Abdulrazak Gurnah's novels have long been on the reading lists for undergraduate and postgraduate students in the English Department at Stellenbosch University. The recent announcement that the Zanzibari-born author had been awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature was therefore widely celebrated by members of the department and the general SU community.
Nobel Prizes are awarded by the Swedish Academy in Stockholm.
“Gurnah's 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature is a spectacular achievement by an exceptional novelist. He is the only black African writer to be so lauded since 1986, and there is no better time than now to immerse yourself in his fictional world," said Sally Ann Murray, Professor in the English Department.
“Gurnah has a strong personal association with the English Department, established through the department's longstanding commitment to growing the research and teaching focus area of Eastern African literatures as a neglected aspect of 'the postcolonial' and Indian Ocean Studies. His novels, among them By the Sea, have been important elements of SU's undergraduate English literature syllabi since 2008, and his oeuvre is the subject of doctoral dissertations produced by Graduate School scholarship holders in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences," she added.
Over the years, a number of SU colleagues have published on his work, notably in the 2013 special issue of English Studies in Africa which curated critical perspectives on Gurnah's fiction from South Africa, the African continent, and international commentators. Gurnah's fiction also features prominently in Prof Tina Steiner's Convivial Worlds: Writing Relation from Africa (Routledge, 2021).
Steiner, an Associate Professor in English, has for many years fostered the department's ongoing connection with Gurnah. He has been a keynote speaker at two international conferences hosted in Stellenbosch by the department – "The Cape & the Cosmopolitan: Reading Zoë Wicomb," convened with the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies in 2010, and, in 2016, the 17th Triennial Conference of the Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies, hosted in collaboration with the University of the Western Cape. Moreover, he presented a plenary lecture at the international colloquium, “Migrant Meditations," which took place at Humboldt University in Germany in 2013 and was co-hosted by SU, Humboldt and Cheikh Anta Diop University in Senegal.
“On the strength of these relationships, Gurnah took up an Artist-in-Residence Fellowship at STIAS in 2018, where he worked on his most recently-published novel, Afterlives (2020)."
The book has been praised by Ethiopian-American novelist Maaza Mengiste in The Guardian as “[r]iveting and heartbreaking," a “ compelling novel … that gathers close all those who were meant to be forgotten, and refuses their erasure".
Gurnah is the author of “ten immensely readable novels" and multiple short stories that revisit history through the “small lives" of displaced, refugee or migrant characters. See Steiner's opinion article in The Conversation.
He is Professor Emeritus of English and Postcolonial Literatures at the University of Kent and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2006.
Once a schoolboy refugee to England in the wake of Zanzibar's violent revolution of independence, Gurnah had to work through his A levels, and gradually make a life for himself, with writing as a way to process cultural alienation. This influential migrant author is not easily located within the world literary system. Murray explains that “His fiction brings islands to unstable life, showing them as relational rather than insular spaces, and he treats the interior of a country as rich terrain for emotionally-conflicted stories of families and historical trauma."
As Steiner notes, “The Eastern African region and the Swahili Coast, in particular, remain key to the lives and ideas which Gurnah's novels engage, mapping tangled lines of encounter with England and Englishness. Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam, Bagamoyo, Mombasa, Lake Tanganyika, Nairobi, Muscat, Bahrain – Gurnah's diasporic narratives trace swirling histories of love and loss through transnational and transoceanic movements, referencing the Eastern African slave trade and indenture, German and British colonial oppression, as well as the devastating forms of political and social exclusion associated with displacement and economic precarity."
Quoting Steiner and SU Research Associate Prof Maria Olaussen from the Department of Languages and Literatures at the University of Gothenburg, Murray said: “Gurnah's fiction underscores 'the idea of the storyteller narrating from 'a position of weakness' as a condition that keeps narratives open to the complexities of life where pockets of resistance, unusual encounters, and rare moments of kindness break the frame of often dystopian conditions."
Photo: Prof Tina Steiner