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Everything you need to know about Nobel Prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah

December 4th 2021

On the 7th of October the Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Abdulrazak Gurnah, celebrating his literary work for his focus on ‘the fate of the refugee between cultures and continents’. Ainehi Edoro, the founder of Brittle Paper, an online literary magazine for writers and readers of African literature, writes that at the news of Gurnah’s win ‘the African literary community erupted in jubilation’. But before the jubilation there was disbelieving confusion; Gurnah was initially convinced that the reported win was a prank.

This is perhaps because despite a long and successful career, Gurnah has not achieved the commercial success and sales that many previous winners of the prize have enjoyed prior to their win.

If, like many others, you have not had the pleasure of reading or hearing about Gurnah’s work before this month, then here are the crucial details that you need about the author and his literary career.

As one of the top picks by LoveMyRead of 2020 and a September selection, this is the LMR review of Afterlives, Gurnah’s most recent publication:

If you open your heart to it, this is one of those books that reaches into your soul and shakes it up for the better. It's a complex, nuanced, at once luxurious and heart-wrenching story about life in colonial Africa. This is a history badly underrepresented but told here in a way that sees the story from many different eyes. The grace with which Abdulrazak writes is astounding. This is not a read to race through; rather one whose every word we should take to heart.

Despite the clear power of Afterlives as a standalone novel, Kristen Roupenian in her article on Gurnah for The New Yorker, highlights the alienating impact that prestiges prizes have on literary oeuvres, as they elevate a single book above all others. She invites us to remember when we order or buy our copies of this year's prize-anointed novels:

‘We can use that opportunity to grab another book or two that might deepen our appreciation of Gurnah’s register—perhaps a collection of Kiswahili poetry or travel narratives, or “The Thousand and One Nights,” or a novel by another great East African writer, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o . . . or even Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure’

I too think that awards should be opportunities to discover new works, or to read around a particular author. The selection of each years’ winner reflects a crystallisation of a particular societal moment, as much as they reflect the (considerable) achievement of the author. It is possible to take the opportunity to engage, as Roupenian suggests, with the wider sea of influences that have contributed to an author’s developing voice and to the context that informs their writing. The major themes that evidently speak to this particular moment: displacement, belonging, migration, colonialism and its long, pernicious shadow, are clear concerns of Gurnah throughout his literary career. As the UK government creates an increasingly, and terrifyingly, hostile environment for migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, Gurnah’s work invites a careful reflection and insight into the experience of the migrant or refugee. Gurnah’s sudden spotlight is a broad invitation into a rich body of his work and the issues of displacement and ongoing impact of colonisation central both to his characters, and to our contemporary world.

Now that we have covered some of the themes of his work, all that remains to be answered is who is Gurnah and what else has he written?

The Basics:

Gurnah was born in 1948 in present day Tanzania. He arrived in England in 1968 as a refugee, having been forced to flee from the island of his birth due to the Zanzibar Revolution.

He studied at Christ Church College Canterbury, and completed his PhD thesis at the University of Kent in 1982. After a short stint lecturing at Bayero University Kano in Nigeria, Gurnah returned to the University of Kent as a professor of English and postcolonial literature, where he remained until his recent retirement in 2017.

His literary career has spanned five decades and produced 10 books and many short stories and essays. His 1994 novel Paradise was shortlisted for the Booker and Whitbread Prize and his 2001 novel By the Sea was longlisted for the Booker Prize.

A very short introduction to a great literary figure, the perfect way to sum up this brief overview is to redirect you to Ainehi Edoro’s literary magazine of African Literature. The editors at Brittle Paper have compiled the responses of 103 African writers to Gurnah’s win, these jubilant words of congratulation, celebration and insightful appreciation of Gurnah and his work are well worth a read:

Subscribe to LoveMyRead today to get your hands on a copy of this title and books just as brilliant delivered to your door every month.

Happy reading!

Anastasia & The LoveMyRead Team x

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