Nobel Prize for Literature Abdulrazak Gurnah is not seen as black by his countrymen

The award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Abdulrazak Gurnah had enormous repercussions throughout the African continent. More than the literary quality of the Zanzibar writer’s work, which few people have yet read, it discusses its origin, its belonging to the continent and its literary traditions, as well as the ethnic and geographical criteria of the Swedish Academy. The debate, while more sociological than literary, divides writers, critics and cultural journalists.

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We can start at the surface — the skin. It is not us who define our race: it is others, those around us. Gurnah, for example, was named by much of the North American, European and even Brazilian press as a black writer (the second black African writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature). In Africa, however, no one sees him like that. Abdulrazak Gurnah was born into a family with roots in Yemen, having been forced to leave his native island soon after independence, following a series of attacks on the minority of Arab origin by the black majority. He became a refugee, a condition that is reflected in all the books he wrote, precisely because he was not seen as black by his compatriots.

The poet and literary critic Nelson Saúte, well known in Mozambique for the courage with which he affronts dominant opinions, goes so far as to question Gurnah’s Africanity: “Gurnah was born in 1948 in the former Sultanate of Zanzibar and left there at the age of 20 , having made his life and career in the UK. He is a British writer”. To reinforce his thesis, Saúte recalls the case of Freddie Mercury, who was also born in Zanzibar, two years before Gurnah, into a family of Asian origin, and is rarely referred to as an African musician.

Saute misses one point: Gurnah’s work is African. Its characters are African, living on the continent or in exile. If Freddie Mercury had built his work from the musical heritage of Zanzibar rather than the United Kingdom, he would now be considered, with absolute certainty, an African musician.

Sociologist Elísio Macamo, also from Mozambique, poses a more interesting question: according to him, the Swedish Academy does not usually reward difference, as it intends, but rather proximity. As a general rule, authors who have changed their mother tongue to English and who strive to translate their reality for European readers are rewarded. For Macamo, “these awards are nothing more than symbolic gestures that Europeans use so as not to question each other deeply, as they should have done during decolonization”.

Both Macamo and Angolan writer João Melo are still irritated with the justification given by the Swedish Academy for awarding Gurnah: “for its uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the refugee’s fate in the abyss between cultures and continents”. This, they both say, is trying to turn the writer into an ethnographer of their culture. “I claim my right to write about what I want and how I want it”, concludes João de Melo.

No one doubts the good intentions of the Swedish Academy. However, as my grandmother never tired of remembering, “hell is full of good intentions”.