‘Shaped but not defined’ by circumstances

The ‘accidental’ author: we uncover the moving story behind the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature recipient Abdulrazak Gurnah.

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©Tolga Akmen/AFP

Abdulrazak Gurnah is a critically acclaimed author, lecturer, Tanzanian refugee and recipient of the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature. Gurnah hopes that this recognition leads to people discussing issues such as the refugee crisis and colonialism, both of which he personally experienced, and which remain central themes within his work.

Gurnah was “surprised and humbled” to be awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature, becoming the first Black African author to have won the award since Wole Soyinka in 1986, and only the fourth Black person to win the prize in its 120-year history.

Born in Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania, life became difficult for Gurnah following the instability surrounding Zanzibar’s independence from British colonial rule and the subsequent oppression and victimisation of citizens of Arab origin. After finishing school, when he was just 18 years old, Abdulrazak was forced to leave his family and homeland, and flee to England.

When Gurnah arrived in England, he recalls how the world was a different place. He was met with hostility and encountered, “bad words, ugly stares, and rudeness.”

“I came to England when these words, such as asylum seeker, were not quite the same – more people struggling and running from terror states.”

The hostile environment he encountered fueled Gurnah. Aged 21, despite having had virtually no access to Swahili literature in Zanzibar, he began writing – choosing to write in English rather than his mother tongue Swahili.

Although he never intended to become a writer, instead writing occasionally, it was homesickness which first sparked his passion.

“Writing [came] out of the situation that I was in, which was poverty, homesickness, being unskilled, uneducated. So out of that misery you begin to write things down. It wasn’t like: I’m writing a novel. But this kept growing, this stuff. Then it started to become ‘writing’ because you have to think and construct and shape and so on.”

Gurnah is the author of many short stories, essays and ten novels. Much of Gurnah’s work is set on the coast of East Africa; he has said that his homeland ‘always asserts itself in his imagination, even when he deliberately tries to set his stories elsewhere.’ In his mind he still lives there.

Gurnah says his characters are, “shaped but not defined” by circumstances, much like the author himself.

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