For East African novelists, this year’s Nobel Prize was no headache

When Abdulrazak Gurnah received the Nobel Prize for Literature on October 7 – the first black African writer since Nigerian Wole Soyinka won it in 1986 – you could almost hear the scratching of his head, at least across America: Who was Gurnah and where, exactly, was Zanzibar, the island of his birth? Of course, the Swedish Academy was known for its unorthodox and sometimes obscure choices in the past, and even those who had followed Gurnah’s career for years woke up a bit in shock.

“My immediate reaction was surprise, because his name was never mentioned as a candidate,” remarked Caryl Phillips, the Anglo-Caribbean author who has known Gurnah since the 1980s. surprised every year! Phillips laughed.

Maaza Mengiste, the Ethiopian-born author of last year’s Booker Prize-shortlisted novel “The Shadow King”, had multiple reactions, culminating in joy. “The news was a surprise, even for a price that seems to like to surprise us,” she explained. “And after my surprise, my next emotion was pure elation. He’s a gorgeous writer who works diligently to tell stories he wants to tell even though it seemed like not enough people were necessarily listening. His victory is a triumph for all writers who wonder if their story matters when the spotlight is not on them. “

Indeed, Gurnah has spent his career plugging in regularly and without fanfare – but certainly not without influence and recognition among African writers of all generations. Gurnah’s 10 novels over the past four decades – including “Mémoire du Départ”, “Paradise”, “By the Sea”, “Desertion” and “Gravel Heart” – have drawn a nuanced and layered map of colonialism in Africa. the East and the waves of revolution, exile and loss that followed in its wake. His novels often feature “ordinary people doing ordinary things at extraordinary times,” according to Mengiste – melancholy figures caught between memories of Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania, and a gray and lonely present in England.

Gurnah may not be as familiar to American readers as other prominent “postcolonial” writers such as Michael Ondaatje, Salman Rushdie, and Nuruddin Farah – or Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the Kenyan author many believed to be. shortlisted for the award this year. But for his fellow writers around the world, his work and unwavering perseverance have had a profound impact.

The most visceral reactions were felt by those who wrote from the region of Gurnah and under its influence. “Joy. Nice to meet you. Justified by my affection for the writer and his works”, is how Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor described her first response. The Kenyan author of “Dust” and “The Dragonfly Sea”, Owuor a met Gurnah when he was on the jury that awarded her the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2003. She sees her Nobel Prize as an important recognition of her own literary landscape.

“Gurnah’s work opened a window into the reality of the easy cosmopolitanisms of the East African worlds,” she said. “[He] written as if it circumvented the imposition of the colonial imperative, as if the Swahili worlds were intact, were a continuum. It was always so refreshing. I adopted this attitude, of course.

Owuor’s novels, like Gurnah’s, involve elaborate journeys and a blend of cultures, exploring lesser-known stories of migrations across the Indian Ocean. “I love the way he weaves into African oceanic imaginaries, the long lasting African historical interrelationships with the world and with himself,” Owuor added.

Mengiste confirmed that she felt “indebted to Gurnah for her dedication to writing the stories of East Africa, to creating communities in her books that reflect the diversity of the continent”.

Gurnah has served as both a role model and mentor for Nadifa Mohamed, the Anglo-Somali author of “The Fortune Men”, shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize. When Mohamed was working on his first novel, “Black Mamba Boy”, in 2007, she asked him for advice. “I wanted someone who would understand what I was trying to do with my father’s wild, woolly story set in East Africa and the Middle East in the 1930s and 1940s, and he didn’t there was only one writer I could think of and that was Abdulrazak Gurnah, ”she recalls.“ He was the first person to read ‘Black Mamba Boy’ and I took his comments to heart… and I came home with the desire to write characters as subtle as his. “

Mohamed aspired to emulate his “effortless and natural” style of interwoven storytelling, which brought to life what might otherwise be seen as mere abstract or academic examinations of postcolonial displacement. “You can feel the warm air of the Indian Ocean pass through her novels as well as the crackle of the English rain,” she said.

Not everyone was caught off guard by the news of Gurnah’s prize. Brittle Paper, an online magazine of African literature, quickly published a tsumani of praise from 103 African writers, including Soyinka. His contribution, titled “The Nobel Returns Home”, celebrates how “the arts – and literature in particular – are good and prosperous” in Africa, “a strong flag waved above depressing realities by a confident young generation” . He ends with a cheerful rallying cry: “Let the tribe grow!”

In London, Wasafiri, the international magazine with which Gurnah has been closely linked for more than 30 years, has sprung from late attention. As Susheila Nasta, founder of the magazine, says: “The recognition of Abdulrazak’s now undeniable contribution to contemporary international writing, and in particular to the world of African, Caribbean and Asian literature, moved me deeply, because I battles since the 1980s to bring such writing to the notoriety of the general public. She added that “for Wasifiri readers, the announcement … comes as no surprise.”

The first Nobel Prize for an East African author recognized not only the cultural power of the region (manifested by Ngugi, Farah, Mengiste and many others) but the extraordinary range of the continent’s literature. “Gurnah’s victory is cause for celebration across Africa,” said Ben Okri, Nigerian Booker Prize-winning author of “The Famished Road”. “He is a writer of calm and coherent stability, a writer of important themes. We are proud to have another Nobel Prize for Literature to show the literary wealth of our people.

And yet, just as Gurnah’s novels portray characters in all their regional, cultural, and familial uniqueness, the impact of his victory can be felt most deeply among individual writers who, like him, have worked for a little more than rewards that chance to be read and seen.

Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986. (Pius Utomi Ekpei / AFP via Getty Images)

“It’s a statement,” says Owuor, his fellow author from the Swahili Coast, “of those who work diligently and faithfully in the arena of their art, who do it out of love, and who kindly encourage others. I am so, so happy that the world is getting to know both this courteous man and his lyrical works and the worlds they inscribe.

More so, Owuor found in Gurnah’s recognition a renewed source of inspiration for his own work. “It’s always a boost for the spirit when an author whom we admire so much, who is such a stylist, is also ‘discovered’ by the whole world and in such a dramatic way. I will work hard, work with a bigger smile stuck on my face.

Tepper has written for the New York Times Book Review, Vanity Fair, and Air Mail, among others.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.