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Meeting Abdulrazak Gurnah the First Time

Abdulrazak Gurnah was a name I did not know until recently. Until the Nobel Committee in Norway announced him as this year’s winner of its prize in literature, I had no inkling whatsoever who the man was, nor what he represented or could represent for Africa and the literature that reflects its motley realities.

In fact a few weeks before, his name had slipped under my curiousity-crazed radar when Ake Arts and Book Festival announced him on Twitter as its headliner for this year’s event. I merely checked his name, stayed a few forgettable seconds on the flyer and got caught immediately in the other buzzes that are generated almost per second on that social network.

His Nobel citation, that inimitable short bio-flashlight, thus became my entry point to the knowledge of another, if unexpected African literature Nobel laureate. Another, because we always believe we have got deserving laureates-in-waiting, never mind if externalizing affirmation of life-long literary worth isn’t exactly decolonizing. Unexpected, because “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents” reads close to what an African (or broadly speaking postcolonial) writer could have dedicated their writerly life to.

My immediate reaction to his win bordered on perplexity and would shift to saddening shame, only redeemed somewhat later—later when it was clear that nobody seemed to know the man, except very few whose knowledge of him could never have nudged them to think he’d ever be considered, let alone announced as winner of the Nobel. My own perplexity and shame hinged solely on a realization that I did not encounter Gurnah at all across two degrees pursuits at arguably the most important university in the discourse of African literature.

It immediately hit me of course, and I had long known that African literary discourse has long been shifted to the West, more like to the United States. Yet it was clear that Gurnah was an almost unknown entity in that place. You could, however, bet that had they decided to know him before his Nobel win. I might have known him back while I was in school. Many people, who have no academic interest in literature, would have known him too. So the West became the consequential home of African literature, now shapes its discourse and decides who and what will be the subjects of that discourse?

To say African literature syllabus in Africa is dated might be a reach, but I have long thought it could do with more variety than they presently offer. I’d not write about how I might be able to list and talk about more English writers across various traditions and eras than that of Africa. But I meant variety in terms of shifting the grounds of themes and canons beyond the Makerere’s group.

Having experienced that syllabus first hand, I know that beyond the Makerere group, what you’d get are mostly Western-determined concessions to few superstars that represent a detour from the Makerere debates. Novelists as case study: definitely Emecheta, maybe Mariama Ba; definitely Adichie, maybe Sefi Atta or Chika Unigwe to form a binary. Ben Okri is like a canon and he might be placed in relation to many hard-to-know writers around the time he published The Famished Road. Teju Cole, and either of Taiye Selasi and NoViolet Bulawayo to scantily explain the Afropolitan bug. Adichie is a ready and utilitarian pick because beside feminist considerations, they might use her for contemporary reflections on wars that tore Africa in the aftermath of Independence. She has even given us a migrant story too!

The limited scope of Makerere-over-determined literature syllabus is why Gurnah could slip under the radar in Africa for many years. In my utopian world, his announcement would have presented African scholars and every other person involved in literary activity on the continent a chance to stick it to the West for how skewed its interest in our literature was. Imagine if the conversation had been, “well we’d always studied him and known him as a great storyteller of the African experience” and not his obscurity?

You could hardly get a think-piece from Africa that introduces people to him ever since his announcement. As ever, we waited to have it told to us. Just Google-search him, it’s being told to us right now. Gurnah would now take a spot of consideration going forward in literary conversations on the continent, and students would choose his book for their long essays. But there are many Gurnahs and we’d wait for another discovery of them by the West?


Image: PalFest via Flickr, CC 2.0 (modified)

Tobi Idowu
Tobi Idowu
Tobi Idowu, a journalist and literary editor, is a graduate student in Literature at Bowling Green State University.


  1. Yes. This is a sad truth. I felt the same when I heard about him. To get that far in white recognition, without the same from his own people would make (I imagine), for a bittersweet victory.

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