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Tanzania: Nobel wins for Africans

Abdulrazak Gurnah’s skepticisms

Tuesday 12 October 2021, by siawi3

Source: AfricaIsACountry, editorial

Nobel wins for Africans

Sean Jacobs

Abdulrazak Gurnah, born in Zanzibar and who has lived in England since 1968, has won the Nobel Prize in Literature. This is big. It is a time to celebrate, especially as Bhakti Shringarpure, co-founder of Radical Books Collective, has argued in a post on our site, Gurnah is only the 6th African to win the prize since its inception in 1901: “... he is also only the fourth Black writer to have won the prize. Unlike the Booker Prize which has historically scored well on the diversity points, the Nobel has always favored the whitest and the most European of all literature.”

The first African to win the prize was Wole Soyinka in 1986; 35 years ago. In between, the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz won in 1988, then the two white South Africans—Nadine Gordimer (1991) and J.M. Coetzee (2003). Doris Lessing, who was born in Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe), was the last African to win the prize in 2007.

Initial appreciations of Gurnah’s win, particularly on social media, have played up Gurnah’s identity. His Africanness and Blackness. That is fine, but Gurnah is from Zanzibar, an island nation (now in a confederation with Tanzania) that is at the crossroads of the Indian Ocean, Arabia, and Africa. And, as a Tanzanian friend reminded me, yesterday Tanzanians and Zanzibaris exchanged words online over who could claim him.

And, amid the celebrations, some hard questions also confront us.

In another post for us, Nicole Rizzuto, an Associate Professor of English at Georgetown University, writes how Gurnah has rebelled throughout his writing career against being pigeonholed. That Gurnah’s “... novels offer a running commentary and a skepticism toward the cultural politics of packaging African stories for global circulation and consumption.” As for Bhakti, she asked: “Gurnah’s win pushes us to think about the role of the LitNobel and prizes, more generally, and the way in which they construct what we think of, read, engage with, and buy as African literature today.”

One small footnote: a less widely circulated fact about Gurnah is that his working life as an academic (he is now retired and lives in Brighton on the English coast) was spent as a scholar of literature and, that among others, he has done close readings of the novels and short stories of the South African writer, Zoe Wicomb. Congratulations!

– Sean Jacobs






Abdulrazak Gurnah’s skepticisms

By Nicole Rizzuto

The novels of Abdulrazak Gurnah offer a running commentary and a skepticism toward the cultural politics of packaging African stories for global circulation and consumption.

The beach at Brighton, UK, the town where Gurnah has lived since retiring from academia. Image credit Hege via Flickr“target=”_blank"CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The news that Abdulrazak Gurnah had won the Nobel Prize for Literature was met with joy as well as surprise. The first black African author to receive the award since Wole Soyinka 35 years earlier, Gurnah is not entirely a familiar name among readers on the continent and much less so outside it. The announcement set off a frenzy of Amazon wish-listing among US-based readers and scholars. As Bhakti Shringapure writes, Gurnah’s win raises questions about the Nobel committee’s process of selecting African writers, and she surmises that Gurnah would probably agree with her about the less than pure motives behind his win over the Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the writer long expected to do the work of standing in as the voice of Africa for the committee. Another question the prize raises is whether it will set off a new “discovery” of Gurnah’s work among scholars throughout the US that neglects the already robust scholarship about his prolific writing in venues that are located outside the center of the US academy.

In fact, one could read Gurnah’s books as responses to just these questions. His novels offer a running commentary and a skepticism toward the cultural politics of packaging African stories for global circulation and consumption. He has explored the changing vectors of this phenomenon from the colonial era through the Cold War up to the contemporary moment. The familiar demand for the African person to speak of their country’s origins and putative abjections to a European audience appears throughout his oeuvre. In Admiring Silence, when the narrator is about to meet his future English wife’s parents, she warns him not to talk to them about Zanzibar because it will amplify their complacency with a racist England. Gurnah’s cutting irony emerges when the narrator is peeved that his future mother-in-law declines to “listen to a couple of anecdotes on torture or starvation” and her husband opts instead only for his “Empire stories.” In The Last Gift, the English future in-laws and family alternate from bombastic speculations about their prospective daughter-in-law’s ethno-racial origins delivered in the imperial-ethnographic mode to a casual, caustic racism. The boyfriend’s father affectionately pleads with the young woman to supply the family with a “jungle bunny.” This book is also very much about the resistance of those born in Zanzibar to tell stories about the past in that country as much as it is about others being resistant to hearing them. Measured reticence is a central theme and formal technique in By the Sea, too, where an asylum seeker in England acts out Bartleby the Scrivener’s famed desire to prefer not to speak, only to later divulge in fits and starts a transgenerational drama that highlights Zanzibar’s historically important place in precolonial and colonial trade routes and the Indian Ocean world.

