Abdulrazak Gurnah has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2021 – the first black African writer to win the award in 35 years.
During the award ceremony, his “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents” were identified as the reasons for his winning.
The Nobel Prize in Literature was founded in 1901 and is awarded to the author, based on Alfred Nobel’s will, who has “produced the most outstanding work in an idealistic direction”.
And that’s exactly what Gurnah’s novels do. Arriving in England as a refugee in the Sixties, the body of his work highlights issues of the refugee crisis and themes of displacement and colonialism, which remain as poignant today as they did when the books were first written.
Like many great works of fiction, Gurnah’s books provide insight into other people’s experiences and alter how we perceive different cultures and societies. In honour of this year’s laureate, we take a look at a selection of his best work and urge you to do so too.
‘Afterlives’ by Abdulrazak Gurnah, published by Bloomsbury Publishing
Gurnah’s most recent novel, Afterlives, was published this year and was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction 2021. It was also one that he started writing as a 21-year-old refugee.
Set in the early-20th-century during Germany’s colonial rule of Africa, this novel explores the lives of people caught up in the conflicts and chaos of the First World War. Linking humanity with colonialism, it highlights the largely untold presence of Germany in Africa and is said to be captivating and heartbreaking.
‘Gravel Heart’ by Abdulrazak Gurnah, published by Bloomsbury Publishing
Told against the backdrop of colonialism and revolution in Zanzibar, this novel follows the life of Salim from his childhood in the Sixties to his unpleasant experiences of living in London as an immigrant in the Nineties. Working to instil the same feelings of loneliness and exile experienced by the narrator, it’s likely to stick with you long after you’ve put it down.
‘By the Sea’ by Abdulrazak Gurnah, published by Bloomsbury Publishing
This novel tells the tale of an elderly man, Saleh Omar, who arrives in England as an asylum seeker, and Latif Mahmud, both of whom are connected through Saleh’s past. Their meeting unravels a story of love and disloyalty, and in doing so, creates a picture of those who were desperately trying to find stability amid turmoil and uncertainty in that time.
‘Paradise’ by Abdulrazak Gurnah, published by Bloomsbury Publishing
Booker Prize-nominated novel Paradise is set in early-20th-century Tanzania. The story is centred around the life of Yusuf, whose parents sell him to a merchant to repay a debt. This coming-of-age book highlights the violence and colonialism corruption of East Asia at the time. It’s a powerful historical novel that explores power, race and society.
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For more award-winning fiction, read our guide to this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction winner
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