Prior to the Tanzanian Abdulrazak Gurnah, the African continent had four winners of the highest literary prize, all of whom were given after the 1980s. An exploration of his works and legacy
The 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to a writer of African descent after much speculation, wagering, and against all odds. But not in Kenyan Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, who has led favorite lists for years. Abdulrazak Gurnah’s modest profile, devoted mostly to academic work, and limited translation have enabled the African continent to ascend once again with the prize.
Until now, the one born in 1948 in Zanzibar is Africa’s sixth writer. That said, it’s important noting that he writes in English and lives in the United Kingdom, despite the fact that his work is influenced by colonialism and refugee life. Among his most well-known books are Paradise (1994), which was nominated for the Booker Prize and the Whitebread Prize, By the Sea (2001), and Desertion (2005). Afterlives, his most recent book, was released in 2020.
Although the Nobel Prize is an international prize that attempts to gamble on variety, few have been acknowledged in that continent since its inception in 1901 – little more than thirty of the approximately eight hundred overall awards. Only seven writers are native to Africa, and it is debatable whether two of them can be considered Africans from a cultural standpoint.
Although the prize was given in 1957 to Albert Camus, the son of French parents who resided in Algeria – he spent 27 years in this country and 20 in France – and in 1985 to Claude Simon, a native of Madagascar, both are considered French.
So “the first African” to get it is Wole Soyinka, who strangely received it a year after Simon, which is a milestone, since nationality is not typically repeated or indicates a place in this category.
Wole Soyinka, born Akinwande Oluwole Babatunde Soyinka on July 13, 1934, is a Nigerian dramatist, novelist, poet, and essayist who works in English. In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for “modeling the drama of life with a wide cultural viewpoint and lyrical undertones.”
His Nobel Prize acceptance speech was an outspoken critique of apartheid and the South African nationalist government’s policy of racial segregation enforced on the majority. Some of his works include ‘You Will Leave at Dawn’, ‘The Interpreters’, and the collection of poetry ‘A Shuttle in the Crypt’. It has a large and varied body of work that spans many genres and media.
The Nobel Prize for Literature returned to the continent two years later, in 1988, when the work of Naguib Mahfouz (Naguib Mahfouz Abdelaziz Ibrahim Ahmed Al-Basha), the first and only Egyptian and North African writer to receive the prize, was acknowledged. “Rich and sophisticated work that encourages us to rethink life’s fundamentals.” Mahfouz did not attend the prize ceremony since flying to Sweden was difficult for him at his age.
He was born on December 11, 1911, and is regarded as one of the first modern Arabic authors to investigate existentialism. Throughout his 70-year career, from the 1930s to 2004, he wrote 35 novels, more than 350 short stories, 26 screenplays, hundreds of comment articles for Egyptian media, and seven plays.
All of his books are set in Egypt, and he often mentions the lane, which is a metaphor for the globe. The Trilogy and The Children of Gebelawi are two of his most well-known works. Many of Mahfouz’s works have been adapted for cinema and television in Egypt and abroad; no Arab writer has had more works adapted for film and television than Mahfouz. Although Mahfouz’s work is classed as realistic, existential elements abound throughout it. He died on August 30, 2006, at the age of 94, in his native country.
Only three years later, the Swedish Academy would recognize another African artist, this time a woman, possibly with a more familiar name, Nadine Gordimer, a South African activist born on November 20, 1923. Her works started to get literary acclaim from the start of her career, with her first international honor in 1961 – the WH Smith Commonwealth Literary Award for Friday’s Footprint – followed by many literary honors over the next decades.
Gordimer’s literary accomplishments culminated in the granting of the Nobel Prize in Literature on October 3, 1991, which said that Gordimer “has been of enormous value to humanity via her wonderful epic literature.” Her activity was not confined to the battle against apartheid; she also fought against censorship and governmental control of information and promoting the literary arts, among a variety of other causes and convictions. Burger’s Daughter, Better Today Than Tomorrow, and The Conservative are only a few of the numerous work that includes novels, short tales, and essays. On July 13, 2014, she died in Johannesburg at the age of 90.
However, recognition for African writing has been less common in recent years, with just two authors being honored in the past thirty years. JM Coetzee (John Maxwell Coetzee), born on February 9, 1940, in Cape Town, was the next South African on the list in 2003, and arguably the one with the greatest worldwide importance of all individuals on this list.
He is a novelist, essayist, linguist, and translator who is well recognized and critically praised in the English language. He has won the Booker Prize twice, the CNA three times, the Jerusalem Prize, the Prix Femina étranger, and the Irish Times International Prize for Fiction, among other honors and degrees. He was given the Nobel Prize in Literature for depicting “the unexpected participation of the outsider in countless ways” and for his “well-crafted composition, rich dialogue, and analytical brilliance,” while emphasizing the moral character of his work.
Coetzee’s story calls the apartheid system and bigotry into question. To mention a few titles of his works include The Days of Jesus at School, The Iron Age, Waiting for the Barbarians, Slow Man, and Elizabeth Costello.
Almost two decades have gone by since that prize for African writing stood out and was given out, and it is dedicated to Abdulrazak Gurnah.