The Nobel prize in literature has been awarded to the novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah, for his “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents”.
Gurnah, who grew up on one of the islands of Zanzibar and arrived in England as a refugee in the 1960s, has published 10 novels as well as a number of short stories. Anders Olsson, chair of the Nobel committee, said that the Tanzanian writer’s novels, from his debut Memory of Departure, about a failed uprising, to his most recent, the “magnificent”, Afterlives, “recoil from stereotypical descriptions and open our gaze to a culturally diversified East Africa unfamiliar to many in other parts of the world” No black African writer has won the prize since Wole Soyinka in 1986.
Afterlives, which tells of Ilyas, who was stolen from his parents by German colonial troops as a boy and returns to his village after years fighting in a war against his own people, was described in the Guardian as “a compelling novel, one that gathers close all those who were meant to be forgotten, and refuses their erasure”.
“In Gurnah’s literary universe, everything is shifting – memories, names, identities. This is probably because his project cannot reach completion in any definitive sense,” said Olsson. “An unending exploration driven by intellectual passion is present in all his books, and equally prominent now, in Afterlives, as when he began writing as a 21-year-old refugee.”
Worth 10m Swedish krona (£840,000), the Nobel prize for literature goes to the writer deemed to be, in the words of Alfred Nobel’s will, “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. Winners have ranged from Bob Dylan, cited for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”, to Kazuo Ishiguro “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world”.According to Ellen Mattson, who sits on the Swedish Academy and the Nobel committee: “Literary merit. That’s the only thing that counts.”
The Nobel winner is chosen by the 18 members of the Swedish Academy – an august and mysterious organisation that has made efforts to become more transparent after it was hit by a sexual abuse and financial misconduct scandal in 2017. Last year’s prize went to the American poet Louise Glück – an uncontroversial choice after the uproar provoked by the Austrian writer Peter Handke’s win in 2019. Handke had denied the Srebrenica genocide and attended the funeral of war criminal Slobodan Milošević.
The Nobel prize for literature has been awarded 118 times. Just 16 have gone to women, seven of those coming in the 21st century. In 2019, the Swedish academy promised the award would become less “male-oriented” and “Eurocentric”, but proceeded to give its next two prizes to two Europeans, Handke and Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk.