Abdulrajaq Gurnah was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday. He is the fifth to receive the award and the first African in nearly two decades.
In its declaration, the Nobel Committee praised “his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gap between cultures and continents.”
Gurna was born in Zanzibar and left for England at the age of 18, and both places are very important in his work. Many of his novels are based on themes of exile, displacement and fragmented identities.
Here are Times reviews of Gurnaah’s books.
Set on the East African coast, Gurna’s debut novel follows a young man struggling under an authoritarian regime, before being sent to live with a wealthy uncle in Kenya. Our reviewer called it “a compelling study of one man’s struggle to find his life’s purpose and a haunting portrait of a traditional society burdened by poverty and rapid change”.
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994, the novel opens in East Africa before World War I and follows 12-year-old Joseph, who is assigned as an indentured servant to a wealthy businessman. Throughout the book, Yusuf describes the natural life, other tribes and the dangers they face, as well as his travels across the continent. Our reviewer called it “a poignant meditation on the nature of freedom and the loss of innocence for both a sensitive boy and the entire continent.”
An unnamed narrator flees Zanzibar for England in the 1960s, where she soon falls in love with an Englishman and starts a family. As he grapples with the racism he faces there, he also wrestles with self-loathing for his attempts to blend in. The book is “corrosively funny and relentless,” wrote our reviewer. “Gurnah skillfully depicts the suffering of a man caught between two cultures, each of which would reject him for his relationship with the other.”
Fleeing chaos and corruption, Saleh Omar, a 65-year-old businessman from Zanzibar, applied for asylum in England. The book details the sudden brutality of British immigration officers and a dystopian bureaucracy that undermines resettlement efforts, as Saleh is eventually locked up in a quiet seaside town. Coincidentally, he meets the son of the man who caused much suffering for Saleh and his family, and their eventual friendship is a reconciliation of their family history. As our reviewer wrote: “It is exceptionally moving when Saleh Omar finds a refuge of his own kind in friendship, a refuge built of experience that is shared.”
The novel connects two unfortunate love stories: In 1899, a British adventurer and “Anti-Empire guy” is taken in by an East African shopkeeper and falls in love with his sister Rehana, leading to a scandal. Decades later, a Zanzibari academic recounts the grief of his own family: how his brother fell in love with Rehana’s granddaughter.
Growing up in Zanzibar, Salim is never sure why his family broke up or why, as he says at the beginning of the novel, “My father didn’t want me.” Later, Salim gets a chance to study in England after a stellar academic performance, burdened by his family’s expectations. Our reviewer noted that “the novel’s minor characters are also richly imagined that influence their short interactions—one of the book’s most endearing pleasures, and a choice that makes its world extraordinary.” makes it complete.”