From the New York Times news section, an explanation of the life and works of the Zanzibar-born winner of the 2021 Nobel literary prize that attempts to compress his complex identity into the usual lowbrow Black vs. white paradigm of the times.
The Tanzanian writer, the first Black winner since Toni Morrison, was honored for his “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism.”
Uhhhm, just looking at him, I’d guess about half of his ancestry is due to Arab colonialism in Zanzibar.
In general, the slave-trading Arab elite of Zanzibar had black ancestry as well, which provided resistance to malaria, allowing mixed race Arab and Swahili speakers to raid and trade for slaves on the mainland.
It’s hard to get a straight story from the many Nobel news articles, but I’m guessing Gurnah’s from Zanzibar’s old privileged part-black/part-Arab middle class, rather like Freddie Mercury’s family was part of the Parsi and general South Asian bourgeois of Zanzibar. Both the Mercury family and Gurnah went into refuge in England around the time of the Soviet-aligned Black Power massacre of 1964 that overthrew the Arab-dominated newly independent government. (Here’s my review of the Bohemian Rhapsody biopic.) From the documentary Africa Addio:
Back to the NYT:
By Alexandra Alter and Alex Marshall
Oct. 7, 2021
Growing up in Zanzibar, an archipelago off the coast of Tanzania, Abdulrazak Gurnah never considered the possibility that he might one day be a writer.
“It never occurred to me,” he said in an interview. “It wasn’t something you could say as you were growing up, ‘I want to be a writer.’” He assumed he would become “something useful, like an engineer.”
Gurnah evidently came from the upper ranks of Zanzibar society where a bright lad like himself was expected to become an engineer.
Then, in 1964, a violent uprising forced Gurnah, at age 18, to flee to England. Miserable, poor, homesick, he began to write scraps about home in his diary, then longer entries, then stories about other people. Those scattered reflections, the habit of writing to understand and document his own dislocation, eventually gave rise to his first novel, then nine more — works that explore the lingering trauma of colonialism, war and displacement.
But not the acute trauma of decolonization and Black Power that actually forced him into exile in England, where his skills with the English language, acquired in the last years of English colonization, led him to the Nobel.
Perhaps because he’s part black, Gurnah wasn’t killed in the January 1964 massacre of Arabs and Indians, but he got out to England a few years later when he turned 18. He’s probably more of an economic/bourgeois/political refugee who could have accommodated himself to the new pro-Soviet black Marxist order with years of subservient behavior.
Is that supposed to be a tough choice.
Gurnah seems like a thoughtful and reasonably even-handed guy from reading descriptions of his novels. But everybody wants to shove his complicated life story into the dominant Black vs. white paradigm.
“The thing that motivated the whole experience of writing for me was this idea of losing your place in the world,” he said.
On Thursday, Gurnah was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, widely regarded as the most prestigious literary award in the world, for “his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”
Gurnah, 72, is the first Black writer to receive the prize since Toni Morrison in 1993, and some observers saw his selection as a long overdue corrective after years of European and American Nobel laureates. He is the first African to win the award in more than a decade, preceded by Wole Soyinka of Nigeria in 1986, Naguib Mahfouz of Egypt, who won in 1988; and the South African winners Nadine Gordimer in 1991 and John Maxwell Coetzee in 2003. The British-Zimbabwean novelist Doris Lessing won in 2007.
Amid the heated speculation in the run-up to this year’s award, the literature prize was called out for lacking diversity among its winners. The journalist Greta Thurfjell, writing in Dagens Nyheter, a Swedish newspaper, noted that 95 of the 117 past Nobel laureates were from Europe or North America, and that only 16 winners had been women. “Can it really continue like that?” she asked.
In his 10 novels, Gurnah has often explored the themes of exile, identity and belonging. They include “Memory of Departure,” “Pilgrims Way” and “Dottie,” which all deal with the immigrant experience in Britain; “Paradise,” shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994, about a boy in an East African country scarred by colonialism
Some of his interest is in the effects of Omani Arab colonization of Zanzibar 1000 years ago.
It appears that mainland blacks got themselves across the 15 mile wide expanse of ocean between the the mainland and the island of Zanzibar because they were there already when the Omanis arrived, although perhaps they were brought as slaves a couple of thousand by middle eastern or South Asian mariners?
; and “Admiring Silence,” about a young man who leaves Zanzibar for England, where he marries and becomes a teacher. His most recent work, “Afterlives,” explores the generational effects of German colonialism in Tanzania, and how it divided communities.
Anders Olsson, the chair of the committee that awards the prize, said at the news conference on Thursday that Gurnah “is widely recognized as one of the world’s more pre-eminent post-colonial writers.” Gurnah “has consistently and with great compassion, penetrated the effects of colonialism in East Africa and its effects on the lives of uprooted and migrating individuals,” he added.
The characters in his novels, Olsson said, “find themselves in the gulf between cultures and continents, between the life left behind and the life to come, confronting racism and prejudice, but also compelling themselves to silence the truth or reinventing biography to avoid conflict with reality.”
Gurnah’s first language is Swahili, but he adopted English as his literary language, with his prose often inflected with traces of Swahili, Arabic and German. He drew on the imagery and stories from the Quran, as well as from Arabic and Persian poetry, particularly “The Arabian Nights.” …
But despite being hailed as “one of Africa’s greatest living writers” by the author Giles Foden, Gurnah’s books have rarely received the kind of commercial reception that some previous laureates have.
Lola Shoneyin, the director of the Ake Arts and Book Festival in Nigeria, said that she expected the Nobel Prize would draw a larger audience for Gurnah on the African continent, where his work is not very widely known, and that she hoped his historical fiction might inspire younger generations to reflect more deeply on their countries’ pasts.
… In both his scholarly work and his fiction, Gurnah has tried to uncover “the way in which colonialism transformed everything in the world, and people who are living through it are still processing that experience and some of its wounds,” he said.
The same themes that occupied him early in his career, when he was processing the effects of his own displacement, feel equally urgent today, he said, as both Europe and America have been gripped with a backlash against immigrants and refugees, and political instability and war have driven more people from their home countries. “It’s a kind of meanness and miserliness on the part of these prosperous countries that say, we don’t want these people,” he said. “They’re getting these literally handfuls of people compared to European migrations.”
The Scramble for Africa justifies the Scramble for Europe.
Freddie Mercury drew a somewhat less hackneyed lesson from his family’s close escape from genocidal black decolonizers, becoming a big fan of the British empire and its monarch (as suggested by the name he chose for his band, Queen).
Though Gurnah hasn’t lived in Tanzania since he was a teenager, the country continues to inspire him.
He didn’t live in Tanzania until April 1964 when the black revolutionary government merged Zanzibar with Tanganyika, and merged the names to create “Tanzania.”