Abdulrazak Gurnah has won the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature 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 is the fifth English-language writer to win the Nobel Prize in the past decade, following Canadian short story writer Alice Munro in 2013, American songwriter Bob Dylan in 2016, Japanese-born English novelist Kazuo Ishiguro in 2017, and American poet Louise Glück in 2020.
Gurnah, who is based in the U.K. and writes in the English language, was born in 1948 in Zanzibar and arrived in England as an 18-year-old refugee of the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution. (To date, of all African or African-born writers to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, only one, Egyptian Arabic-language writer Naguib Mahfouz, writes primarily in a language other than English.) He taught English and postcolonial literature at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England, until his recent retirement, and is the author of 10 novels: Memory of Departure (1987), Pilgrims Way (1988), Dottie (1990), the Booker and Whitbread prize–nominated novel Paradise (1994), Admiring Silence (1996) the Booker Prize–nominated By the Sea (2001), Desertion (2005), The Last Gift (2013), Gravel Heart (2017), and Afterlives (2020). In the U.S., his works have been published by Grove/Atlantic, the New Press, Pantheon, and Bloomsbury.
"He has consistently and with great compassion penetrated the effects of colonialism in East Africa and its effects on the lives of uprooted and migrating individuals," Anders Olsson, the Swedish writer and literary critic who serves as the current chair of the Swedish Academy’s Nobel Prize Committee, said in his remarks following the announcement of the prize. "Gurnah's itinerant characters in England or on the African continent find themselves in the gulf between cultures and continents, between the life left behind and the life to come—confronting racism and prejudice, but also compelling themselves to silence the truth or reinventing their biography to avoid conflict with reality."
Olsson added: "Gurnah's first language is Swahili, but it was first in England that he began to write literature in the strict sense. English became his literary language, in the tradition of Shakespeare, Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, or V.S. Naipaul. In Gurnah you will always find another story marked by the voices and individual fates that do not confirm the colonial account of history. His stories are marked by the presence of the Quran, or Arabian Nights, and his English is patched with traces of Swahili, Arabian, Hindi, and German."
When asked by an AP reporter, Olsson denied that the migrant crisis and the rise of the far right in a number of countries in Europe informed the Committee's selection of Gurnah. This is consistent with Olsson's comments on the Academy's stated reasoning on its selection process made in an interview conducted by the New Republic's Alex Shephard earlier this week. Addressing the Committee's controversial decision to award Austrian author Peter Handke—who has been accused of being an apologist for Bosnian Genocide—the 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature, Olsson said: "in the Academy, we have to always [have] literary merit as our ultimate criterion."
Typically, the awarding of a Nobel Prize in Literature results in a boost to sales for the laureate's books and their publishers. But Gurnah's books are not widely available in the U.S. as, despite having been published here consistently, many of them are currently out of print. Sales of foreign literature in America are often small for all but the best-known writers, and Gurnah's work is no exception; according to NPD BookScan, his best-selling book in the U.S., Desertion, has sold under 2,000 copies at outlets that report to the service since the book's 2005 publication.
Given the ongoing issues with the supply chain, publishers will be hard pressed to get new books out quickly. These shortages are affecting even Nobel laureates whose works are widely available in the U.S: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, for example, has pushed back the publication date of Glück's highly-anticipated forthcoming collection, Winter Recipes from the Collective, from October 20 to October 26 due to ongoing supply chain issues.
Ellen Adler, publisher of the New Press, said that the press is confirming the rights status of two of the three titles by Gurnah it has published, but will go back to print with a third, Paradise, immediately. "For speed we will do digital reprints and we couldn't be more thrilled," Adler said. "Of course supply chain issues don't help matters but our printers and our distributor have been amazing through this period and I am sure they will pull out all the stops in this case and help us get books into the hands of readers as soon as possible."
Rights present another potential issue to getting Gurnah's books published quickly in the U.S. Desertion, which was edited by Erroll McDonald—who also edited previous Nobel Prize in Literature laureates Toni Morrison and Wole Soyinka—was published in hardcover by Pantheon in 2005 and in paperback by Anchor in 2006. But American rights to the book reverted to the author in 2012, James Meader, executive director of publicity at Vintage/Anchor, said. Grove, which published Gurnah's debut novel, Memory of Departure, in the U.S. in 1988, is "in discussions with his agent, Peter Straus, in London about publishing new editions," said Deb Seager, director of publicity at Grove/Atlantic. (For its part, Bloomsbury U.S. has commissioned trade paperback editions of The Last Gift and Gravel Heart, and is "exploring editions across Gurnah’s catalogue as well," senior director of publicity and communications Marie Coolman said.)
Due to the pandemic, the Nobel Prize laureates will not gather in Stockholm in December for the customary ceremony and lectures. Instead, they will be "arranged in their vicinity," a representative of the Nobel Prize Committee said; the ceremony and lecture will be broadcasted. Ceremonies in Stockholm for the 2020 and 2021 laureates will be held on a later date.
This piece has been updated with further information and for clarity.