The Director of the Booker Prize Foundation reacts to the news that Abdulrazak Gurnah - twice Booker Prize nominee and a judge in 2016 - has been awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature.
A shot of extreme joy went through the circulatory system here at the Booker’s headquarters today, when the 1994 shortlisted author Abdulrazak Gurnah won the Nobel Prize in Literature. He joins the ranks of writers who have been recognised by the Booker Prizes before going on to win the Nobel: William Golding, Nadine Gordimer, V.S. Naipaul, J.M. Coetzee, Doris Lessing, Alice Munro, Kazuo Ishiguro and Olga Tokarczuk.
Shortlisted for his novel Paradise, Abdulrazak was also longlisted in 2001 for By the Sea – and in 2016, the first year I worked with the Booker, he agreed to help others do the same and joined the panel of judges. It was a committed and convivial group, led by Amanda Foreman: their meetings lasted all day with a break for lunch, and Razak, as he is known to his friends and fellow readers, was always persuasive.
Dignified, congenial, and a man of uncommon intellectual grace, he would come armed with an eloquent argument about each of the 150 or so books. I remember him saying, when comparing two novels, that one of them had him ‘worrying more about what it was up to’. This, in his view, was a good sign. In that way, in that first year, he and the other judges showed me that arriving at a winner of the Booker Prize could be less of a judgment than an open-minded investigation.
When news of Abdulrazak’s Nobel was announced, Nadifa Mohamed, one of this year’s Booker Prize shortlistees, revealed on Twitter that he had ‘helped me become a writer’. She wrote to him in 2007, saying she admired his work and asking if he would mentor her (‘Dear Abdulrazak, I am a young Somali writer and have recently been awarded an arts council grant…’).
He replied with characteristic generosity – and the rest is literary history.