The 2021 Nobel Prize in literature winner is Abdulrazak Gurnah The Zanzibar-born novelist is known for his postcolonial works, examining refugee life in England and the effects of empire. He is the first Black person awarded the prize since Toni Morrison in 1993

The Nobel Prize in literature goes to a Black writer for the first time since 1993

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Nobel Prize in literature this year has gone to the writer Abdulrazak Gurnah. The Nobel Committee cited his, quote, "uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism." Gurnah was born in Zanzibar, and during the revolution in the 1960s, he fled to England as a student. As NPR's Andrew Limbong reports, a lot of his writing has to do with people feeling dislocated and lost without a home.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: The Nobel Prize does this thing where they call winners just as their names are being announced. And when Adam Smith from the Nobel Prize website called up Gurnah this morning, the timing was obviously not great.

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ADAM SMITH: The Nobel Prize...

ABDULRAZAK GURNAH: I'm sorry, but the calls are coming in. Can I just say something to this person?

SMITH: Of course you can.

LIMBONG: It was the BBC calling. But after that all got sorted out, Smith did ask Gurnah, as someone who writes about refugees and diaspora, how he saw the cultural divisions within the current refugee crisis in Europe.

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GURNAH: I don't see that these divisions are either, you know, permanent or somehow insurmountable or anything like that.

LIMBONG: That's not to say these divisions are unimportant or even easy to get over.

LAILA LALAMI: The questions that are at the heart of his work is what happens when you have these moments of cross-cultural contact that happen with a power differential.

LIMBONG: Laila Lalami is a novelist, critic and big-time Gurnah fan.

LALAMI: Where it's not as if it's just two people from two different cultural backgrounds or racial backgrounds or religious backgrounds meeting, but what happens when that meeting is mediated by questions of political power?

LIMBONG: Abdulrazak Gurnah was born in 1948 in Zanzibar, an island off the coast of East Africa. He eventually moved to England, started writing, became a professor at the University of Kent. There, he gave a lecture in 2015 about the Indian Ocean and said the dominant narrative of his childhood home was the sea.

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GURNAH: From the upstairs window of the house we lived in then, you could see the dockside warehouses and the DOW harbor and beyond that, way out to sea. Many of the people in that part of town lived by the sea - fishermen, sailors or, less dangerously, merchants who traded the products of the sea.

LIMBONG: He grew up near people from India, Somalia, Yemen, England. Mohineet Kaur Boparai is a creative writing professor who just published a critical examination of all of Gurnah's novels. She says the beauty of his work is combining these big themes - the sea, colonialism, culture - without it swallowing the smaller details of the people living inside these themes.

MOHINEET KAUR BOPARAI: Many of the experiences that people have are micro-histories, which never get recorded in newspapers or in history books, but they're still worthy of being recorded.

LIMBONG: For instance, Gurnah's 1994 book "Paradise" is about a boy whose father sells him to an Arab merchant. And it's heavily in conversation with the Quran without being too concerned how unfamiliar a Western reader might be with it, which impressed Emad Mirmotahari. He is an associate professor of world and postcolonial literature at Duquesne University. Mirmotahari says that his immigrant students and ones from minority communities really latch on to Gurnah's work.

EMAD MIRMOTAHARI: But also other students just sort of identify with the sort of anguish of being alone - right? - and being left on your own to have to figure out who you are.

LIMBONG: Which can describe nearly anybody. Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

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