IIf one of the roles of the Nobel Prize in Literature is to spotlight someone who has been less visible than he deserves, that role was fulfilled this year by the announcement of Abdulrazak Gurnah as the winner. Unlike previous recipients living in Britain (Kazuo Ishiguro, Harold Pinter, Doris Lessing and back to Rudyard Kipling) he is not a household name. He could, as he said after the announcement, do with more readers; his editor agreed. She also lamented the fact that he “is one of the greatest African writers alive, and no one has ever noticed him”, but he disagreed with that: “I didn’t think I was ignored “.
There’s a chasm here that has to do with who’s looking and what counts as being officially noticed. There is also a point of definition: to call Gurnah an African writer, while seeming to broaden horizons, in fact narrows and distances what he does. Gurnah was born in Zanzibar and left at the age of 18, escaping revolution for what he hoped were calmer waters, but which turned out to be Enoch Powell’s predictions of rivers of blood. He has since lived in Great Britain.
He said he started writing to make sense of the shock – of racism, rejection, poverty and loneliness – and his 10 novels return to it over and over again. “I found myself relying heavily on that pain,” Admiring Silence began in 1996. So his work exists because of Britain as well as Zanzibar; it consists of both, and being entirely neither. He comes from an extensive knowledge of English literature (Gurnah is Emeritus Professor of Literature at the University of Kent), but is also marinated in Kiswahili, his native language, and the rhythms and stories of Islam.
In fact, it is striking how many of the 13 British Nobel Prize winning writers were born elsewhere, from Kipling (India) to VS Naipaul (Trinidad and Tobago); TS Eliot (United States) in Lessing (Iran) and Ishiguro (Japan). And how that just reflects the country. In 2019 (before Covid, when nearly one million foreign-born residents left), 14% of the UK’s population was foreign-born.
It is also striking how many of these countries were once part of the British Empire. Gurnah explained how the world still deals with the wounds inflicted by colonialism, especially the experience of “losing one’s place in the world” – where the place is not only geographic, but also belonging, status. and culture. In addition to the loss of empire (or loss of empire, from the British point of view), there are now unprecedented levels of displacement and migration due to war, food insecurity, economic inequality and repressive policies. (The anxiety about immigration that fuels nationalist policies in places like Britain can also be understood as anxiety about moving, losing your home.)
Gurnah’s work, which highlights those who, in the words of the Ethiopian-American novelist Maaza Mengiste, “might not have been found in the archives … traders, housewives … students and refugees”, could not, in this sense, to be more British. But, more importantly, it couldn’t be more universal.