The novels are also skeptical of the kinds of world literature-building that are funded by international organizations and US interests, as well as colonial education. Gurnah’s fiction situates these kinds of projects in Zanzibar, and explores why and how they tempt thinkers and writers in Africa to participate in them. By the Sea frames one character’s discovery of the world’s literatures as part of a Cold-War coming-of-age narrative in the wake of Zanzibar’s independence from England. A memorable passage describes the United States Information Services opening a luxurious library as part of the mission to win hearts and minds in Zanzibar from the Socialist Bloc. Gurnah describes the appeal of the library in sensuous terms: the touch of the cool air on the skin, the visual and tactile delights of the furniture, the modern lines of the tables and magazines. The US literature in the library projects democratic freedom with its list of proper names from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Frederick Douglas, even as Gurnah signals that this literature’s circulation is inextricable from the contradictions of US capitalism. He notes the materiality of the books: “large and heavy,” “gleaming,” “edged with gilt and silver.” The narrator in this scene contrasts this seductive propaganda of the US cultural mission to the colonial library, which the British lock and abandon upon leaving, and to the school library. The school library, which is the site of cast offs, wastes, “surplus” books by departing colonial administrators across decades, is also the site of literature as the promise of a false universalism and cosmopolitanism. The administrators leave the books that are testaments to Europeans as the great civilizers. But Gurnah presses against the narrator’s contrast. Although the works in the American embassy’s library are not tainted with memories of colonial rule, Gurnah indicates that the project of cosmopolitan world-building the library intends is still caught within the networks of power that defined the Cold War, and not at all neutral. In that it is not so different from the colonial library or the school library.

While they remain highly skeptical of prestige-reading and false universalisms promised by literature, Gurnah’s books are also love letters to the cosmopolitan ideal of a world literature in which fiction broadens one’s imagination and deepens one’s connection to literary histories across seas and continents. In Gravel Heart, he writes of a father in Zanzibar who constructs an “arbitrary library” out of scraps of literature available to him during the early years after decolonization. This personal library is a hodgepodge of popular fiction and high-brow works, English dramas like Shakespeare’s plays, Westerns and mystery novels, and an abridged One Thousand and One Nights.

Now that Gurnah’s own works will become more available to readers throughout the English-speaking world including the US, one hopes that in the frenzy to encounter them, people will take note to avoid the consumption-oriented reading strategies they call out. Gurnah’s Nobel win is an opportunity for scholars to seek out, engage, and build upon, rather than ignore, the intellectual labor of those that have read carefully into his work already, and who are located in Africa and beyond it.

Nicole Rizzuto is an associate professor of English at Georgetown University.






But, first we’ll take this W

By Bhakti Shringarpure

Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Nobel Prize for Literature win raises questions about the role of the LitNobel and how they construct what we think of and buy as African literature.

Photo: Abdulrazak Gurnah at the Palestine Festival of Literature. Image via PalFest on Flickr CC BY 2.0.

The feeling was stronger than previous years, and it did seem like the Swedes were gazing towards Africa. One of the most infuriating things about the Nobel Literature prize committee is how hard they try to be cool and to surprise everybody, and to make sure never to pick anyone who’s on the betting rosters. That’s why I was certain that the Nobel Prize in Literature would not go to perennial Ladbroke favorites, Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o or Somalia’s Nuruddin Farah. I was ready for something outrageous like the prize going to Chimamanda Adichie (you never know though, they may give her the Peace one). I was frankly ecstatic that this year’s choice was Abdulrazak Gurnah, whose novels come to us by way of the sea, from the Swahili coast of Zanzibar.

Abdulrazak Gurnah is the sixth African writer to have won the Nobel Prize in literature.

