Nobel Laureate and renowned author, Prof Abdulrazak Gurnah explores themes of exile and diaspora at UJ Public Lecture

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]“I think of refugees as people whose lives are at risk. Perhaps as a result of war, perhaps as a result of persecution. And it seems to me that there is an obligation to offer hospitality to people whose lives are at risk.”

This is the sentiment expressed by Professor Abdulrazak Gurnah, academic and author during his University of Johannesburg (UJ) public lecture on ‘Colonialism and the Refugee Experience’ that he delivered  yesterday  afternoon, 9 November 2022.

Professor Gurnah, who is the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature Laureate, also had an honorary doctoral degree conferred on him  by UJ in recognition of his; ‘invaluable contribution to the social, economic and scientific fields through his literature that delves into topics derived from colonial experiences’.

Prof Gurnah added that while asylum seekers are in an equally dire situation, a distinction should be made, without criminalizing any of the two groups.

“Is that the same thing as the reckless, brave young people that you see risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean or the English Channel? Because they want a better, more prosperous life? No, I don’t think it is the same. Although that doesn’t mean it is therefore unworthy to desire to prosper or to desire a better life.  Nor does it mean they are not living deprived and difficult lives. The refugee obliges us to offer hospitality and the asylum seeker, I think we can make a national policy out of that. And say we will take 3000 and no more. Instead, we have the idea where both are narrated, described in criminalizing words. And treated as if they are indeed beggars, or cheaters or worse,” Prof Gurnah said.

This public lecture now forms part of what has been years of work that Prof Gurnah has done in documenting the experiences of refugees among others. His writings explore themes of dispossession, displacement, exile, diaspora, and identity, as well as alienation, belonging and disinheritance – which reverberate in the South African context with its fraught history of apartheid. Focusing on the multi-dimensional experiences of exile, his writings display mastery as he crafts and teases out the lives of the dispossessed with the required sensitivity and pathos, whilst acknowledging the complexities. In a global context where painful migrations, dispossession and ‘lived’ trauma of refugees are pervasive, his works resonate worldwide.

In his congratulatory remarks, Vice-Chancellor and Principal designate of UJ, Professor Lethlokwa Mpedi said the university is delighted to recognise Prof Gurnah in this way as it represents the university’s commitment to the project of decolonization.

“It has been an honour to host Prof Gurnah and award him with this honorary doctorate this evening. It represents our commitment to the project of decolonisation, the emphasis on reimaging our future through a pan-African lens and a celebration of the African voice, which as Gurnah describes is about ‘experience, not about where’, a sentiment that demonstrates the impact of his words and our ability to resonate with his characters even against differing contexts,” he said.

Watch the full graduation ceremony and lecture:


Prof Abdulrazak Gurnah is the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2021. He is the author of ten novels: Memory of Departure, Pilgrims Way, Dottie, Paradise (shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Whitbread Award), Admiring Silence, By the Sea (longlisted for the Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Book Award), Desertion (shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize) The Last Gift, Gravel Heart, and Afterlives, which was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Fiction 2021 and longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize. He was Professor of English at the University of Kent and was a Man Booker Prize judge in 2016. He lives in Canterbury. Professor Gurnah’s visit to South Africa has been facilitated by ASSAf, and the DHET UCDP Future Professors Programme Phases 1 and 2.


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