In response to Abdulrazak Gurnah having been awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature, Brittle Paper asked African writers to reflect on the significance of this year’s award. Gurnah is the first Black African writer to receive the prize since Wole Soyinka in 1986, and the first Black writer to be awarded since Toni Morrison in 1993. Many Civitellians offered their reactions and congratulations. Read them below, and see all 103 here.

Tsitsi Dangarembga (CRF 1999): “I am delighted that work which highlights still extant structures of colonialism’s ruinous impact on people’s lives today receives such high recognition and congratulate Abdulrazak Gurnah heartily for this achievement. It is a signal to us to continue our symbolic struggle in literature and proof that the writer’s word can contribute to positive transformation.”

Victor Ehikhamenor (CRF 2018): “It is awesome to have Gurnah’s name added to the greats who have won the Nobel. For many who are strangers to his great body of work, which deals with longing, belonging and beyond all of that, I believe this prize will acquaint them.”

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (CRF 2015): “Gurnah’s win is a delightful surprise, not only because of his race, or his long-almost forgotten link to Nigeria. His writing has always had a way of percolating under one’s skin and staying there and I am delighted that because of this win, more readers will seek out his work. But what is even more surprising though is the fact that Gurnah becomes only the second black, African to win the Nobel. I hope it will be just one of many to come.”

Eghosa Imasuen (CRF 2018): “It comes with a shared pride to see Abdulrazak Gurnah awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. To see a lifetime of work appreciated. There is always the hope that a day will come when wins like these are no longer recognized for being ‘firsts’ for a group of people. When this is taken for granted. That Abdulrazak is a great writer and we are happy he won. When good writing, important writing, is rewarded for what it is. Today is a good day. I am happy.”

Toni Kan (CRF 2012): “This was a surprise but a well-deserved win. I say surprise because when we speak of African writers or East African writers, for that matter, Gurnah is not among the first to come to mind. But he has been working quietly and consistently over the years. He now has his time in the sun as Nobel laureate and headliner for this year’s Ake festival. In terms of what the Nobel committee described as ‘his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fates of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents,’ I believe that much of Gurnah’s work stems from trauma brought about by the forceful departure from his homeland and being ‘twice Othered’ as persecuted Arab and refuge seeking African. That trauma and the experience of exile and seeking refuge have informed his works. As a postcolonial writer, Gurnah chose a more nuanced narrative as his way of writing back to the empire in books like Paradise and By the sea, the two I am familiar with. In Paradise, as Yusuf journeys to the Congo with Aziz’s caravan one seems to be reading a new version of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness but without the absence. While Achebe chose a polemical response to Conrad, Gurnah chose a less strident and direct approach which, as we now see, is also an equally valid response.”

Maaza Mengiste (Incoming Writing Fellow 2022): “For decades Abdulrazak Gurnah has been writing novels and essays that have pushed back against historical erasures. His books shift the narrative lens of history to center those who have been written out of textbooks and ignored in global conversations about colonialism and migration. In doing so, he has helped to reshape what we know of the world.”

Masande Ntshanga (CRF 2015): “The prize shining a light on Abdulrazak Gurnah, whose wide recognition is long overdue, is nothing short of a gift to us readers across the world.”

Chinelo Okparanta (CRF 2015): “I’d like to think that Gurnah’s win would allow us all a moment to meditate on the notion of movement—upward movement, we often hope for. We might think of this in terms of migration, immigration, asylum seeking, etc. Such movements often come with human rights violations when those in power seek to prevent the movement. In that sense, in discussing Gurnah’s win, we cannot help but engage, also, with the idea of reparations (as a colleague of mine puts it, ‘the point where debt and guilt meet’). Certainly, by choosing Gurnah, the Nobel Committee is making an important statement about movement. (You decide what the statement is), which is all just to say that Gurnah’s win is an important statement, not just for Tanzania, or for the continent, but for the world as a whole.”

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (CRF 2018): “There is something so poignant in the Nobel Prize for Literature’s selection of Abdulrazak Gurnah to be awarded their 2021 prize. Poignant because he is one of the quiet toilers at the anvil of art, whose self-effacing gentleness, his courtliness does not seek to attract attention to itself and conceals his stature as a literary giant. I can imagine that he will be the most startled at having been spotted and in such a dramatic manner. It is beautiful that more of the world will get to encounter and experience his works with their quiet subversiveness, their casual affirmation of the long history of African cosmopolitanism, of an African oceanic imaginary that is so often neglected or ignored, in his tenderness to flawed and very human characters, his lyrical stylisation, and the storytelling that implants a long resonance in the reader’s heart. His is a panoptic vision where most can find aspects of themselves, their contents and discontents. There is something of the family win in this choice, for Professor Gurnah has so gently, unwaveringly guided, nurtured, supported, cheered on so many new writers, doing so quietly and never failing to offer his endorsement as they set out on assorted literary paths. A heart-warming decision.”

Nii Ayikwei Parkes (DG 2016): Abdulrazak gave the keynote speech at the first African Book Festival we curated in London in 2012, and I was struck by how many people on our mailing list (for the African Writers’ Evening series) admitted that they had never read his work. I say ‘admitted,’ because many readers of fiction from Africa would not admit to not having read Achebe, Okri, Ngugi, Gordimer or Soyinka; such is the level of importance attached to their work. Much of that importance comes not just from the work, but also the persistence with which their work is marketed in the West. Writers like Gurnah, whose work speaks to the complexity of African identities, the West has found difficult to market as it is too far from the monolithic idea of Africanness or European settler narratives that they are comfortable with. For me, that’s the true significance of Gurnah’s Nobel win. It means that the work of writers like Zoë Wicomb and Tahar Ben Jelloun, whose work mines similar complexities might now get more attention in the global market as Western publishers, notorious for trend chasing, seek to find the next big ‘African writer.’”

Noo Saro-Wiwa (CRF 2021): A”frica has some of the most exciting and complex stories to tell right now, and Gurnah is among the best storytellers.”

Uchechukwu Umezurike (CRF 2012): “I am delighted that this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature went to Abdulrazak Gurnah. It is an impressive win for African literature, and it is worth celebrating across the continent. I never knew that Gurnah briefly lived in Nigeria at one time until my doctoral supervisor at the University of Alberta, Dr. Lahoucine Ouzgane, mentioned it while we were discussing the novels of Chinua Achebe and Tayeb Salih a few years ago. Anyway, I remember reading Gurnah’s short story titled ‘Cages’ about a shy shopkeeper and a self-assured maid while working on my short story ‘Rain.’ Not much happens in his story by way of drama, but what I find striking is how Gurnah conveys through austere and pithy prose so much insight into the intensities of belonging and how longings contour places. Equally remarkable is how Gurnah presents the dynamic between the shopkeeper and the maid in a subtle and affecting manner such that we can relate to the dilemma each faces. That story helped me to think deeply about the confluence of desire and belonging. Later, I would come to recognize these qualities of subtlety and poignancy in Gurnah’s fictions about longing and belonging, home and migration. His writing speaks to our times, especially these times of anti-immigration and the fear of foreigners. Doubtless, Gurnah has a fantastic body of work, but of singular importance to me is that his vision of humanity is oceanic. For me, this epitomizes a cosmopolitan ethos that every writer should evince in their relationship with the world.”

Chika Unigwe (CRF 2008, Juror): “For years, we’ve waited for the Nobel in Literature to return to Africa, not as a validation of the place of African literature in the world or anything of the sort, but rather as an acknowledgement of it. Gurnah absolutely deserves it. He’s an incredible writer whose works are also accessible. I’m glad for the widened readership he’s sure to gain.”