The Swedes have succeeded once again in surprising everyone with a stealthy pick for this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. Abdulrazak Gurnah (b 1948) was announced as the winner this year and he is only the sixth writer from the African continent to receive this prestigious prize. For cynics, gamblers, bookworms and African literature connoisseurs, this news comes like a breath of fresh air. Gurnah’s own surprise at having received the prize illustrates just how little love is given to the vast, diverse and dazzling range of literature from Africa.

In fact, this will be Nobel prize magic at its best: suddenly, a relatively unknown novelist will become a household name and Gurnah’s books, which are difficult to access outside of the UK and East Africa, will sell widely.

Gurnah will be celebrated as a Tanzanian writer and thus it is imperative to immediately highlight his tangled and complex identity. Gurnah is really from Zanzibar, an autonomous group of islands in the Indian ocean, which merged with the mainland upon independence from the British in the sixties under the name Tanzania.

However, relationship with the mainland has always been culturally and politically fraught, and Gurnah has admitted that he moved to the UK in the sixties in order to escape state terror against Arabs in Zanzibar. Only six months ago, Samia Suluhu Hassan was sworn into office as Tanzania’s president, the first woman and the first leader in this position from Zanzibar. Gurnah and Hassan both provide us an opportunity to reflect on the silenced histories of “small places” that suffer the impact of colonialism but often remain subjugated by the nation in power as well.

Gurnah also belongs to the group referred to as Black British writers, comprised of people who migrated to the UK from previously colonised regions, and who tend to explore themes of migration and assimilation. Having arrived in the UK without a visa, Gurnah’s writing with its focus on memory and the impossibility of finding belonging is considered an important contribution to this tradition.

Melancholy and a crippling alienation is at the heart of most of Gurnah’s work. He has said that “the loneliness, the estrangement became fertile ground for reflection and led me to writing fiction,” referring to his experiences of migrating to the UK and feeling shocked at the overt racism he encountered.

Today, writers like Leila Aboulela from Sudan, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Teju Cole from Nigeria, and NoViolet Bulawayo from Zimbabwe are far better known for their focus on the themes of migration. But it is Gurnah who must be credited for being one of first writers to articulate the experiences of the journey from Africa to the West.

Postcolonial novelist

Gurnah was almost forty years old when he published his first novel, The Memory of Departure (1987), and despite having lived in the UK for many years and having obtained a PhD in literature by then, it appeared to come from a place of having left home. “I was still leaving,” he told Razia Iqbal in an interview only two years ago.

This first novel had, in fact, been completed over a decade ago but was rejected by the Heinemann African Writers series, which, Gurnah later realised, was because his work was not easy to locate as African or British or diasporic. A few years later, it was his fourth novel, Paradise, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and it was then that Gurnah’s work began penetrating a wider readership and garner critical interest.

Gurnah’s works are not necessarily easy reading, with characters that are often unmoored and weighed down by loss. Protagonists grappling with living on the margins of society, doomed inter-racial love, and a claustrophobic aura of displacement pervades his works. Places are often not named and narrative resolutions are far too few.

There is also a rich intertextuality; references to a web of literary texts that make it intimidating for readers to wade through. Virginia Woolf’s simple but evocative phrase is a great way to describe Gurnah’s writing: “Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither.” His novels, while being cerebral, also tend to be deeply sensory and masterfully evoke vanished worlds.

The Nobel committee spoke of Gurnah’s contribution to postcolonial literature and his exploration of the pernicious effects of colonialism. Certainly this is true, but it is far more generative to reflect on the unique prisms he brings to postcolonial studies. Gurnah’s work centres the ocean as a place from and through which histories, identities, relationships, intimacies and politics are brought into being. The vast yet under-explored Swahili coast is home to a rich amalgam of African, Asian and Arab heritages and it is these worlds that Gurnah maps in his novels.

“The sense of belonging to that Indian Ocean world, at least the part of it that I knew, which is largely an Islamic one which had been sort of incorporated into Islamic epistemology, even if you’re talking about India or Hindu cultures. So that’s one way of understanding, as I say,” he admitted to academic Tina Steiner. “But then these other things that are to do really with more complicated matters. It is the history of violence; it is a history of exploitation, of people coming from elsewhere, particularly the part of the East African Coast that I come from.” It is, of course, no surprise then that Gurnah’s work presents an extraordinary challenge and a provocation to typical ways of reading and thinking about postcolonial literature.

A second important consideration is the way in which Gurnah narrates a lyrical Muslim interiority. Gurnah doesn’t necessarily write or ponder about Islam specifically but given the relentless maligning of Muslim people the world over and with the effects of the War on Terror still looming large on this population, it is crucial to acknowledge that Gurnah’s novels give readers access to an array of Muslim characters fleshed out with care, humanity and complexity.

An African laureate

There is the elephant in the Nobel room this year: the much debated fate of Kenyan literary giant Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o who, once again, did not win, while the work of a different East African writer was suddenly recognised. African literature in the English speaking world is dominated by writing from South Africa and Nigeria. An easy indicator is the fact that two South African writers, JM Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer, have already won the Nobel Prize in addition to Wole Soyinka from Nigeria.

Ngugi writes plenty in English but has been a committed and vocal advocate for keeping native languages alive and has produced works in his mother tongue, Gĩkũyũ. Like Kenya, Tanzania is also a country where Swahili culture, literature and education remain vibrantly alive.

An irony slowly comes into view: Gurnah writes in English even though it is inflected with Swahili and even though Swahili is his mother tongue. The Nobel, it seems, has once again chosen to reward the primacy of English language writing on the continent and has snubbed the one writer who has tirelessly fought against that domination.

But if the ubiquitous idea of “literary merit” is the only thing that counts, as the Nobel committee has been known to say, there is no one more deserving of this acclaim and prestige than Abdulrazak Gurnah.

Bhakti Shringarpure is a writer and academic. She is the editor of Warscapes magazine and the co-founder of the Radical Books Collective. Twitter @bhakti_shringa.