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The Swedish Academy said the award was in recognition of Gurnah’s “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee.”
Gurnah’s experience of crossing continents and cultures has fed his novels about the impact of migration on individuals and societies.
The retired professor got the call from the Swedish Academy in the kitchen of his home in southeast England — and initially thought it was a prank.
He said he was “surprised and humbled” by the award.
Gurnah said the themes of migration and displacement that he explored “are things that are with us every day” - even more now than when he came to Britain in the 1960s.
“People are dying, people are being hurt around the world.
“We must deal with these issues in the most kind way,” he said.
“It’s still sinking in that the Academy has chosen to highlight these themes which are present throughout my work, it’s important to address and speak about them.”
Born in 1948 on the island of Zanzibar, now part of Tanzania, Gurnah moved to Britain as a teenage refugee in 1968, fleeing a repressive regime that persecuted the Arab Muslim community to which he belonged.
He has said he “stumbled into” writing after arriving in England as a way of exploring both the loss and liberation of the emigrant experience.
Gurnah is the author of 10 novels, including “Memory of Departure,” “Pilgrims Way,” “Paradise” — shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994 — “By the Sea,” “Desertion” and “Afterlives.”
Many of his works explore what he has called “one of the stories of our times”: the profound impact of migration both on uprooted people and the places they make their new homes.
Gurnah, whose native language is Swahili but who writes in English, is only the sixth Africa-born author to be awarded the Nobel for literature, which has been dominated by European and North American writers since it was founded in 1901.
Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, who won the Nobel Literature prize in 1986, welcomed the latest African Nobel laureate as proof that “the arts - and literature in particular - are well and thriving, a sturdy flag waved above depressing actualities” in “a continent in permanent travail.”
Anders Olsson, chairman of the Nobel Committee for literature, called Gurnah “one of the world’s most prominent post-colonial writers.”
He said it was significant that Gurnah’s roots are in Zanzibar, a polyglot place that “was cosmopolitan long before globalisation.”
“His work gives us a vivid and very precise picture of another Africa not so well known for many readers, a coastal area in and around the Indian Ocean marked by slavery and shifting forms of repression under different regimes and colonial powers: Portuguese, Indian, Arab, German and the British,” Olsson said.
He said Gurnah’s characters “find themselves in the gulf between cultures ... between the life left behind and the life to come, confronting racism and prejudice, but also compelling themselves to silence the truth or reinventing a biography to avoid conflict with reality.”
Luca Prono said on the British Council website that in Gurnah’s work, “identity is a matter of constant change.”
The academic said Gurnah’s characters “unsettle the fixed identities of the people they encounter in the environments to where they migrate.”
News of the award was greeted with excitement in Zanzibar, where many remembered Gurnah and his family — though few had actually read his books.
Gurnah’s books are not required reading in schools there and “are hardly to be found,” said the local education minister, Simai Mohammed Said, whose wife is Gurnah’s niece.
But, he added, “a son of Zanzibar has brought so much pride.”
“The reaction is fantastic. Many are happy but many don’t know him, though the young people are proud that he’s Zanzibari,” said Farid Himid, who described himself as a local historian whose father had been a teacher of the Quran to the young Gurnah.
“I have not had the chance to read any of his books, but my family talked about it.”
The Nobel Prize in physics was awarded Tuesday to three scientists whose work found order in seeming disorder, helping to explain and predict complex forces of nature, including expanding our understanding of climate change.
Benjamin List and David W.C. MacMillan were named as laureates of the Nobel Prize for chemistry Wednesday for finding an easier and environmentally cleaner way to build molecules that can be used to make compounds, including medicines and pesticides.
Still to come are prizes for outstanding work in the fields of peace and economics.