British novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah on Monday received his medal as winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, in a brief ceremony held in London due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Gurnah won the prestigious award in October for his novels unflinchingly portraying the effects of colonialism and the plight of refugees.
The 72-year-old author bowed to Sweden’s ambassador to Britain, Mikaela Kumlin Granit, as she handed him his medal and diploma at a ceremony at her official residence.
He smiled as he showed off the award to warm applause and posed for waiting photographers.
Traditionally, Gurnah would have received his prize from Sweden’s king, but coronavirus restrictions put paid to travel for the second year in succession.
“Since you cannot go to Stockholm, your Nobel Prize medal and diploma has been brought to you here today,” said Granit.
A main awards ceremony, at which Gurnah’s achievement will be detailed in full, is due to take place in Stockholm on December 10.
The prize also comes with a sum of 10 million Swedish kronor (about $1.1 million, 973,000 euros).
Gurnah became the fifth African to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, with the most recent previously being South African writer J.M. Coetzee in 2003.
Born in Zanzibar off the coast of east Africa, now part of Tanzania, Gurnah fled to Britain as a refugee in the late 1960s, later acquiring British citizenship.
The Swedish Academy said Gurnah was honoured “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents”.
“I write about these conditions because I want to write about human interactions and… what is it that people go through when they are reconstructing lives,” Gurnah told reporters at a news conference in London after his win.
‘Something is getting through’
The head of the Academy’s Nobel committee, Anders Olsson, said Gurnah’s writings had particular resonance after a record 82 million people fled wars, persecution and violence in 2020.
“The Nobel prize, it’s an enormous honour,” Gurnah told AFP when the prize was announced.
“It means that something is getting through — that’s what the work attempts to do, persuading or successfully reaching through to people. I love that, I’m so happy about that.”
After his Nobel win, he urged Europe to see African refugees as people who “come out of need” and who “quite frankly… have something to give”.
He has also spoken out against Brexit and the “Windrush” scandal, which saw immigrants from the Caribbean targeted by the government in recent years despite moving to Britain legally in the 1950s and 1960s.
Gurnah began writing as a 21-year-old in England. Although Swahili was his first language, he had learnt English in Zanzibar, a British protectorate until unification with Tanzania, and chose it as his literary tool.
The author of 10 novels and a number of short stories, he is best known for his 1994 breakthrough novel “Paradise”, set in colonial east Africa during World War I, which was shortlisted for Britain’s Booker Prize.
Gurnah also had a successful career in academia, recently retiring as professor of English and postcolonial literatures at the University of Kent in Canterbury. He lives in Brighton on the south coast of England.
This year has seen writers from Africa dominate top literary awards with South African Damon Galgut winning the Booker Prize and 31-year-old Senegalese Mohamed Mbougar Sarr becoming the first writer from sub-Saharan Africa to win France’s top literary award, the Prix Goncourt.