Support literary works, Nobel Prize winner urges governments


2021 Nobel Prize winner in Literature Abdulrazak Gurnah during the 40th International Book Fair at the Sharja, United Arab Emirates, on Nov 4, 2021. [Caroline Chebet, Standard]

Jamaican poet Claude McKay in one of his famous poems titled I Shall Return, once described the longing of going back to the village to loiter by the streams and bathe the brown blades of pending grasses.

One would once again witness waters rushing down the mountains while listening to the delicious tunes of village dances.

The nostalgia describes what the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature winner Abdulrazak Gurnah uncompromisingly brought out in the effects of colonialism and the fate of refugees in a majority of his books.

Resonating with McKay, the UK-based 73-year-old Tanzanian-born writer tells of how he had left the shores of Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania, as an 18-year-old, but it is to the waters of the Swahili seas that he returns to, time and again, to build on finely fashioned narratives where rich histories, identities and relationships intertwine.

 “I left because I wanted better; I wanted to be fulfilled, even if it meant finding fulfilment elsewhere,” Gurnah told The Standard in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates during the 40th edition of the Sharjah International Bookfair.

Prof Gurnah’s universal tales of the trauma of exile, loss, and uprooted lives have resonated with readers around the globe. It brings to light history of forceful evictions and memories of historical cultures that haunt the victims despite success in life.

“Sometimes I wonder who really lost. There were forced displacements that saw many Africans forcefully moved out of their homes but despite the majority having been successful in their lives, they still hold dear their childhood memories,” Gurnah told the Standard in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates during the 40th edition of the Sharjah International Bookfair.

The 2021 Nobel winner has since published 10 novels and numerous short stories, many of which are themed on migration and assimilation, an attempt used to bridge the gap between popular narratives of asylum seekers and the silenced histories of the displaced.

While in most of his books Prof Gurnah expansively talks about historical cultures, he says that a lot of writers in East Africa including Kenya are still struggling to publish.

Most of the authors, he said are dependent on foreign funding to expand their literary works, which can also be supported by governments in a move to expand and promote writing cultures and the love for books.

“The challenge is that in East Africa, authors still lack support to publish their work despite having very brilliant writers. Most of their activities and works are funded outside their countries. Given enough support, African writers can do a lot in expanding their literary work to bring out the cultures and their histories for the world to read,” Gurnah said.

While Sharjah International Book Fair draws thousands of writers and millions of books to be showcased under the same roof every year, Gurnah says East African governments should also keep their histories and cultures alive by promoting book fairs and incentives to their authors to compete in the global stage.

“Sharjah International Book Fairs has continued keeping Arabic cultures through the years through this fair which is currently in its 40th year. If African countries can promote the work of their writers, there is definitely a brighter future for the many brilliant writers,” he said.

Organized by Sharjah Book Authority, under the theme 'There's always a right book', the 2021 edition of the cultural extravaganza has brought together Nobel and Booker laureates, screenwriters of a hit Netflix series, renowned authors, illustrators and creatives from around the world.

This year the Book Fair topped as World’s largest hosting 15 million books by 1,632 publishers from 85 countries, representing 1.3 million unique titles, including 110,000, which are making their debut at the book fair.

“We gather here today to celebrate what has evolved to become one of the world’s largest Book Fairs. We celebrate the literary creations, the greatness of languages and diversification,” said the Ruler of Sharjah Emirates, His Highness Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi.

The cultural extravaganza this year Chairman of the Sharjah Book Authority Ahmed bin Rakkad Al Ameri said the project has not only promoted Arab cultural literary works but has also continued to provide a platform for other literary works including Kenya.

“It is one of the best events in the world. It shows the impact of literature, not only the Arab literature but all across the world. African, Arab, Asian, European, North and South American literature are all being showcased here. It shows the power of books, that there is always a right book,” Al Ameri said.

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