connections between people and places and how they change over time in the face of limits and conceived boundaries. to separate them “.

“In one of his novels he describes the memory of exile as being ‘a dark, empty warehouse with rotten planks and rusty ladders where you spend time rummaging through abandoned goods,” “Morey said. .

Since Soyinka became the first African to win the award in 1986, it has been won by Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz and three white African writers – South Africans Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee, and Doris Lessing, who grew up in the Southern Rhodesia under British rule, now Zimbabwe.

The previous winners are mainly novelists like Ernest Hemingway, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison, poets like Pablo Neruda, Joseph Brodsky and Rabindranath Tagore, or playwrights like Harold Pinter and Eugene O’Neill.

But writers have also won for works that include short fiction films, history, essays, biographies or journalism. Winston Churchill won for his memoirs, Bertrand Russell for his philosophy and Bob Dylan for his lyrics. Last year’s award was won by American poet Louise Gluck.

Beyond the prize money and prestige, the Nobel Prize in Literature attracts great attention for the winning author, often boosting book sales and introducing lesser-known laureates to a wider international audience.

($ 1 = SEK 8.7856)

Reporting by Simon Johnson and Niklas Pollard in Stockholm and Justyna Pawlak in Warsaw; additional reporting by Johan Ahlander in Gothenburg, Guy Faulconbridge in London and Terje Solsvik in Oslo; Editing by Peter Graff and Paul Simao

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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