Image attached: Abdulrazak Gurnah delivering his keynote address at the Mediterranean Fractures Symposium, Valletta Campus, November 2015. Photo credit: Joseph A Borg
The Swedish Academy’s announcement last week that the recipient of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature is novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah, occasioned amongst us who know him a great outburst of joy. This surely wasn’t the kind of literature Nobel announcement I could either dissect at a distance or even calmly think through over a tranquil coffee. Here was a friend whom I’ve known for almost a decade, a former colleague, a firm source of wisdom for me, being recognised at the highest echelons of world-literary stature. My heart did skip an inevitable beat and the elation lasted well into the ensuing weekend — though I was not in the least surprised at the Nobel Committee’s choice.
The Committee’s prize motivation statement for the award is, as per tradition, brief and succinct. In awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature to Abdulrazak Gurnah, it flagged “his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents”. For all who wish to access it, encapsulated in this terse statement is a veritable wealth of voices, stories, post/colonial geographies and a lyrical mastery of narrative style that makes Gurnah’s oeuvre an indispensable one for our age, for our world and its pressing urgencies.
Born in Zanzibar in 1948, Gurnah fled to England in the late 1960s following revolution and major political upheaval in his native Tanzania. He is the author of ten novels and is Emeritus Professor within the School of English at the University of Kent. Of the violent uprising that led to his flight, Gurnah himself had written, twenty years ago, that ‘thousands were slaughtered, whole communities were expelled and many hundreds imprisoned. In the shambles and persecutions that followed, a vindictive terror ruled our lives. At 18, the year after I finished school, I escaped. Many others did the same; some were captured and disappeared, most got safely away.’ (‘Fear and Loathing’, The Guardian 22 May 2001).
Malta has its own memorable story to tell the generations about this year’s literature Nobel
laureate. In 2014, Abdulrazak Gurnah was a guest writer at the IXth edition of the Malta
Mediterranean Literature Festival organised by Inizjamed. At the Festival, which took place at the Msida Bastion Historic Garden, Gurnah read from his novels to an attentive audience. He was also interviewed by David Schembri in the run-up to his participation at the Festival. Indeed, Gurnah’s reading at the MMLF turned out to be an important — and, for many in Malta — a first encounter with Gurnah’s work.
The following year, in November 2015, Abdulrazak Gurnah was one of our keynote speakers, together with Hisham Matar, Stephanos Stephanides and Iain Chambers, at the second edition of the Mediterranean Fractures Symposium hosted by the Mediterranean Institute at the University of Malta Valletta Campus and organised in collaboration with the Centre for Colonial and Postcolonial Studies at the University of Kent and AISCLI — the Italian Association for Literary and Linguistic Studies. Gurnah has, over the years, kept a keen interest in the Mediterranean sea, its histories, the stories and the human and political flows that structure it. At the Symposium, Gurnah, a renowned scholar in his own right, delivered an address titled ‘The Two Seas’, discussing, among other aspects, the significance of Fra Mauro’s Mappa Mundi (1448-53). The keynote was delivered to an audience of international Mediterranean Studies scholars, authors, creatives and educators.
Speaking to KentOnline, Dr Bashir Abu-Manneh, head of the University of Kent’s School of
English, observed that ‘Abdulrazak Gurnah’s writing epitomises our contemporary condition of displacement, violence, and belonging. His is the struggle for individual voice, for justice, for feeling at home in an ever-changing world. No one writing today has articulated the pains of exile and the rewards of belonging so well.’ (KentOnline, 7 October 2021). Abu-Manneh’s description of Gurnah’s work as a ‘struggle for individual voice’ could hardly be more apt or accurate. Gurnah’s novels go a long way in breaking through that ‘iconography of predicament’ (Terence Wright) that often characterises a generic grasp of refugee, asylum-seeking and displaced persons — in order to reach and visualise a far more complex and nuanced voicing of the condition of displacement.
The first instance that comes to mind here is the immigrant character of Abbas and his awareness of his own affliction in the early pages of Gurnah’s novel ‘The Last Gift’, in which Abbas is acutely conscious that ‘It was his restlessness, perhaps, the habit of mind of a stranger unreconciled to his surroundings, dressing light so he could throw the coat off quickly when the time came to move on… It was now important to get home before he ran out of strength, before he fell down in this wilderness where his body would be torn to pieces and scattered.’ (Gurnah, ’The Last Gift, p. 4) In such moments as Abbas’s, the compulsion to “move on” becomes as much a matter of fraught geographic and social space as it is a harrowing temporality of being — an anxious encounter of bodily affliction that resounds with the experience of displacement as a complex psychology of past and present worlds embodied within it. These human spaces of meaning, at once profound and told with incredibly sharp insight, open up the deeper one delves into Gurnah’s work — from works such as ‘Pilgrims Way’ (1988), ‘Paradise’ (1994), a novel shortlisted for the Booker as well as the Whitbread Prize, ‘Admiring Silence’ (1996), ‘By the Sea’ (2001), ‘Desertion’ (2005) to more recent ones such as ‘The Last Gift’ (2011), ‘Gravel Heart’ (2017) and ‘Afterlives’ (2020) amongst others.
In acknowledging the universal reach and stature of his writing across the world (Gurnah’s
narratives constitute, indeed, a literature and a memory of and for the world), the Nobel accolade implicitly also recognises Gurnah’s firm imprint as one of the great writers of Africa, carrying forward the powerful rendition of the continent’s voice so eloquently expressed by previous laureates, from Wole Soyinka to Naguib Mahfouz and further afield.
The Nobel Prize in Literature 2021 offers us renewed occasion to read and to listen to Gurnah’s voice, its intervention in the expression of our world and of our time.
And it does come with the heartwarming thought that Malta, and our university, have a place of their own in this beautiful story.
Dr Norbert Bugeja is Senior Lecturer in Postcolonial Studies at the Mediterranean Institute