The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded on Thursday to Abdulrazak Gurnah for “his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”
Mr. Gurnah was born in Zanzibar, which is now part of Tanzania, in 1948, and currently lives in Britain. He left Zanzibar at age 18 as a refugee after a violent 1964 uprising in which soldiers overthrew the country’s government.
He is the first African to win the award in almost two decades and the fifth overall, after Wole Soyinka of Nigeria in 1986, Naguib Mahfouz of Egypt in 1988, and the South African winners Nadine Gordimer in 1991 and John Maxwell Coetzee in 2003.
Mr. Gurnah’s 10 novels include “Memory of Departure,” “Pilgrims Way” and “Dottie,” which all deal with the immigrant experience in Britain; “Paradise,” shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994, about a boy in an East African country scarred by colonialism; and “Admiring Silence,” about a young man who leaves Zanzibar for England, where he marries and becomes a teacher.
Gurnah’s first language is Swahili, but he adopted English as his literary language, with his prose often inflected with traces of Swahili, Arabic and German.
Anders Olsson, the chair of the committee that awards the prize, said at the news conference on Thursday that Gurnah “has consistently and with great compassion, penetrated the effects of colonialism in East Africa and its effects on the lives of uprooted and migrating individuals.”
Laura Winters, writing in The New York Times in 1996, called “Paradise” “a shimmering, oblique coming-of-age fable,” adding that “Admiring Silence” was a work that “skillfully depicts the agony of a man caught between two cultures, each of which would disown him for his links to the other.”
In an interview with the website Africainwords earlier this year, Gurnah spoke about how, throughout his career, he has been engaged with the questions of displacement, exile, identity and belonging.
“There are different ways of experiencing belonging and unbelonging,” he said. “How do people perceive themselves as part of a community? How are some included and some excluded? Who does the community belong to?”