Friend of SOAS Wins Nobel Prize for Literature

Nobel prize medal

Professor Abdulrazak Gurnah has won this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature “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 is the first black African writer in 35 years and the first Tanzanian writer to win this prestigious award. The Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded 114 times to 118 Nobel Prize laureates between 1901 and 2021.

A friend of SOAS, Professor Gurnah has worked closely with the Centre of African Studies over the years, including his 2013 CAS annual lecture on writing about the African Indian Ocean by authors such as Joseph Conrad, Karen von Blixen-Finecke and the Naipauls. He has also been an examiner of BA African Studies and spoken at a variety of events on campus.

Born in Zanzibar, Professor Gurnah moved to Britain as a teenager in 1968. He is the author of ten novels, including Paradise (1994) which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Whitbread Prize. His main academic interest is in postcolonial writing and in discourses associated with colonialism, especially as they relate to Africa, the Caribbean and India. Before retirement, he was a professor of English and Postcolonial Literatures at the University of Kent in England.

SOAS academic Dr Kai Easton, who has taught Gurnah’s work at SOAS for more than a decade, said: 

“Abdulrazak is a superb novelist, a most generous friend and colleague, whose work has made a great impact on me and so many of our students.  His extraordinary contribution to literature travels far and wide across the Indian Ocean, where he was born (in Zanzibar), to the Atlantic (in the UK), where he has long made his home as Professor of English at the University of Kent.  This is a wonderful accolade that celebrates a writer who, with considerable nuance and a discerning eye, consistently crosses boundaries, asking difficult questions about the legacies and entanglements of colonial history, migrancy, diaspora, and inheritance.”

Dr Kai Easton spoke of his work:

“Abdulrazak Gurnah made his mark as a writer in the UK when he was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for his novel, Paradise. His fiction has consistently engaged with ‘the landscape of memory’ of Zanzibar and the wider geography of East Africa where he was born, and England, where he has lived for most of his adult life in exile. He has a subtle and sophisticated way of exploring this, since he has made his home here and worked for many years as Professor of English at the University of Kent, where he has worked as both a creative writer and academic until his recent retirement. Mapping histories and contemporary issues, family dramas, language, religion and the ways in which the art of storytelling always has something to say in the present day, Gurnah speaks across time to readers both familiar with his world – a world that traverses oceans and hemispheres –  and to those exploring it through his extraordinary fiction.”

On why he is special:

“For me it is coastal. For so long, Africa has been a continental idea, with writers attached to particular nation-states, countries, regions.  But Africa is also coastal, interconnected to the world by oceans, and Gurnah’s work has foregrounded its long cosmopolitan history of oceanic trade, highlighting global connections and island histories.”

SOAS’s Dr Ida Hadjivayanis who is currently translating his first novel into Swahili said:

“As a Tanzanian of Zanzibar origin, Gurnah’s work has always spoken to me at a very personal level. This win is simply ground breaking! Gurnah unapologically uses Swahili terms in his writing, thus reinforcing the importance of language. He speaks the truth by pushing away the colonial perspective. I am simply thrilled beyond words.”

Director of SOAS, Professor Adam Habib said:

“I want to offer my warmest congratulations to Abdulrazak Gurnah from everyone at SOAS. This award is a mark of the vital importance of the postcolonial voice in world literature, and the outstanding contribution which he has made. At SOAS, we will continue to support and champion these voices, in collaboration with leading institutions in nations in Africa and across the world.”

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