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2021's Nobel Prize in literature goes to novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The winner of the most prestigious prize in world literature was announced this morning in Sweden.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: This year's Nobel laureate in Literature, the novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah, was born in 1948 in Zanzibar.

INSKEEP: In Zanzibar, which is a big part of the story here because he writes, according to the Nobel Committee, about colonialism and the fate of refugees. So we're talking about stories with a real sense of place. NPR's Neda Ulaby is here to tell us more. Good morning.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So a man who tells stories who has a story of his own. What is it?

ULABY: Well, Abdulrazak Gurnah is a recently retired professor of English and postcolonial literature. He came to England, though, in 1968 as a very, very young man. He arrived soon after the revolution. He was a refugee. He was fleeing civil unrest and persecution. And he's written that kind of experience into his novels, which first started getting published in the 1980s. He's written around a dozen books, Steve, plus, of course, scholarly work as a professor. He co-edited a book about Salman Rushdie, another name who gets batted around as a Nobel literature laureate every so often.

INSKEEP: Was he someone who was expected to win?

ULABY: He was not particularly high up on the list of the people who track these things. Usually, you see marquee names like Margaret Atwood from Canada or Lyudmila Ulitskaya from Russia. But there was a real awareness in literary circles that it's been 35 years since a Black writer from Africa won the literature Nobel. The last time was Wole Soyinka from Nigeria. So many critics would say this win was not only deserved, but it's incredibly overdue.

INSKEEP: But most people can be forgiven, I think, at least in this country, for not being familiar with his work. So what are his books like?

ULABY: You know, he's the kind of writer whose books get described as sprawling but intimate. They take you into the lives of boys sold into slavery and who survive and persevere. They're about travelers trying to find statehood, the struggle of migrants trying to reconcile cultural chasms with their dreams of the past. His book "Paradise" was shortlisted for a Booker Prize in 1994, and we've got a reading from the author from his book "Gravel Heart," published in 2017. In this clip, the narrator is describing a photograph of his grandfather.

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ABDULRAZAK GURNAH: (Reading) The white linen suit was more ambiguous. That it was a suit was a salute to Europe, as were the brown shoes in a sandal-wearing culture. But the suit was white, which, when worn with modesty, was the color of homage and prayer and pilgrimage, the color of purity and devotion. The photograph was saved from any air of vanity by the exaggerated crossing of the calves and by the uncertain, half-apologetic smile on his round, chubby face, as if he was wondering if he had gone too far in his dressing up.

INSKEEP: Really appreciate the precise observation there. Now, you noted that he's writing about refugees in many cases, which feels very topical. Is that part of the reason for his selection?

ULABY: You know, over the years, the Nobel Committee has made a huge deal about saying that their selections are based only on literary merit. It has nothing to do with whatever is happening in the world at the moment. And the head of the Swedish Academy said exile and migration are nothing new. The committee's followed Gurnah's work for a long time. But he did say these novels about the lives of uprooted and migrant people will be interesting to many readers right now.

INSKEEP: Neda, thanks so much.

ULABY: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Neda Ulaby.

(SOUNDBITE OF AS THE POETS AFFIRM'S "I AM PLEASANT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.