He may not be well known in Uganda, but Tanzanian national Prof Abdulrazak Gurnah is a big name representing East Africa in the annals of the Nobel Prize award.
Gurnah scooped the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature award, becoming the first in East Africa to earn it, and the second in Africa after Wole Soyinka in 1986. He is the second East African to win any Nobel Prize after Kenyan national Wangari Maathai won the prize for Peace in 2004.
With 10 novels and several short stories and essays, a number of universities are already offering PhD studies on the life and works of Gurnah. Authors and academicians spent November 22 to 24 at an international literature conference at Kyambogo University discussing and dissecting his contributions to literature and academics in the humanities.
The conference was organized by Uganda Women Writers’ Association (FEMRITE), Pan-African Writers’ Association (PAWA) and Kyambogo University, with support from Aga Khan Foundation, Fountain Publishers, Swedish Embassy and Ford Foundation. With hybrid attendance, it was touted as the first in the magnitude of the historic Conference of African Writers of English Expression held at Makerere University in 1962.
What stood out and got repeated was his enigmatic and provocative style and motif of deliberately pushing European colonial hegemony, centrality and formality to the periphery as he brings to the heights the voices, characters and narratives of the various cultures of the colonized, marginalised and displaced peoples.
It was starkly pointed out that actually Gurnah’s works minimize the space of the colonial whiteman, while expanding the space and audio-volume of the various pre-colonial cosmopolitan cultures of the Indian Ocean where his birthplace Zanzibar is located.
Commentators noted that it is Gurnah’s deliberate strategy of subtle revenge on narratives that give the central and dominant position to the European colonial and neocolonial masters.
Instead, he sinks European colonial voices into ellipses, pushing them into the background, using indirect speech and making them lack strong personalities or characters.
As a matter of fact, Gurnah also challenges the indigenous peoples and cultures to do some soul-searching on themselves, rather than loading all blame on the European colonizers.