Gurnah's win of the Nobel Prize raises hope for African writers

Tanzanian-born novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah. [Reuters]

For some time now, East Africans have been hoping, almost piously, that the Nobel Prize in Literature would "come home!" Nowhere else, though, has this hunch been more pronounced than in Kenya, the home country of world-renowned literary giant Ngugi wa Thiong'o.

For no other known and revered writer(s) in the region have the prospects of a Nobel Prize for Literature win been as high. And "real". Finally, this month, though coming as a surprise to many in the region and beyond, Tanzanian-born novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah, educated and domiciled in the United Kingdom, did it for us.

Even though, for many, a possible Ngugi win seemed more imminent, and would have been bigger, Prof Gurnah's engenders in East Africans, and across Africa, as much vicariousness. Writers and enthusiasts of literature, once more, have cause to be sanguine. And heady. Hot on the heels of Gurnah's win, for example, my friends Collins Okoth and Justus Wekesa, popular book vendors on the arcades of Commerce House and the Indian High Commission, along Moi Avenue and Harambee Avenue, respectively, in Nairobi, told me that soon they could boast a Nobel Prize for Literature winner among their friends. For us, the pride of place and time, is, and will be, for the next few years, palpable.

I have reserved the feat and bellwether of Gurnah's win for the gist of this particular piece, though. What does it mean for us, and the future of (East) African literature? Prof Gurnah, who was born in 1948, and who fled the Indian Ocean island of Zanzibar as a teenager, arriving in the UK in 1968, was obviously least favoured to be honoured with one of the world's most coveted literary awards. Besides the fact that it comes after a long wait, Gurnah is only the fifth African recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature since it was first won by a French poet in 1902.

The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was the first non-European recipient of the award in 1913. He then famously rebuffed an offer of knighthood from the English monarchy in 1915, in protest against the oppressive British colonial rule of India at the time. And it's worth noting that the Nobel Committee's award of this year's Nobel Prize for Literature to Gurnah, an African of Arab descent, follows scathing criticism and disapprobation for a perceived racial bias that has seen prizes go to mainly Westerners. Only recently, the Nobel Committee undertook to embrace and promote racial and gender diversity through its prizes. Gurnah's win this year is, perhaps, the symbolic manifestation and affirmation of that commitment. 

Looked at from another angle, though, Gurnah's win could be seen as confirmation of the world's confidence in and recognition of (East) African writing; that, indeed, it's not for nothing that (East) Africans' names, notably Ngugi's, have over the years been put forward for possible global fete. Gurnah's win, therefore, should serve to break the slough of despondency, and diffidence, that's long strangled literary uptake and output in (East) Africa.

The world is willing and ready to join us in promoting and celebrating our own stories, possibly in our own languages. Our own Ngugi, therefore, shouldn't feel conflicted, or be shamed, for renewing his love for and deference to his native tongue, Gikuyu. The fact that he has devoted his literary swan song to the promotion of vernacular languages in the local literary output, accentuated by his own return to writing in Gikuyu, is, in my view, laudable. 

Gurnah's win once more reinforces the undeniable fact that the best among us, including little-known writers, who every day tackle such peripheral and now-distant subjects as marginalisation and colonialism, still and mostly populate the murkiest reaches of obscurity. Gurnah stuns many, not only for his being too little-known a writer, but also for the fact that despite having sprung from a people reared, largely, on Kiswahili, in East Africa, he scaled the heights of scholarship so high as to reach, and stay, at the apogee of being such a venerable writer and Reader of English at Kent.

-The writer is a votary of global peace, historian and writer based in Nairobi.