Abdulrazak Gurnah: accidental author and voice of displaced

London (AFP) –


Abdulrazak Gurnah, the Tanzanian-born author awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, has been a sharp observer of colonialism and immigration during a critically acclaimed 35-year career.

He was born on the Indian Ocean island of Zanzibar, off the coast of east Africa, in 1948, and began writing after moving to Britain as a refugee.

"It was in the first few years of living in England, when I was about 21, that I began to write," he told the Guardian in 2004.

"In a sense it was something I stumbled into rather than the fulfilment of a plan.

"In a larger part, it was to do with the overwhelming feeling of strangeness and difference I felt there."

But it was almost another 20 years before he released his debut novel, "Memory of Departure", in 1987. "Pilgrims Way" followed a year later, and "Dottie" in 1990.

All three explored the experiences of immigrants in contemporary Britain, including racism and identity.

- Dislocation -

Critical recognition came with his fourth novel, "Paradise" (1994), which was set in colonial east Africa during World War I.

It earned him a place on shortlist of the prestigious Booker Prize for Fiction, although he lost out to the Scottish author James Kelman.

Gurnah's 1996 work "Admiring Silence" recounts the tale of a young man who returns to Zanzibar 20 years after leaving for England, where he married an Englishwoman and worked as a teacher.

Academic Luca Prono said Gurnah's works were "dominated by the issues of identity and displacement and how these are shaped by the legacies of colonialism and slavery.

"Gurnah's narratives are all premised on the shattering impact that migration to a new geographical and social context has for his character's identities," he wrote on the British Council's website.

Of his own work, Gurnah told The Guardian that "the questions I am raising are not new questions.

"But if they are not new, they are firmly inflected by the particular, by imperialism, by dislocation, by the realities of our times.

"And one of the realities of our times is the displacement of so many strangers into Europe," he added.

- Postcolonial identity -

In 2001's "By the Sea," Gurnah follows Saleh Omar, an old asylum-seeker who has just arrived in Britain.

His latest novels include 2005's "Desertion", which was shortlisted for the 2006 Commonwealth Writers Prize, and "The Last Gift" (2011).

Publishers Weekly described the latter as a "haunting novel" containing "a strong plot with powerful musings on mortality, the weight of memory, and the struggle to establish a postcolonial identity".

Gurnah, who lives in Brighton, on England's south coast, released "Gravel Heart" in 2017, which his publisher Bloomsbury called a "powerful story of exile, migration and betrayal".

His latest novel, "Afterlives", was released last year and tells the story of a young boy who was sold to German colonial troops.

"An unending exploration driven by intellectual passion is present in all his books, and equally prominent now, in 'Afterlives', as when he began writing as a 21-year-old refugee," Nobel Committee chairman Anders Olsson said.

Gurnah, who also edited "The Cambridge Companion to Salman Rushdie" in 2007, recently retired as Professor of English and Postcolonial Literatures at the University of Kent, southeast England.