Over the past few years, there have been shocking images of the human tragedy unfolding on European shores with scores of refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Africa. There are frequent incidents of drowning, and Europe, barring Germany and Sweden, has appeared reluctant to open its doors to people fleeing their land for a variety of reasons from poverty to war. The Swedish Academy has awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature to an author who has chronicled the refugee experience and colonialism’s harsh impact in all his books. Abdulrazak Gurnah, one of the most eloquent African writers, won the top prize “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”
In an interview to Adam Smith of the Nobel Prize Outreach, the 73-year-old Mr. Gurnah called out the “miserliness” of some in Europe to refugees, “as if there isn’t enough to go around”. Europeans streaming out into the world is nothing new, he pointed out, and stressed that people who are seeking a life in Europe do not come empty-handed. “A lot of them are talented, energetic people, who have something to give. You’re not just taking people in as if they’re poverty-stricken nothings, but, think of it as you’re first providing succour to people who are in need, but also people who can contribute something,” he said.
Flight from homeland
Mr. Gurnah was 18 when he had to leave the new republic of Tanzania which erupted in violence after gaining freedom from British colonial rule in the 1960s. The riots, targeted against the ethnic community Mr. Gurnah belonged to, disturbed the peace in a land known for its diversity and varied influences, British, African, Portuguese, Arab and Indian.
He began writing when he was 21 years old in England, choosing English as his medium instead of Swahili. The “theme of the refugee’s disruption” runs through Mr. Gurnah’s 10 novels and short stories.
His best-known novel, Paradise (1994), was short-listed for the Booker Prize and tells the story of 12-year-old Yusuf who is uprooted from his village and ‘pawned’ to a rich uncle to pay off his father’s debts. Mr. Gurnah’s historical fiction talks about communities at war, troubled trading routes and the difficulties of adolescence through Yusuf. The rites-of-passage story plays out in an Africa about to be taken over by colonialism and violence. His latest, Afterlives , long-listed for the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction 2021, traces the lives of Ilyas and Hamza in the backdrop of the Germans, British, French and the Belgians drawing their maps and dividing Africa. It’s the beginning of the 20th century and the conflict in Europe has a devastating impact on colonised east Africa. There’s an overriding sense of loss in all his books. In his 2017 novel, Gravel Heart , the protagonist recalls his father feeding him candyfloss. “That was the doorstep of the house I was born in… the house I abandoned because I was left with little choice. In later years, in my banishment, I pictured the house inch by inch. I don’t know if it was lying nostalgia or painful proper longing, but I paced its rooms and breathed its smells for years after I left.”
Being a refugee
His works are underpinned by a restlessness of a migrant, torn away from familiar surroundings, culture, traditions and language, and having to adapt to everything new. Perhaps the most autobiographical of his novels is Pilgrims Way (1988) in which the protagonist, Daud, faces the travails of being a refugee in an alien land. The story begins in a pub where Daud has bought himself a half-pint of “watery and sour” beer, as an old man grins at him. “Daud thought of the grin as the one that won an empire. It was the pick-pocket’s smile, given tongue in cheek and intended to distract and soothe the innocent prey while the thief helped himself to the valuables.”
The Nobel Prize for Literature has had its share of controversies, but critics say the Swedish Academy, which has been accused of not looking beyond Europe, has got it right this time. The prize should help Mr. Gurnah and his poignant writing about Empire and migration acquire new readers, like Svetlana Alexievich’s Nobel did in 2015. Hopefully, his novels will also be finally translated into Swahili.