When I sought a mind, heart and voice of the East African seas, I found Abdulrazak Gurnah. I read ‘By the Sea’ in one night and sat in stillnesss as if I had stumbled into a secret world. He was the Chairman of the 2003 Caine Prize jury that gave me the prize. He is a tall, dignified, gentleman, steeped in story and kindness. He took me aside, and very gently said, “Write. Don’t stop. Don’t doubt. Write.” By that time I had picked up Paradise and Admiring Silence. I was probably one of the first buyers of ‘Desertion’ when it was published.

Gurnah lyrically writes loneliness, exile, memory, the fluidities of our humanities. He is a literary stylist. He paints silences into pauses, and does so in a way that makes the heart sigh. He writes of an East Africa steeped in timelessness and long durée history. He interweaves Swahili tropes, worlds, manners, in a gesture to continuities in and of Swahili poetics and literary history, and its casual cosmopolitanism that still seems to confuse an Occidental imagination that wants to believe our African planetary interconnectivity begins only with their arrival.

Gurnah writes our African sea imaginaries with humour, depth and gentleness even if he has to write about wounds and woundedness. His cartographical imagination is so uniquely and beautifully ‘ours’. His works have this way of inhabiting the in-betweeness that characterises our formation as people, as nations, as exiles. He has been the quiet force behind Wasafiri Magazine. Encountering Gurnah for the first time is like stumbling into an incredible landscape, the first impact of which cannot be repeated. He is a beautiful human being who has quietly, gently, supported, encouraged and, cheered on so many of us. This award feels, for not quite a few of us, like a family prize.

***

According to Nanjala Nyabola, a writer and political activist, “Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor has established herself as the sharpest and most lyrical chronicler of the national condition.” She burst into the literary limelight in 2006 when she won the Caine Prize for African Writing, with the Weight of Whispers, a short story exploring Rwandan genocide. She is the author of Dust (2014),set against the 2007 post-election violence in Kenya, and The Dragonfly Sea (2019), “a transcendent story of adventure, fraught choices, and of the inexorable need for shelter in a dangerous world.”

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