Gurnah’s celebrated English-language novels include “By the Sea,” “Desertion” and “Paradise,” which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Whitbread Prize. The judges noted that “his stories are marked by the presence of the Quran or ‘Arabian Nights,’ and his English is patched with traces of Swahili, Arabic, Hindi and German.” He is the author of 10 novels, most recently “Afterlives” (2020).
In a statement, the Academy said, “Gurnah’s dedication to truth and his aversion to simplification are striking. His novels recoil from stereotypical descriptions and open our gaze to a culturally diversified East Africa unfamiliar to many in other parts of the world.”
Anders Olsson, the chair of the Nobel Committee, told reporters in Stockholm, that the committee had been following Gurnah’s work for decades. “Gurnah’s itinerant characters in England or on the African continent find themselves in the gulf between cultures, between the life left behind and the life to come,” Olsson said, “confronting racism and prejudice, but also compelling themselves to silence the truth or reinventing a biography to avoid conflict with reality.”
Olsson noted that Gurnah’s tone is “disillusioned and often austere,” but “he is a compassionate observer of the human predicament,” particularly in his portraits of young orphaned people and Black women.
Alexandra Pringle, Gurnah’s editor at Bloomsbury in the U.K., said, “It has been one of the great sadnesses and frustrations of my career that his work has not received the recognition it deserves. For years and years, he has told beautiful and powerful stories of the winds of politics, trade, love and war that blow people across continents. After 20 years of publishing him, of keeping the faith, I had almost given up hope. This is one of the happiest days of my life.”
Gurnah was 18 when he arrived in England as a refugee after the 1964 uprising on Zanzibar. Olsson said, “His early departure explains the central role of exile in all of his work, but also his lack of nostalgia for a more primitive pre-colonial Africa. His work gives us a vivid and very precise picture of another Africa not so well known for many readers: a coastal area in and around the Indian Ocean marked by slavery and shifting forms of repression under different regimes and colonial powers.”
Last fall, a review of “Afterlives” in the Guardian said that Gurnah asks us to consider “what can be salvaged when one of the consequences of colonialism is the deliberate exclusion of an African perspective from the archives? How do we remember, if we do not know what has been erased?”
In 2001, a review of Gurnah’s “By the Sea” in The Washington Post said the novelist had “created a remarkable voice, at once modest, dignified and sage.”
Before retiring from teaching, Gurnah was a professor at the University of Kent in Canterbury.
The literature award is given in recognition of an author’s body of work — not a particular book. The prize is worth approximately $1.14 million.
Each year, members of the Swedish Academy, professors of literature and language, previous Nobel Prize laureates and leaders of various writers’ organizations around the world are invited to secretly submit nominations for the literature prize. The winner must receive more than half the votes cast by members of the Academy.
The winner of 2021 Nobel Peace Prize will be announced Friday.
For the second year in a row, this year’s Nobel ceremony in Stockholm has been canceled because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.