Maria Olaussen
Photo: Janna Roosch

“He provides a new dimension on refugees and migration”


Serious themes such as migration and postcolonialism written about in very accessible prose. This is how Maria Olaussen, Professor of English specialising in literary studies, describes the novels of this year’s Nobel Prize laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah. “This is an author everyone can read,” she says.

Seconds after the announcement Maria Olaussen exclaimed “Oh wow that’s so wonderful!” clasping her hands together in delight.

While many were the very picture of astonishment as Swedish Academy’s permanent secretary Mats Malm presented this year’s choice for the Nobel Prize in Literature, he was not at all unknown to Maria Olaussen, Professor at the Department of Languages and Literatures.

She has met Abdulrazak Gurnah many times and knows his writings inside out and has also developed a large number of courses focusing on African literature and postcolonial theory.

Next week her students in the course Postcolonial Texts and Theories will be reading By the Sea. It was set as a text a long time ago, but it feels especially good now given this announcement.

“All my students are familiar with Gurnah. His books are always very popular.”

Known him for years

The first time Maria Olaussen met Abdulrazak Gurnah was when she invited him to a course and conference 15-20 years ago. On that occasion he was invited to speak as an author and the students had read his books.

Maria Olaussen is delighted that more people will now read Gurnah’s books.

“They’re novels anyone can read. They aren’t difficult – they’re ordinary, realistic novels that are very accessible; no-one could say they’re obscure or difficult. The Nobel Prize means he’ll be translated more, and more people will read his works – which is absolutely marvellous.”

Maria was half-expecting the prize to go to another African author – Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, who has been a hot favourite for many years – but thinks Abdulrazak Gurnah is an even more delightful choice.

“They share a similar language and also themes, writing as they do about postcolonial oppression. But Abdulrazak Gurnah also writes more about relationships within the family, and links these to political developments. And he also builds tension in his narratives. They’re often about established family structures that are no longer functioning as a result of political events. Father and son relationships are central,” says Maria Olaussen.

Abdulrazak Gurnah is being awarded the prize for his “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.

Maria Olaussen emphasises that his is an important and extremely relevant body of work that deals with the situation for refugees. Gurnah himself came to the UK from Zanzibar as a refugee together with his brother, and he initially worked in restaurants and as a cleaner. He is now an Emeritus Professor of English and Postcolonial Literatures in the UK.

“He provides a new dimension on refugees and migration. His works deal with oppression under various occupying powers – not just European colonialism but also the entire Swahili coast and the Indian Ocean, where various rulers have reigned over time,” she says.

Books to start with

The refugee experience is particularly apparent in By the Sea, which Maria Olaussen thinks everyone should read.

“It’s from the perspective of an older man, which is a little unusual, as it's often the perspective of younger refugees that is taken up. It’s also about memory and how the past catches up with you. Gurnah writes in a way that makes these matters pressing – his books are not light entertainment. He writes about things that people will want to engage with and continue to think about. He provides a thousand-year perspective on migration, how cultures change over time; what bestows status and is important for a while and then disappears.”

Paradise is another of Gurnah’s novels that Maria Olaussen also thinks is fantastic.

“It’s about children’s vulnerability and how changes in the political landscape mean being faced with moral dilemmas.”

Since that first conference and the course to which Maria invited Gurnah, they have met many times – at conferences in Istanbul, South Africa and other parts of the world.

“Apart from having talked about what was relevant at that particular conference, we’ve spoken a lot about places we’ve been to and how they’ve been impacted by various factors over time. We’ve also discussed African languages at length. Gurnah writes his books in English, but he also speaks Swahili.”

As a person, Maria Abdulrazak describes Gurnah as being very personable, humorous, unassuming and sharp.

“He’s an incredibly engaging and humble person, is extremely well-read and has taught literature a lot himself. He is engaged in both teaching and research.”

In the book “Africa Writing Europe” from 2009, Maria Olaussen wrote a chapter on Abdulrazak Gurnah’s novel By the Sea, under the chapter heading “Refusing to Speak as a Victim: Agency and the arrivant in Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Novel By the Sea”.  Link to the text: :

Text: Johanna Hillgren and Janna Roosch