Nobel for author tackling white colonial privilege

Gurnah gives the refugee’s side of the story, confronting the toxic residue of empires

Abdulrazak Gurnah receives the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature. Photograph: Gareth Cattermole/ Getty

Abdulrazak Gurnah receives the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature. Photograph: Gareth Cattermole/ Getty

 

In awarding the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature to Abdulrazak Gurnah, the Swedish Academy has begun to address its neglect of the works of writers from the Global South, in general, and more specifically from the continent of Africa. He is only the fifth African to win the prize since it was established in 1901.

The significance of the award also needs to be judged in the context of a body of work that addresses the corrosive legacy of white colonial privilege when there is much debate over continued racial discrimination and the need to address the painful record of slavery and empire. Part of that legacy plays out in the ongoing refugee crisis and the divisiveness of debates around migration.

In works such as By the Sea (2001), an account of a migrant’s journey from Zanzibar to Britain, Gurnah has attempted to give the other side of the refugee’s story, the coming to terms with the toxic residue of empires that leave the dispossessed with no option but starvation or escape. Like his fellow African writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Gurnah has long argued for the importance of the African perspective on the colonial scramble for Africa.

In Afterlives (2020), he tells the horrifying story of the German occupation of Namibia, an episode that for many years lingered in the forgotten footnotes of western commentators but that could not be forgotten by the traumatised populations left in its wake.

Gurnah constantly works at reconfiguring readers’ geographies of empathy and understanding. In Paradise (1994), the central character Yusuf travels from Tanzania through central Africa to the Congo basin. He tells the stories of the multiplicity of cultures and influences that shape the territories through which he travels. Like the Indian writer Amitav Ghosh in his Ibis trilogy (Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke and Flood of Fire), Gurnah wants to write an alternative history of modernity, firmly centred on Africa and east Asia and freed from the exoticising condescension of western perspectives.

Contenders

Any winner inevitably raises the question of who lost out in the running for this year’s prize. Ghosh must be viewed as a serious contender for the future given the scale and ambition of his fictional work. On the other hand, given that in five out of the last 10 years the prize has been given to writers of English, the academy might decide that they need to move outside the global lingua franca and be more linguistically adventurous.

The exceptional talent of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami is long overdue Nobel recognition as is the finely textured, polyphonic writing of the Guadeloupean novelist Maryse Condé. Jon Fosse (Norway), Ludmilla Ulitskaya (Russia) and Annie Ernaux (France) merit serious consideration for the distinctiveness of their writing and the way they have redefined the possibilities of literature.

Among the Irish contenders, Anne Enright, John Banville and Colm Tóibín are writers whose work has the heft and consequence to attract academy attention. However, as a previous Irish Nobel laureate WB Yeats once observed: “Life is a long preparation for something that never happened.” So it is perhaps best to park the speculation and set to reading the work of this year’s deserving winner, Abdulrazak Gurnah.

Prof Michael Cronin is chairman of French at Trinity College Dublin and director of the Trinity Centre for Literary and Cultural Translation

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