The writing of Abdulrazak Gurnah, winner of the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature

In one of the most memorable incidents in Abdulrazak Gurnah’s novel By the Sea (2001), the protagonist Saleh Omar, now an elderly man living in England, looks back at his schooldays in Zanzibar and remembers a teacher who introduced the story of Christopher Columbus to his pupils. The small boy identifies with Columbus and, in his recollection of the importance of this event, Saleh Omar describes it as a ”a fabulous and unrepeatable moment, as if I too had stumbled across an unimagined and unexpected continent. It was the moment at the start of a story” (37). In this discussion of the works of Abdulrazak Gurnah, I will focus on the importance of stories in Gurnah’s novels and their function in sustaining or shifting concurrences of imaginative events. Many of the novels, like Paradise (1994), The Last Gift (2011), Gravel Heart (2017) and Afterlives (2020) include and build on well-known legends and literary works while telling stories of global migration. The discursive shifts are often multi-layered, as in the recollection of the memorable moment in By The Sea. In this way, they draw our attention to how these earlier narratives influence and form the way we perceive events but also to how they carry the possibilities of change.

Maria Olaussen, Professor of English, University of Gothenburg.

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