Zanzibar-born Abdulrazak Gurnah became the most talked-about writer in the world when he won this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, yet he is little known in Tanzania.
The accolade for the 72-year-old author was hailed as ground-breaking for African writing, but in bookshops across the East Africa nation, Gurnah’s novels are nowhere to be found.
“If you show his picture here, people will be seeing him for the first time,” says Ally Saleh, a writer and poet from Zanzibar, the archipelago where Gurnah grew up and which was later incorporated into Tanzania.
“A very small percentage of people in Tanzania will know about his work.”
While Gurnah’s books have been primarily marketed in the UK, where he has lived for the last five decades, his 10 novels analyse issues close to the heart of Zanzibaris.
He explores the impact of colonialism on East African identity, and the experiences of refugees as they are forced to seek homes elsewhere.
Gurnah himself left his home aged around 18 – fleeing the turmoil and violence that followed the 1964 revolution which overthrew Zanzibar’s Arab minority ruling elite.
Afterwards Zanzibar united with mainland Tanganyika to form Tanzania. The writer retains a strong connection to the island, which remains the backdrop for many of his stories.
“It is important for Tanzanians to read Abdulrazak’s work. He covers a lot of the realities of being Tanzanian both at home and overseas,” says Mkuki Bgoya, director of Tanzanian publishers Mkuki na Nyota.
“Often as East Africans, we see the world through other people’s eyes. But with Gurnah, we can also see ourselves.”
Since the announcement of the award in October, some Tanzanians has been left wondering how an author of Gurnah’s stature could fall under the radar back home.
It has also sparked debate about the country’s declining reading culture.
After the Zanzibar uprising, the new regime overhauled the education curriculum, placing less emphasis on literature. Currently none of Zanzibar’s three universities teach literature as a degree.
“Following the revolution, the government closed several book clubs and libraries. Many excellent teachers left the country,” says Ismail Jussa, a Zanzibari opposition politician.
“Education was given a raw deal, standards dropped and with that, the reading culture became one of the many casualties.”
On the mainland, there has similarly been a steady decline in the availability of literary works.
Over the years, Tanzania’s libraries, schools and bookshops have focused on textbooks and educational books, limiting access to fiction.
While non-fiction and newspapers remain the more popular forms of reading, the rise of technology is now focusing the youth’s attention on digital media.
As a result, Tanzania has been left with a publishing industry struggling to sell literature.
Books – a luxury item
TPH Bookshop, the sister company of Mkuki na Nyota, in Tanzania’s main city Dar es Salaam, has been one of the few bookshops in the country to stock Gurnah’s work.
“We saw a huge gap in the publishing industry in Tanzania, which focuses solely on educational books. To address that we started producing and selling fiction, poetry and other literary works. Particularly works written by Tanzanians,” says Mr Bgoya.
“Gurnah’s novels took a long time to sell, so we didn’t restock.”
With a small customer base, this drives up the prices of books, making it unaffordable for many.
“The market is small and it cannot absorb a lot of books,” he says.
“They become very expensive, and when you are in a cash-strapped economy books become a luxury item.”
Until now, Gurnah’s work has also not been included on the country’s literature syllabus at schools, despite the inclusion of other Swahili and African writers.
“He made his mark outside of Zanzibar and he has been away since 1967,” says Mr Jussa.
“So he was only known to a small circle of keen readers who follow literary works of Zanzibaris.”
Swahili translations coming
One reason for this is that Gurnah writes in English – not in Swahili, the language spoken by the majority of Tanzanians and which is the Nobel laureate’s mother tongue.
There have been fresh calls to translate his novels into Swahili.
“I think if his work could be read in East Africa it would have such an impact”