As soon as the Tanzanian writer Abdulrazak Gurnah was announced as the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, questions arose about why Gurnah and the African literature he represents was little known among Arab readers. It came to the point of publishers and Arab academic institutions exchanging accusations of negligence in introducing the Arab public to the efforts of African writers.
In Gurnah’s case, the question arose particularly because, though born in Tanzania, he is of Arab origin and has shown solidarity with Arab causes throughout his long career. Writing in English, he has published ten novels, including “Paradise,” which was short-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize in 1994.
Still, his winning of the Nobel Prize came as a surprise to many.
Shereen Abouelnaga, a professor of English and comparative literature at Cairo University, said: “The reaction of Arab readers is natural, because the Nobel surprise extended to Gurnah himself.”
Gurnah thought the news of his victory was just a joke, she said, “until he watched the Chairman of the Nobel Committee, Anders Olsson, on the Internet describing his novels and saying his writing opens our eyes to a culturally diverse East Africa that is unfamiliar to many in other parts of the world.” (See a related article, “Preserving the Vanishing Heritage of East Africa’s Swahili Coast.”)
Abouelnaga worked closely with Gurnah when she moderated a symposium presented by the writer when he visited Cairo in 2016. “His career is an exemplary case for writers with multiple identities, taught in the context of postcolonial literature,” she told Al-Fanar Media.
“His career is an exemplary case for writers with multiple identities, taught in the context of postcolonial literature.”Shereen Abouelnaga
A professor of English and comparative literature at Cairo University
Arab Origins, but Unknown to Arabs
Despite his Arab origins, his solidarity with Arab issues, and the intersection of his academic interests with those of the Arab region, Gurnah’s writing rarely reaches Arab readers.
Abouelnaga noted that Gurnah, who recently turned 73, “was born in July 1948 in Zanzibar, when it was under the rule of the Omani Sultan, and his roots go back to a family whose origins are from Yemen.”
Gurnah was forced to flee from Zanzibar when he was 18, she added, and went to study in Britain in 1968. Between 1980 and 1982, he taught at a university in Nigeria, then moved to the University of Kent, where he obtained his doctorate in 1982. He continued working there as a professor of English literature, specializing in postcolonial literature.
The Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif welcomed the news of Gurnah’s Nobel victory in a post on her Facebook page: “Gurnah did not hesitate to show any solidarity action with Arab issues, but rather participated in the Palestine Festival of Literature” in 2009, she wrote. Her post includes a picture of him participating in a panel discussion at Hebron University. He also visited many Palestinian cities and read his works there. (See a related article, “Palestine Festival for Literature Shifts Its Perspective.”)
Gurnah also joined other writers in a statement expressing solidarity with the Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie after she was withdrawn from a German award because of her support for boycotts of Israel.
Who Defines ‘African Literature’?
Arab publishers, for their part, assert that the definition of “African literature” is not theirs to decide.
“The Arab reader does not generally accept African literature,” said Sherif Bakr, general manager at Al Arabi Publishing and Distributing, in Egypt. Arab readers view African literature with “a lot of arrogance,” he said. “Sometimes we have to explain that the writer has a dual identity to excite and persuade readers.” (See a related article, “Black Saudi Author Focuses on Neglected History of African Migration and Slavery.”)
Karam Youssef, director of Al Kotob Khan publishing house and bookshop, in Cairo, agreed with Bakr’s view. She attributed the lack of interest of Arab readers in African literature to “the inferior view that has taken root in our minds towards Africa in general, because we are governed by subordination to the West.”
Gurnah’s Nobel victory “certainly changes my vision. It pushes me, like other publishers, to contact his literary agent and compete to translate his works into Arabic.”Karam Youssef
Director of Al Kotob Khan publishing house and bookshop, in Cairo
Youssef hosted Gurnah at Al Kotob Khan for his symposium in Cairo in 2016, but she was not considering translating his works to Arabic at the time. His winning of the Nobel Prize, however, “certainly changes my vision,” she said. “It pushes me, like other publishers, to contact his literary agent and compete to translate his works into Arabic.”
Postcolonial Studies at Arab Universities
The Jordanian critic Fakhri Saleh, who specializes in postcolonial studies and has translated texts by the prominent Palestinian critic Edward Said, said: “The award of the prize this year to an African writer is an indication that the grumbling about the centrality of the Western prize prompted the committee to go south this time, even if the winner writes in English, one of the major European languages.”
Abouelnaga said that when Gurnah was nominated for the 2016 symposium, “the majority responded, We have not heard about him. But he participated and gave an important lecture titled Reading the World.”
“Gurnah himself represents a text that can be studied and read, thanks to the layers of multiple identity it represents,” Abouelnaga said. But she considers him a “problematic model”: “Gurnah is classified within the current of postcolonial literature, but he writes in his own language. He is the owner of a turbulent text, as he writes according to the standards of postcolonial theories.”
Abouelnaga defends academic institutions, saying they have fulfilled their responsibility to introduce this literature. Arab scholars have produced many studies of on it within the framework of postcolonial studies, she said. She added, however, that “these theories themselves are no longer able to keep pace with the new changes, after problems arose regarding integration and refugee acceptance, which differ from the context in which writings of the likes of Ahdaf Soueif, Gurnah, and Salman Rushdie developed during the 1970s.”
“The award of the prize this year to an African writer is an indication that the grumbling about the centrality of the Western prize prompted the committee to go south this time, even if the winner writes in English, one of the major European languages.”Fakhri Saleh
A Jordanian literary critic and scholar
Khairy Douma, a professor of modern Arabic literature at Cairo University, agrees that this literature has not been ignored: “We have many master’s and doctoral researches dedicated to it.” He pointed out that years ago, he translated a book titled “The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures” by the scholars Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin.
The book sheds light on the emergence of postcolonial literature as a powerful and diverse new style of writing by authors in countries such as India, Australia, Africa and Canada.
These texts represent a radical critique of the assumptions on which Eurocentrism’s visions of language and literature are based, Douma says. He asserts that Gurnah represents one of the brightest examples of this literature.
Faten Morsi, a professor of English literature at Ain Shams University, also defended Arab academics, saying their research on this type of writing “is very prolific.”
“Radwa Ashour began this trend many years ago with her book “The Follower Rises: The Novel in West Africa,” in which she called for more attention to African literature,” Morsi said. She added that there is a trend within universities now “to return to the study of classic English texts after postcolonial studies have prevailed.”
Bringing Research to the Public
Karma Sami, director of the National Center for Translation in Egypt, confirms that universities have done their part in producing studies on this literature. It’s now up to other institutions to make this knowledge available to the public, she said.
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In the future, the translation center “will seek to publish jointly with universities to make this production available to the general reader,” she said. The problem is, she added, “that most academic productions are written in a specialized language that does not meet the needs of the general reader.”
Sami, who is also a professor of English literature at Ain Shams University, said she expected that the majority of Arab publishing houses will now compete to publish Gurnah’s work. But she also predicted that his literary production “will not come as a big surprise, but rather will fit in with the general line in postcolonial writings.”