Abdulrazak Gurnah Wins Nobel Prize in Literature

Abdulrazak Gurnah won the Nobel Prize in Literature for what the judges described as his uncompromising and compassionate presentation of the effects of colonialism and the fate of refugees.

Mr. Gurnah was born in 1948 and grew up on the island of Zanzibar, now part of Tanzania. He arrived in the U.K. as a refugee at the end of the 1960s. The 73-year-old is the first African-born writer to win the award since 2003. Until his recent retirement, he was professor of English and postcolonial literatures at the University of Kent, Canterbury.

Mr. Gurnah has published 10 novels, including “Paradise,” a story set during Germany’s colonization of Zanzibar, off Africa’s east coast. Other works include “Desertion” and “By the Sea,” along with short stories.

Mr. Gurnah left Zanzibar at the age of 18 amid a violent revolution on the island. His work has looked at the effects of the various waves of colonialism on his homeland, which has seen Portuguese, Arab, Indian, German and British rulers, said the Swedish Academy, which awards the annual prize. Mr. Gurnah wasn’t allowed to return to Zanzibar until 1984 to see his father shortly before his death. His stories have also charted the immigrant experience, particularly in the U.K.

“The theme of the refugee’s disruption runs throughout his work,” the academy said. His “characters find themselves in a hiatus between cultures and continents, between a life that was and a life emerging.”

The British Council, a charity aimed at promoting U.K. culture, described his narratives as “all premised on the shattering impact that migration to a new geographical and social context has for his character’s identities.”

Mr. Gurnah’s novels present a part of East Africa that is less well known abroad, a region he portrays as culturally diversified but troubled. The novelist strives “to avoid the ubiquitous nostalgia for a more pristine pre-colonial Africa,” according to the academy’s online biography of the author.

Mr. Gurnah, who the academy said was in his kitchen when contacted about his prize, wasn’t among the favorites to win the award. The Nobel is his first major literary award, with British publisher Alexandra Pringle saying he hadn’t previously been properly recognized.

The previous year’s winner was Louise Glück, the U.S. poet.

Write to Alistair MacDonald at alistair.macdonald@wsj.com

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Appeared in the October 8, 2021, print edition as ‘African-Born Writer Wins Nobel Prize in Literature.’