You turn to us for voices you won't hear anywhere else.

Sign up for Democracy Now!'s Daily Digest to get our latest headlines and stories delivered to your inbox every day.

2021 Nobel Literature Prize Winner Abdulrazak Gurnah on Colonialism & the Power of Language

Media Options

Image Credit: Nobel Prize Outreach / Hugh Fox

We speak with Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah, winner of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature, which recognized his “uncompromising and compassionate” writing about colonialism and the refugee experience. He is the first Black writer to win the award since Toni Morrison almost 30 years ago and the first Black African writer to win the prize since 1986. Gurnah discusses his work, which explores displacement, migration and “historical moments that create us.” His latest novel is titled “Afterlives” and will be published in the United States in August 2022.

Related Story

StoryJun 15, 2023“A Carbon Bomb”: Kumi Naidoo on Fight to Stop Construction of EACOP, Proposed Pipeline in East Africa
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we spend the rest of the hour with Abdulrazak Gurnah, the recipient of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature, the author of many novels, including Paradise, Gravel Heart and By the Sea. His most recent book is titled Afterlives. The Nobel Committee recognized him, quote, “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.” He’s the first Black African to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature since Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka won the award in 1986. He’s also the first Black writer to win the award since Toni Morrison won almost 30 years ago, in 1993.

Abdulrazak Gurnah was born in 1948 in Zanzibar, an island off the coast of East Africa which was then a British protectorate but now part of Tanzania. Gurnah fled the country in the late '60s following the Zanzibar Revolution, arriving in Britain as a refugee, where he has lived ever since. He's here in New York, again, for the PEN America World Voices Festival, where he gave the opening night conversation Wednesday night, emeritus professor English and postcolonial literatures at the University of Kent.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Abdulrazak Gurnah.


AMY GOODMAN: Congratulations on your Nobel Prize for Literature. If you can talk about what this has meant to you, the literature that it is recognizing, and particularly your focus on the refugee experience?

ABDULRAZAK GURNAH: Sure. Well, thank you very much for having me on your program.

As we all know, I think the Nobel Prize is a global recognition, so any writer would be absolutely thrilled and delighted and honored to be given the award, not only because of the recognition for the writing, but also because it places you in a pretty strong team, all those other previous laureates. And you think people’s work you’ve read and admired, and you’re now included amongst them. So, the most important thing for — in the first instance, certainly, for a writer, I think, is the honor of this recognition that your writing deserves to be recognized in this way.

The other thing, of course, is that people want to know about your work, want to know about you, as well, not just your work. And that’s terrific, in a certain way, but it’s an expression of just how important I think the Nobel Prize is. So, even if people are not particularly intensely interested in reading literature, or literature of a certain kind, nonetheless the prize signifies something. It signifies something for — in my case, anyway, for people where I come from, who have been overjoyed. It also signifies something about the subjects that I have been writing about, about displacements and migrations, and, as you mentioned in your introduction, about the kinds of experiences of people who are dislocated in this way — refugees, asylum seekers, or whatever it might be. Not only that, but I also write about just being human and relationships and historical moments that create us and make our societies function as they do.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Mr. Gurnah, your work, of course, explores these themes, and underlying it is the experience of colonialism, the effects of which — as the Nobel Committee did recognize you for the way that your work explores the effects of colonialism. If you could talk about that, because you’ve also written extensively on colonialism and postcolonialism in your scholarly work, and, in particular, the question of language? Your mother tongue was Kiswahili, but, of course, you, like many writers in the postcolonial world, wrote in the colonial tongue, in English. If you could talk about that and the significance of language?

ABDULRAZAK GURNAH: OK. Colonialism, European colonialism, transformed the world throughout the — particularly late in the 19th and early 20th century. Part of this transformation is the maps it created, the countries that it created, out of their need for convenience. And one of the consequences of this is the violence and the wars that we have all over the place, and certainly in Africa, where nations that were created for colonial convenience are not really true nations, and there’s constant bickering over the resources of those nations. So I see that colonialism has left us with profound consequences in our modern world, and that are still with us, in a way. It’s not over. Its consequences are still with us.

