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Abdulrazak Gurnah from Zanzibar wins Nobel for Literature


 The writer of beautiful novels, Abdulrazak Gurnah, born in Zanzibar and who had by the age of 18 become a refugee in England, was able to chronicle and analyze the experience of forced displacement that colonization has for centuries provoked, and continues to provoke. The Nobel Committee have recognized his work by awarding him this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, in their words, “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.

What he has written about over his 40 years or so of life as a writer has become more and more centre-stage all over the world, as refugees have in recent decades fled the war on terror. 

His novel By the Sea, for example, is as-if written yesterday, so timely is it. It was published twenty years ago, in 2001. In it, he writes in a gentle, slow way, spinning a yarn around something as ephemeral as the perfume of a little wooden casket that came either from Cambodia or perhaps from the moon, a perfume that stays with you as you read the novel in the particularly vivid way only the memory of beautiful smells from childhood stay with you for the rest of your life. When the immigration official confiscates it at Heathrow Airport, its perfume remains imprinted on the reader’s memory.

Anyway, to spin another yarn, I have a close relationship with this novel by this wonderful spinner of yarns, Abdulrazak Gurnah, who grew up between where I was born near the Indian Ocean wild coast  of the Eastern Cape and where I live now near the Indian Ocean on the Western side of Mauritius. 

When By the Sea’s uncorrected proof came out, I was sent a bound copy of it. It was sent to me by my publishers, who also publish his work, Bloomsbury. The book I was sent looks like a novel, feels like a novel and is a novel, but on its front cover it has a line saying it is not yet a novel, but one waiting to be born: “UNCORRECTED PROOF COPY”, it says, in capital letters. So, I read the divine novel before it was born, so-to-speak. I had then, an inscription reminds me, given it to my husband, Ram, with a note I inscribed on the title page, dated November 2000, for him “to read in Durban”. There the words sit, in my handwriting. The date of publication printed on the left-hand side of the prelims pages of the novel, like all books, and its copyright date are both 2001. 

And on the back cover in the tiniest font is the following warning: “This is an uncorrected proof copy and is not for sale. All specifications are provisional. It should not be quoted without comparison to the finally revised text. It does not reflect the quality, page size or thickness of the finished text.” 

All this to say I commend you to read Abdulrazak Gurnah’s work.

This year the Nobel Prize for Peace, as well as for literature, was awarded to two writers, as well. They are both journalists known for their brave work: Maria Ressa from the Philippines, who bravely took on President Rodrigo Duterte and his murderous squads, and Dmitri Muratov, an independent journalist in Putin’s Russia.

Lindsey Collen