Abdulrazak Gurnah won the Nobel Prize for Literature last week, and it meant a great deal. He is only the fifth person of African birth to win the prize, and the closest to our own shores -- his birthplace is Zanzibar, that captivating, mysterious island across the waters from Kenya.
Why is this such a big deal? First and foremost: the writing. Without hesitation, I would list Abdulrazak as one of my favourite five contemporary writers -- alongside two other Nobel laureates, Kazuo Ishiguro and Patrick Modiano. The remaining two slots would be up for debate, but those three are taken.
Abdulrazak spent his youth in the Spice Islands before being forced to flee -- leaving his parents behind -- after the bloody revolution of the 1960s visited purges and calamities on so many. He arrived in England in 1968, a penniless refugee. His works always reflect this history; he writes both beguilingly and cuttingly about the migrant experience.
Consider these lines from his standout classic, By the Sea:
"I live in a small town by the sea, as I have all my life, though for most of it it was by a warm green ocean a long way from here. Now I live the half-life of a stranger, glimpsing interiors through the television screen and guessing at the tireless alarms which afflict people I see in my strolls. I have no inkling of their plight, though I keep my eyes open and observe what I can, but I fear I recognise little of what I see. It is not that they are mysterious, but that their strangeness disarms me ... I am fascinated by their faces. They jeer at me. I think they do."