One of those consequences is language. But, you know, there is another way of thinking about this, when it comes to language. Of course, you would imagine that it would be kind of honorable, as it were, to write or to use your own language in writing literature. You heard your previous guest talking about kind of making a decision between Russian and Ukrainian, because it suggests something about where your affiliation is and where your loyalties are. Well, yes, I see that. But there is another issue, which is to do with writing. And these are issues that, it seems to me, can be confused by this question of loyalty. I write in English because I actually find writing in English very comfortable. It’s like a kind of gift, in a way, to be able to have this language. I could write in Swahili if I wanted. It’s not a problem. So it’s a choice, but not really a choice. I think of a metaphor like, you know, an athlete. You can’t really say, “I’m going to be a high jumper,” unless your body is capable of doing that, or “I’m going to be a sprinter.” You have to have the whatever it is that makes one into all of these things. And I think, from a point of view of writing, there is such an intimate relationship to the language you write, that I think only you as a writer can know that: which is the language that you can move around in this kind of sinuous way that writing has to do.

And anyway, here we are. You know, like I say, this is what happened: colonialism. We were colonized by the British; I learned English. And I found comfort in working in that language. Perhaps if I had been colonized by the French, it might not have happened. Who knows? I often think of the way Derek Walcott put this in his essay, “The Muse of History,” when he, too — he’s talking about English, although he’s talking about the literary tradition of English rather than the language of English, because, of course, most Caribbean people don’t have any choice so far as language is concerned, the way, say, somebody like I, like me. But he said, “They can no more take it away from me than I can give it back.” So, in a way, this is what’s happened. We can’t argue about these consequences. But sometimes we can be thankful that there is a benefit of which language shall I write in. I have a choice.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Mr. Gurnah, you’ve spoken about having grown up in an extended family with your mother, of course, but also aunts and other extended family members and hearing stories that were being exchanged and told by the women. Could you talk about the effect of those stories on your writing and, in general, the translation from an oral tradition into a written one?

ABDULRAZAK GURNAH: Yeah, well, they were both traditions, actually. Quite often the stories that we heard as youngsters, as it were, would have been stories told by the women, because that’s where you usually hung out, as it were. And it was quite surprising just how much was transmitted orally. So, it wasn’t just kind of like small stories about animals or something like that, as you would expect it with children being told this.

I remember, in particular, one incident where there’s a very famous Swahili poem called Al-Inkishafi, which was composed, I should say, in somewhere around about the 17th century or so. And we were sent this as a class assignment to — the language, of course — as with English, the language changes so much, so that 17th century Swahili is not easily readable to Swahili readers. So, as you might imagine, you know, kind of you’re doing Chaucer, then the assignment is “go read this and write it as was — scan it or write it in a modern form,” so that — a way of understanding what’s in there. And I remember doing this homework. My mother never went to school, so she was illiterate. And I was struggling with a couple of lines and couldn’t work them out. And she said, “Read them to me.” So I read them. And she read — she, rather, recited the next two lines. So, she hadn’t read this poem, but she knew this poem. So —

AMY GOODMAN: I can’t bear to say this, but we have 20 seconds.

ABDULRAZAK GURNAH: OK. So orality doesn’t necessarily mean that people are only kind of speaking, because there she learned things that have also been written down.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re not going to end this conversation. We’d like to ask you to stay with us, and we’re going to do Part 2 and post it online at Abdulrazak Gurnah is a Tanzanian novelist, won the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature, again, the first Black writer to win the award since Toni Morrison in 1993 and the first Black writer, African writer, to win the prize since 1986. He’s here in New York for the PEN America World Voices Festival.

That does it for our broadcast. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Stay safe.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Up Next

“A Carbon Bomb”: Kumi Naidoo on Fight to Stop Construction of EACOP, Proposed Pipeline in East Africa

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation