2021 Nobel Prize winner is visiting China

Updated: Mar 11, 2024 By ZHANG KUN in Shanghai chinadaily.com.cn Print
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Abdulrazak Gurnah, winner of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature, is visiting China for the first time.

The Tanzanian-born British novelist arrived in Shanghai on March 5. In the week's time during his stay in China, he will visit Shanghai, Ningbo of Zhejiang province, and Beijing, when he will give lectures, talk with Chinese writers and communicate with Chinese readers at a series of book club activities.

The 76-year-old writer has created 10 novels, all published in Chinese by Shanghai Translation Publishing House. In 2021 he was award the Nobel Prize in Literature "for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fates of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents."

Winning the Nobel Prize has made no difference in his life as "it was not in my mind, not in anybody else's mind that it would be Abdulrazak Gurnah this year, who wins the Nobel Prize," but then it is an important recognition because the prize has such a powerful global reach that it leads to more translations and more readers, he said at the Sinan Book Club in Shanghai on March 7.

Gurnah was born in Zanzibar, which later became part of Tanzania. He earned his PhD at the University of Kent with studies of African literature and later he became a professor of English and postcolonial literature at the university. He retired in 2017 and is now professor emeritus at the university.

Gurnah said he didn't plan to make a career as a writer from an early age, and recognition didn't come easy. His first novel, Memory of Departure was published in 1987, 12 years after it was written.

At the lecture he gave in East China Normal University Gurnah spoke about the complex cultural reality he came from by introducing the archaeological findings in Zanzibar, consisting of pottery and glass from South Arabia, Iran, India, Thailand and further east.

Citing the writing of American scholar Louise Levathes, he talked about Zheng He, a legendary admiral, mariner and diplomat from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), among the travelers following the seasonal monsoon from all over the world to Zanzibar.

"I grew up with stories of the many connections between us and places across the ocean," he said on March 6 in Shanghai. "A walk on the beach on parts of the coast would deliver shards of celadon pottery, first made in China, and part of the debris left behind from Admiral Zheng He's expedition. There were stories of Chinese people who stayed behind after the armada sailed away. Many such stories of the connection across the ocean would have seemed like legends or myths if I had not seen the evidence of this varied humanity every year and just outside our doorstep."

Gurnah said that he grew up discontented with the historical narrative of the colonial presence and activities, and how this narrative required the simplification of their complex cultures. "This discontent was one of the impulses that led me to writing," he said in a lecture at East China Normal University. "I left my country in some turmoil when I was 18 years old, and that experience of departure, and wanting to retrieve my knowledge and understanding of what I left behind was the other impulse."

Shanghai Translation Publishing House (STPH), a publisher dedicated to the translation and publication of outstanding literature all over the world in China, acquired copyrights to all the 10 novels by Gurnah as soon as the Nobel Prize in Literature was announced in 2021, and had them published in two phases, in 2022 and 2023 respectively, according to Huang Yuning, deputy editor-in-chief of STPH. His 11th novel, which the author wrote after winning the grand prize, will soon be published in Chinese too.

Shanghai-based writer Sun Ganlu commented on the Chinese version of Gurnah's novels "Admiring Silence" and "Paradise", saying that he was amazed how well Gurnah's clear and accurate narrative of very complex situations had been successfully translated into Chinese, a much different language that is rich with nuances and relies heavily on the context.

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