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Abdulrazak Gurnah, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature

Abdulrazak Gurnah was in the kitchen of his Canterbury home making a cup of tea on Thursday when he received the call telling him he had won the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature.

The 72-year-old retired professor, who keeps his greying beard neatly clipped and his opinions mostly understated, pronounced himself flabbergasted, if delighted, saying he had not the slightest inkling that he was even being considered. “I wouldn’t have picked me,” he told a BBC radio interviewer that evening.

It was an appropriately English diffidence for a man born in Zanzibar in 1948, but who has spent the better part of five decades living quietly in Britain. Gurnah was brought up in a well-to-do family in the then Sultanate of Zanzibar, once a centre of the Arab slave trade. He fled the island, later incorporated into Tanzania, after the revolution of 1964 which targeted people of Arab descent and closed the schools.

He found himself in a mostly unwelcoming Britain, penniless and homesick. After studying in Canterbury and earning a PhD at the University of Kent, he became a member of the faculty, teaching English and postcolonial literature.

In his spare time, he wrote 10 novels for which — until this week — he won a dedicated, if not voluminous, following. Asked which one of his books he would recommend, he replied that most were probably out of print.

Gurnah’s literary style might be described as “evocative” were it not for the fact that he conjures into life the stories of people and places in forgotten, if not deliberately erased, corners of history. His stories, many set on the east African Swahili coast in the early 20th century, evoke what Zimbabwean writer Novuyo Rosa Tshuma calls “a sense of quiet lives being lived alongside a loud and brutal sweep of history”.

Gurnah says his characters are “shaped but not defined” by circumstance. In Afterlives, his latest novel, a girl is beaten up by her adopted parents because she has secretly learnt how to read. Yet she goes on to woo the young man who will become her husband, to crack jokes and to live a life defined by her own will.

Gurnah’s characters are above all human. A German pastor cares tenderly for an injured African man, though he remains trapped in his belief that nothing of any import has ever happened in east Africa. A schutztruppe officer brutalises the African boy in his charge but nurtures his study of German, presenting him with a volume of Schiller — in doing so challenging his own prejudice that no African could properly comprehend it.

Several novels deal with the theme of immigration, one that Gurnah described to journalists on Friday as “the phenomenon of our times”, especially for those pushed or pulled from the global south. In its citation, the Swedish Academy said he won the award for his “compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents”.

By the time Gurnah arrived in Britain, he had formed an image of a country of “courtesy and politeness”. “I had no expectation of the hostility that I met,” he said. “You encounter bad words, ugly stares, rudeness.” The Britain he lived in was so white that, occasionally, catching a view of himself in a shop window, he wondered for an instant who he was.

Nevertheless, he plunged into the English literary canon “and read and read and read”. Jottings in his diary about home eventually evolved into his first novel, Memory of Departure, about a man fleeing his newly independent homeland.

His fourth novel, Paradise, was shortlisted for the 1994 Booker Prize, his highest literary accolade until this week’s Nobel. He had intended it as the story of a little-known war between German and British colonial forces on African soil. But when he sat down to write the opening scene — in which Yusuf, a young African man, is conscripted by the German army — he realised he had no idea how his protagonist might have ended up in such a situation.

The opening scene became instead the final one. And Gurnah dedicated himself to discovering how a young boy, sold into bondage to settle his father’s debt, could end up fleeing one kind of imprisonment for another. It is that kind of painstaking attention, not to detail but to truth, that makes his writing so compelling.

The Africa he depicts is more complex, nuanced and multicultural than the narrative that has filtered to the west. “Gurnah’s books ask: how do we remember a past deliberately eclipsed and erased from the colonial archive?” says Melanie Otto, assistant professor in postcolonial literatures at Trinity College Dublin.

He writes in English, not his mother tongue of Kiswahili, a fact that has limited his fame in Tanzania. Fatma Karume, a Tanzanian lawyer, said that, in the wake of the Nobel Prize announcement this week, her country had engaged in a debate about Gurnah’s nationality. Some were ruing the fact that Tanzania does not recognise dual nationality and were “desperately trying to claim him as their own”.

Gurnah is often asked why he writes in English. It is a language he says that, like cricket, is a British invention but a game that now belongs to all — and is occasionally played better by foreigners. But asked where he is from, he answers without hesitation: “I’m from Zanzibar. There’s no confusion about that.”

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