Nobel Prize for Literature Books

Among today’s finest novelists: Abdulrazak Gurnah

Abdulrazak Gurnah   | Photo Credit: Reuters

In 2000, the beginning of a new century, I arrived at Bloomsbury Publishing as editor-in-chief. The first thing I did was hire an assistant, a young woman called Chiki Sarkar, and with her help began the enterprise of building a list. My ambition was to find stories from all corners of the world that convey the complexity of history and human experience using the richness of the English language, a language that has been made and remade over centuries in different countries by different cultures.

One of the first manuscripts I received came to me from the great literary agent, Deborah Rogers. It was a novel called By the Sea. The author was the Zanzibar-born Abdulrazak Gurnah. It was a haunting story of colonialism and its aftermath, of asylum, friendship and betrayal. In 1967, the teenage Gurnah had fled Zanzibar, escaping the barbarities of the state, an experience which informed his writing life. By the Sea was his sixth novel; his fourth, Paradise, had been shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

I was delighted to get the chance to become Gurnah’s publisher; I had long admired his writing and this beautiful new novel was exactly what I wanted for my list.

We published By the Sea the following year. It received great critical acclaim, and together with another novel I published, The Death of Vishnu by Manil Suri, was longlisted for the Booker Prize. Neither made it to the shortlist, but that is the way of publishing — heartbreaks are part of a publisher’s daily life.

The wait

Gurnah takes his time to write each of his books. He was for many years professor of English and postcolonial literature at Kent University and had to fit writing around his professional duties. The five novels I’ve published came in five-year gaps: Desertion, The Last Gift, Gravel Heart and, last year, Afterlives.

Publishing what we call ‘literary fiction’ is not easy, and the subtler and more nuanced the work, the harder it is. Editors have to be able to live with disappointment and at the same time be the most optimistic people alive. I found it increasingly difficult to produce the sales I believed Gurnah should have. However, I believed that important literature such as Gurnah’s — stories about seismic political, economic, romantic events that uproot people and send them across oceans — will eventually find their way.

Gurnah had strong support from other writers, including Bloomsbury’s Aminatta Forna and Kamila Shamsie. I treasured that support, but could not understand why he wasn’t acclaimed as one of today’s finest novelists and a great African writer.

When I took on By the Sea, I was not to know that the concerns of that novel, the plight of refugees, would not recede, but grow and grow with a series of humanitarian crises worldwide, forcing people to risk everything in search of new lives.

The power of fiction

Fiction is one of the most powerful ways to absorb and understand world events, and Gurnah has for decades been writing such stories. Twenty years after publishing By the Sea, a new manuscript arrived, of Gurnah’s latest, Afterlives. In May last year, just months before its publication, the Black Lives Matter protests happened. I thought this is it, his moment has come. I was sure Gurnah would be included in the Booker list — this was an important and timely new novel from one of Africa’s greatest living writers, at this moment in history. Surely it would be included?

But it wasn’t. Neither did it make the Costa Prize list. It was longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction and shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for political fiction. And that was it. I had to face the fact that this writer I honoured and treasured, valued as highly as such other of my writers as Khaled Hosseini, George Saunders and Richard Ford, would perhaps never achieve the major acclaim he deserved. As the year drew to its end, I felt sad and defeated.

And then on the morning of October 7, my phone and email erupted. The news had broken that Abdulrazak Gurnah had won the Nobel Prize in Literature — the prize of prizes. This was the one I hadn’t dreamt of. It didn’t occur to me that the Nobel would look in his direction. But they did. Unknown to me, the Nobel committee had been tracking him for years. I was not, after all, alone in the wilderness.

Abdulrazak Gurnah pursues his creative path with courage and enormous talent and is now at last an internationally acclaimed author, something I’ve always wanted for him.

The writer was editor-in-chief of Bloomsbury Publishing for 20 years. She is now Executive Publisher.

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Printable version | Dec 8, 2021 7:35:33 PM |

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