The others are Wole Soyinka (1986), Naguib Mahfouz (1988), Nadine Gordimer (1991), JM Coetzee (2003), and Doris Lessing (2007). Indeed, he is also only the fourth Black writer to have won the prize; apart from Soyinka, the others are Toni Morrison from the United States and Derek Walcott from Saint Lucia . Unlike the Booker Prize which has historically scored well on the diversity points, the Nobel has always favored the whitest and the most European of all literature.

That said, the Nobel had its heyday of diversity too. There appears to be a tidy alignment between the ascendancy of multiculturalism movements in Europe and recipients of the literature prize. The short spell of the canon wars during the late 80s and 90s, and the furious debates about what is canonical and classical seemed to have directly shaped the way the Nobel’s literature experts thought about the prize. Soyinka, Mahfouz, Gordimer, Walcott, Morrison, and Kenzaburō Ōe won almost in succession from the years 1986 to 1994. For a brief eight years, the LitNobel was diverse, political, progressive, and completely with-it.

What followed was not so bad either. After a short spell of mostly Europeans, the LitNobel crew took a truly international journey from the years 2000-2012. Gao Xingjian from China, V.S Naipaul from Trinidad, Orhan Pamuk from Turkey, and amazingly two African writers, albeit white: South African J.M Coetzee and Zimbabwean Doris Lessing. A side note here: that it was not one but two South Africans (Coetzee and Gordimer) that won this prize, is somewhat astounding. The LitNobel is a pretty committed one-country-of-color only kind of institution. South Africa and China are the only two countries from the Global South to have scored this lottery twice. The LitNobel is essentially enamored by French literature (17 winners) followed by US literature (13 winners) and then British literature (11 winners). Even though it is tempting to think of African countries performing poorly here, it is the vast body of literature from the Middle East and South and Central America that appears to be least rewarded by the Swedes.

Gurnah’s win pushes us to think about the role of the LitNobel and prizes, more generally, and the way in which they construct what we think of, read, engage with, and buy as African literature today. In the end, it’s not too different from the way scholars, critics, and academics do it. Lily Saint and my African literature survey is a good case in point. English language writing is privileged, it’s always about the novel, South Africa and Nigeria dominate. And the place of Egypt, North Africa and writing in Arabic always presents a crisis of categorization.

I remain ecstatic about Gurnah’s win but the elephant in the room here is the snub to the giant of African letters, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. I would go as far as to say that Gurnah would even agree with me that Ngũgĩ more than deserves this prize. Suddenly, East Africa has been put on a pedestal and will come to be constituted into the Western prize circuits. But alas, it has been emptied of its most important, decisively pioneering writer as well as an influential critic and academic: Ngũgĩ. It is a bit surreal but the fact that Gurnah who writes in English was picked over Ngũgĩ, the vocal native-languages advocate also sends a message about the primacy of English language domination in African literature. Undoubtedly, Kenya and Tanzania are vibrant centers of Swahili language, culture, education, literature, and Swahili operates alongside several other languages in these countries. Gurnah choose to write in English, perhaps partially because he fled to the UK at a really young age. But Zanzibar and Tanzania are places which have birthed legends of Swahili literature such as Haji Gora Haji, Euphrase Kezilahabi, and Shabaan bin Robert.

The LitNobel chose to highlight this incredibly linguistically rich region but sidestepped the very man who gave us the “decolonize your mind” mantra entirely premised upon the loss of native languages and who has fought for the psychic, spiritual, and core importance of cherishing mother tongues that were snatched by colonialism. This decision does not simply make for bad symbolism but has concrete and material effects upon the marketplace within which African literature operates, the ways in which the West and “Rest” consume African literature.

This LitNobel for Gurnah has held up the mirror to publishers, editors, agents, and critics. In the US, no one can find his books for purchase or public libraries. Many friends in my tiny circle of African literature lovers have been called by the US media to offer comments and pull quotes; there is a scramble to gain more information on him. The truth is crystal clear: US publishing is truly hostile to African literature. Here, only one, two, three writers are held up to represent an entire continent of over fifty countries and a gazillion languages, cultures, and landscapes.

The visibility factor will drastically change for Gurnah and rights for his books will get bought up and the books will also get bigger distribution. But what about the countless other new and old literary works from the African continent?

But, first we’ll take this win.

Bhakti Shringarpure is an associate professor of English at University of Connecticut, editor-in-chief of Warscapes and author of Cold War Assemblages (Routledge, 2019).