Dar es Salaam, Tanzania – The award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Zanzibar-born writer Abdulrazak Gurnah has sparked celebrations and sparked a lively debate about identity in Tanzania.
Many in the country recognize the recognition of Gurnah’s work among the handful of African novelists who have won the prestigious award, but others question whether Tanzanians can really claim the England-based writer as their own.
Gurnah, whose body of work includes 10 novels, left the Zanzibar archipelago in Tanzania as a refugee for the United Kingdom in late 1967, three years after a revolution that sought to end the political dominance of the minority Arab population over the African majority. . The months and years that followed were dominated by deep divisions, tensions and revenge.
In telling her story, Gurnah said that she managed to obtain only a one-month tourist visa that allowed her to travel to Great Britain, where she enrolled for A-level studies at a technical school in Canterbury, south-eastern England.
In its announcement Thursday, the Swedish Academy said the 73-year-old was honored “for his uncompromising and compassionate insight into the effects of colonialism and the fate of refugees in the gap between cultures and continents.”
Both the presidents of Tanzania and the semi-autonomous Zanzibar were quick to praise Gurnah’s achievement.
“The award is an honor for you, our nation of Tanzania and Africa in general,” tweeted Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan. For his part, Zanzibar leader Hussein Ali Mwinyi said: “We fondly acknowledge his writings that focus on speeches related to colonialism. Such milestones bring honor not only to us but to all of humanity. “
I dedicate this Nobel Prize to Africa and Africans and to all my readers. Thanks! #Nobel Prize
– Abdulrazak Gurnah (@AbdulGurnah) October 7, 2021
Gurnah himself also took to Twitter to “dedicate this Nobel Prize to Africa and Africans and to all my readers.”
In an interview with the AFP news agency, the retired professor from the University of Kent highlighted his close ties with Tanzania.
“Yes, my family is still alive, my family still lives there,” he said. “I go there when I can. I’m still connected there … I’m from there. In my mind I live there. “
At home, the Gurnah award sparked long and passionate online discussions about belonging and identity, invoking, quite unexpectedly, politically charged debates about the union between Zanzibar and the mainland, whose relationship has not always been rosy, despite Since Zanzibar is semi-autonomous, with its president and parliament, there are still aspirations for greater independence from the union government.
“The debate on the“ Tanzanian ”identity of Abdulrazak Gurnah should be a wake-up call and a trigger for our government to think about the following: (i) Justice; (ii) dual citizenship; (iii) Union affairs; (iv) quality education and teaching: how are we doing in writing and literature? “tweeted social scientist Aikande Kwayu.
Dual citizenship has long been a debated topic, and more and more Tanzanians, especially those in the diaspora, are advocating for its implementation. Successive governments have stood by, often citing constitutional restrictions.
“One of the reasons that Tanzania cannot allow dual citizenship is the fear that Abdulrazak Gurnah and his grandparents, who fled Zanzibar to escape persecution by Arabs during the Zanzibar Revolution, will return and claim their stolen property. . And are we blatantly celebrating their victory? “Erick Kabendera, journalist, wrote.
One of the reasons that Tanzania cannot allow dual citizenship is the fear that Abdulrazak Gurnah and his grandparents, who fled Zanzibar to escape persecution by Arabs during the Zanzibar Revolution, will return and claim their stolen property. And are we blatantly celebrating their victory? https://t.co/4Xwfhj51LY
– Erick Kabendera (@kabsjourno) October 7, 2021
But others believe that the long time he spent abroad should not deprive him of his roots.
“Gurnah identifies himself as a Tanzanian of Zanzibar origin. Living in the diaspora, having been exiled or even feeling dislocated from your country does not take away your heritage and identity. That’s part of who he is, ”said Ida Hadjivayanis, a professor of Swahili studies at the London School of Oriental and African Studies.
“There are so many people who live in the diaspora with children of foreign nationality but who identify as Tanzanians, and that is the homeland.”
Hadjivayanis, a native of Zanzibari, said she was excited beyond words for Gurnah’s victory.
“Gurnah is an author who tells the truth,” he said, describing his work as honest. “Their experiences (characters in the books) are familiar, their bond with home (Tanzania and especially Zanzibar) often strikes a chord.”
Hadjivayanis first read Gurnah’s work in 2003 and is currently translating her 1994 novel Paradise into Swahili. Noting that many in Tanzania have yet to read this writer’s books, he called on the government to include his works in the school’s curriculum.
Mkuki Bgoya, director of one of the largest independent publishers in Tanzania, agreed that Gurnah is not a household name in Tanzania. He recalled a situation in the past where his books took a long time to sell, something he hopes to change quickly after the Nobel Prize.
He said the reason could be the writing language used in the books, but also a generally poor reading culture in Tanzania. But after the award, Bogoya said she believed that not only would local fiction writers be inspired to create more, but it would also spark more interest in novel reading among local readers.
“Our reading culture is strongly inclined towards non-fiction books. A lot of people read motivational books, ”Bogoya said.
“The book industry in Tanzania is dominated by textbooks and most publishers focus on textbooks. This leaves a very small space for other genres such as poetry, the novel and the short story ”, he added.
“Now, we have paid a lot of attention to this award and are having passionate conversations about it; the importance of this work is that it validates fictional work, particularly on Tanzanian or Tanzanian-inspired themes.”