The Nobel Prize in literature goes to a Black writer for the first time since 1993

Oct 7, 2021
Originally published on October 8, 2021 6:27 am

Zanzibar-born novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah won this year's Nobel Prize in literature.

"For his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents," the Swedish Academy announced Thursday morning.

The award comes with more than $1 million in prize money.

Gurnah was born in 1948. He was previously a professor of English and postcolonial literature at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England, until his retirement.

Gurnah has written 10 novels, including 1994's Paradise, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It tells the story of a boy, Yusuf, who's been pawned off by his father to a merchant to settle old debts. As Yusuf is taken through different parts of Africa, Gurnah's writing pushes back against previous Western takes on the continent. As NPR's book critic Alan Cheuse noted at the time, "No Heart of Darkness in these pages. Gurnah gives us a more realistic mix of light and dark, of beautiful forests, dangerous vines and snakes, and a patchwork of warring fiefdoms and wily traders right out of the Middle Ages."

The American poet Louise Glück won the 2020 Nobel Prize in literature.

The Swedish Academy often takes criticism for focusing too heavily on male, mainly Eurocentric writers. In its 120-year history, only 16 women have won the Nobel Prize in literature. Until today, the last Black person awarded the prize was Toni Morrison in 1993. Gurnah is the fifth writer from Africa to win — joining Wole Soyinka, Naguib Mahfouz, Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee.

The Swedish Academy does have plans to start increasingly diversifying laureate candidates next year, according to the Academy's Nobel Committee chair Anders Olsson. In a recent interview with The New Republic, Olsson said they plan on having experts in language areas the committee doesn't have a "deep competence" in (primarily, places in Africa and Asia), who will offer reports, presumably with a list of names worth considering.

In 2018, the prizes were postponed after Jean-Claude Arnault, a Swedish Academy member's husband, was accused of sexual misconduct and leaking academy information. Arnault was later sentenced to two years in prison for rape.

Other Nobel Prizes awarded so far this week include David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian in medicine, for their work in touch and temperature. Benjamin List and David Macmillan's research in building chemicals netted them the chemistry prize. And the prize for physics was split with one half going to Syukuro Manabe and Klaus Hasselmann for their studies in climate change, and the other half going to Giorgio Parisi for his work examining patterns in materials.

The Nobel Peace Prize will be announced Friday.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Nobel Prize in literature this year has gone to the writer Abdulrazak Gurnah. The Nobel Committee cited his, quote, "uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism." Gurnah was born in Zanzibar, and during the revolution in the 1960s, he fled to England as a student. As NPR's Andrew Limbong reports, a lot of his writing has to do with people feeling dislocated and lost without a home.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: The Nobel Prize does this thing where they call winners just as their names are being announced. And when Adam Smith from the Nobel Prize website called up Gurnah this morning, the timing was obviously not great.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADAM SMITH: The Nobel Prize...

ABDULRAZAK GURNAH: I'm sorry, but the calls are coming in. Can I just say something to this person?

SMITH: Of course you can.

LIMBONG: It was the BBC calling. But after that all got sorted out, Smith did ask Gurnah, as someone who writes about refugees and diaspora, how he saw the cultural divisions within the current refugee crisis in Europe.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GURNAH: I don't see that these divisions are either, you know, permanent or somehow insurmountable or anything like that.

LIMBONG: That's not to say these divisions are unimportant or even easy to get over.

LAILA LALAMI: The questions that are at the heart of his work is what happens when you have these moments of cross-cultural contact that happen with a power differential.

LIMBONG: Laila Lalami is a novelist, critic and big-time Gurnah fan.

LALAMI: Where it's not as if it's just two people from two different cultural backgrounds or racial backgrounds or religious backgrounds meeting, but what happens when that meeting is mediated by questions of political power?

LIMBONG: Abdulrazak Gurnah was born in 1948 in Zanzibar, an island off the coast of East Africa. He eventually moved to England, started writing, became a professor at the University of Kent. There, he gave a lecture in 2015 about the Indian Ocean and said the dominant narrative of his childhood home was the sea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GURNAH: From the upstairs window of the house we lived in then, you could see the dockside warehouses and the DOW harbor and beyond that, way out to sea. Many of the people in that part of town lived by the sea - fishermen, sailors or, less dangerously, merchants who traded the products of the sea.

LIMBONG: He grew up near people from India, Somalia, Yemen, England. Mohineet Kaur Boparai is a creative writing professor who just published a critical examination of all of Gurnah's novels. She says the beauty of his work is combining these big themes - the sea, colonialism, culture - without it swallowing the smaller details of the people living inside these themes.

MOHINEET KAUR BOPARAI: Many of the experiences that people have are micro-histories, which never get recorded in newspapers or in history books, but they're still worthy of being recorded.

LIMBONG: For instance, Gurnah's 1994 book "Paradise" is about a boy whose father sells him to an Arab merchant. And it's heavily in conversation with the Quran without being too concerned how unfamiliar a Western reader might be with it, which impressed Emad Mirmotahari. He is an associate professor of world and postcolonial literature at Duquesne University. Mirmotahari says that his immigrant students and ones from minority communities really latch on to Gurnah's work.

EMAD MIRMOTAHARI: But also other students just sort of identify with the sort of anguish of being alone - right? - and being left on your own to have to figure out who you are.

LIMBONG: Which can describe nearly anybody. Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.