Tanzanian writer Abdulrazak Gurnah has been awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature, Reuters reports.
Gurnah received the honor “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents” the Nobel Prize Committee said in a tweet.
The By the Sea author is the first African writer to win the award since Zimbabwean Doris Lessing, a white author born to British parents, won in 2007. Also, he’s only the second writer of color to hail from sub-Saharan Africa, after Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka, who won in 1986.
Gurnah was taken by surprise when news broke that he would be the recipient of the prestigious award.
“I think it’s just brilliant and wonderful,” Gurnah said as he reflected on winning the prize. “It’s just great—it’s just a big prize, and such a huge list of wonderful writers. I am still taking it in,” he said.
“It was such a complete surprise that I really had to wait until I heard it announced before I could believe it,” he added.
Born in Zanzibar, which is now part of Tanzania in 1948, Gurnah currently resides 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’s the author of 10 novels, many of which are written through the lens of the refugee experience.
Paradise, a novel released in 1994, which told the story of a boy growing up in Tanzania in the early 20th century, won him the Booker Prize and launched him as a major voice in the literary world.
In addition to his distinguished literary career, Gurnah was also a professor of English and Postcolonial Literature at the University of Kent in England before his retirement.
“Gurnah’s dedication to truth and his aversion to simplification are striking,” the Nobel Committee for Literature said in a statement. “This can make him bleak and uncompromising, at the same time as he follows the fates of individuals with great compassion and unbending commitment.”
Anders Olsson, head of the Swedish Academy Nobel Committee, praised Gurnah’s work as a writer. “In his ten novels, he 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,” Olsson said.
The Nobel Prize, which recognizes achievements in science, literature, and peace, was created by Alfred Nobel, a Swedish dynamite inventor and wealthy businessman. The first prize was awarded in 1901.
Previous winners of the literature prize include the French philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, British playwright Harold Pinter, and novelists including Toni Morrison, and Kazuo Ishiguro.