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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 44, New Delhi, October 16, 2021

Awarding a Writer in Exile | Arup Kumar Sen

Friday 15 October 2021, by Arup Kumar Sen


The Nobel Prize in Literature 2021 was awarded to Abdulrazak Gurnah “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents” (Nobel Committee citation). So far, he has published ten novels and a number of short stories.

Abdulrazak Gurnah was born in Zanzibar, East Africa, in 1948, moved to England as a refugee in the 1960s and got settled there. According to the Guardian, Gurnah left Zanzibar after members of the country’s Arab minority were persecuted in the wake of the country’s 1964 revolution. In situating his journey in the context of the present, Gurnah said: “The world is much more violent than it was in the 1960s, so there is now greater pressure on the countries that are safe”. (See

In an interview in 2019, Gurnah situated two of his novels with the following words: “By the Sea is about asylum from several perspectives...Desertion is concerned with the choices people make, or at least what appears as choice...They are also novels of how people sustain themselves and their ways despite the disruption colonialism brought to their lives”. (Postcolonial Text, Vol. 14, No. 3&4, 2019)

When asked to elaborate how his narrative focus has evolved in his novels, Gurnah stated:

“...there is one focus of what I write about: belonging, rupture, dislocation. Perhaps that is already more than one focus, and within those three, there are already many other issues to do with loss and pain and recovery. I write about the resourcefulness with which people engage with these experiences”. (Ibid.)

It is really impossible to limit the creative journey of an author within a boundary. However, the following reading of Abdulrazak Gurnah’s novels provides us a broad perspective of his creative journey:

Through a skilful narrative strategy that employs complex narrative perspectives, vivid descriptions, imagery, symbolism and credible characterization, Gurnah affords the reader an opportunity to read East Africa through the basic units of the community, focussing on ordinary everyday lives and interactions. (Anne Ajulu Okungu, Reading Abdulrazak Gurnah: Narrating Power and Human Relationships, Doctoral Thesis, submitted to the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, 2016)

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