Until recently Abdulrazak Gurnah, professor of English and postcolonial literatures at the University of Kent in Canterbury, had received little media attention other than a brief mention in articles about refugees. .

As a refugee who arrived in England from Zanzibar in 1968, and as a novelist who wrote about refugees and immigrants from East Africa, Gurnah was sometimes mentioned in newspaper articles on asylum and the migration. After the 2016 Brexit referendum and this A notorious anti-immigrant British Independence Party poster, his name was mentioned among other writers who championed a less insular worldview. And after the Windrush scandal, when the children of Caribbean migrants who came to the UK decades ago were asked to provide documents to prove their right to live in Britain, Gurnah’s opinion was sought. He was, after all, a refugee himself.

Fast forward to October 3 of this year, and Gurnah was conspicuous by his absence on a Guardian reading list compiled by well-known writers of color. This list was supposed to recommend little-known fictions and to encourage the informed public to orient themselves towards writings of black authors which “deserve to be beside the classics”. Longtime Gurnah editor Alexandra Pringle tweeted with disappointment: “The rewrite of the canon unfolds as always without any mention of Abdulrazak Gurnah, whose consistently superb novels have for years been telling stories about the winds of politics, trade, war and love that blow on people across continents. She added: “After 20 years of publishing it and keeping the faith that its time will come, hope is starting to fly.”

Four days after this snub, Gurnah received the Nobel Prize for Literature. In a flash the world changed – for 73-year-old Gurnah; for Pringle; for the publisher of Gurnah Bloomsbury, and for the ten novels that Gurnah has written over the past 41 years, some of which, according to the author, were probably out of print.

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Seemingly oblivious to the irony of his post-Nobel recognition of Gurnah, Hari Kunzru, one of the writers who failed to pick the new literary winner for the Guardian list, tweeted congratulations to the “quiet pillar of the London book scene”.

Obviously, Gurnah couldn’t be ignored anymore, and neither would he. The Nobel is a great prize in every way. Gurnah has won £ 840,000 in cash prizes and the world as a potential reader. His novels will be rushing to bookstores everywhere, bearing the golden words “by the Nobel Prize-winning author” on the cover. He will be profiled and interviewed and invited to give opening speeches. Watch out for the national congratulatory ceremonies in Tanzania, whose president, Samia Suluhu Hassan, was, like Gurnah, born in Zanzibar before the island was incorporated in 1964 into Tanzania.

The eyes of the world are on Gurnah, as the first African writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in more than a decade, and the first non-white writer from Africa to win the prize in almost 30 years. He is only the second black African writer to win the Nobel Prize, after Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka in 1986.

Gurnah’s new celebrity status is undeniable, but is anyone ready to pay attention to her distinctive literary voice? Does anyone listen to what they are saying – the far-sighted, compassionate and relentlessly truthful message that they have conveyed for decades? This message is simple: the migrant is Everyman, neither better nor worse.

“Pilgrims’ path”

Her work is marked by a low-key focus on those under the radar – operating room attendants, canteen workers, shopkeepers, housewives and teachers keeping themselves somewhat united in the Great. Post-imperial Brittany. They are mostly people of color – asylum seekers, refugees, second or third generation immigrants – and they are mainly from East Africa. As they struggle to build a life in a Britain continually rocked by spasms of racial antagonism, many of Gurnah’s characters echo the puzzled wonder of theater director Daud in his 1988 novel “Pilgrims”. Way ”.

In the former colonies, Muse Daud, who arrived in Britain in the 1970s from Tanzania as a student, there was an “optimism about England which he found embarrassing … They had done some good work, he thought, those who had gone to take up the torch of wisdom and learning from the millions of dark people in Africa. They had left a whole greedy age group for the land that had produced their teachers. Like many immigrants, Daud is reluctant, unable even, to set the record straight, choosing silence as the least disorienting option until his love for an English nursing student coaxes his story.

Silence – when confronted with overt racism as well as the parallel, secretive but categorical rejection of polite society – is a constant theme in Gurnah’s novels. Daud is silent. The same goes for Abbas, engineer and master of the house, in ‘The Last Gift’. And the same goes for the anonymous narrator of ‘Admiring Silence’. Other constants in Gurnah’s novels include the unspoken pain of displacement; cultural and racial barriers to integration; the bitter bowl of sorrows engulfed during all yesterday and today in the new home; and, finally, the excruciating hesitation as to whether it will ever be possible to describe Britain as home. If not, where could the “house” be?

Gurnah explores the legacy of European colonialism. Her second novel, ‘Paradise’, shortlisted for the 1994 Booker Prize, travels slowly through East Africa disturbed by the German presence. The violence and racism of German colonialism is also featured in his latest book, “Afterlives,” which was published in 2020.

Literary right shooter

Gurnah is a writer of conviction, a courageous storyteller who does not follow literary fashions but the life of his poor and invisible army of characters. He started hitting the drums for issues that could be lumped under the Black Lives Matter banner long before they became mainstream. But he did it in such a stoic and blunt manner that he cannot be considered fashionable, nor appropriate as the chronicler of the cause. He’s relentless in his scrutiny of the most unpleasant facts about his characters, their personal habits, and their way of life (Daud, for example, has a squalid and rotten location in Canterbury, which could thwart any attempt to clean him up – even if he had bothered to try.)

In light of this, it’s hardly a revelation that Pringle, the editor-in-chief of Gurnah, acknowledges her struggle to generate interest in her work. “He has always played an important role in the study of post-colonial literature,” she wrote. “But it can be difficult to face a middle-aged mid-career writer, and especially a subtly subtle writer like Gurnah. It’s only natural that the press, business, publishers and readers want the young and the new and splash.

The Nobel committee quote noted Gurnah’s “uncompromising and passionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the plight of the refugee in the chasm between cultures and continents.”

“Uncompromising” here is an understatement for the truthful, literary right shooter. Gurnah draws verbal images of immigrants unlike those adopted by both the left and the right of the political spectrum. The immigrants in his novels are neither particularly beautiful, nor moral, nor gifted. Nor are they particularly ugly, debauched, or inexperienced. They are as adorable and as imperfect as anyone, of any race, ethnicity or nationality. Readers may not like all of Gurnah’s characters, but they will recognize them as real people. By making the migrant a genuinely ordinary person, Gurnah sets a milestone and establishes humanity as the basis of respect.

Margarita W. Wilson

The author Margarita W. Wilson