According to the Swedish Academy, the award was given in recognition of Gurnah’s "uncompromisingly compassionate penetration of colonialism's effects and fate for refugees."
Gurnah, who retired recently as a professor of postcolonial literatures at University of Kent, received the call from Swedish Academy in his kitchen in southeast England. He initially thought it was a joke.
He stated that he was surprised and humbled by the award.
Gurnah stated that the themes of displacement and migration that he had explored were "things that are with us everyday" -- more so than when he arrived in Britain in 1960s.
"People are dying all over the world, and people are suffering." He said that we must address these issues in the best possible way.
"It still sinks in that the Academy chose to highlight these themes that are present throughout my works, it's important for us to address them and speak about them."
Born 1948 on Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania), Gurnah fled a brutal regime that persecuted his Arab Muslim family and moved to Britain in 1968 as a teenager refugee.
After arriving in England, he said that he "stumbled upon" writing to explore both the loss of and the liberation of the emigrant experience.
Gurnah is the author of ten novels, including "Memory of Departure", "Pilgrims' Way", "Paradise" -- shortlisted in the Booker Prize for 1994 -- "By the Sea," Desolation and "Afterlives."
Gurnah, who is Swahili-speaking but writes in English, is the sixth African-born author to win the Nobel for Literature. Since its inception in 1901, the Nobel has been dominated European and North American writers.
Wole Soyinka of Nigeria, a Nigerian writer, has welcomed the new African Nobel laureate. He was the winner of the Nobel Literature prize for 1986 and is a strong proof that the arts and literature are "thriving," a flag above "depressing realities" on "a continent in constant travail."
Chairman of the Nobel Committee for literature Anders Olsson called Gurnah "one the most prominent postcolonial writers in the world." He noted that Gurnah's roots lie in Zanzibar which is a multilingual place that was "cosmopolitan long before globalization."
Olsson stated that Olsson's work "gives us a vivid, very accurate picture of an Africa not well-known for many readers, a coastline area in and around India Ocean marked by slavery, shifting forms of repression, under different regimes, colonial powers: Portuguese Indian, Arab German, and the British."
Gurnah said that Gurnah's characters are "in the gulf between cultures...between the life left behind, and the life to follow, confronting racism, prejudice, and also forcing themselves to silence truth or create a biography to avoid conflicting with reality."
Luca Prono stated on the British Council website, that Gurnah's characters "unsettle" the fixed identities of those they meet in the environments they move to.
The news of the award was met with enthusiasm in Zanzibar. Many people remembered Gurnah and his family, but few had read his books.
Gurnah's books, which are not required reading at schools in the area, "are hardly to find" Simai Mohammed Said, Simai Mohammed's niece, said. He said, however, that a Zanzibar son has given him so much pride.
"The response is amazing. Many are happy, but not many know him. However, the young people are proud that they know him," Farid Himid said. He described himself as a local historian, whose father was a teacher of Quran to the young Gurnah. "I haven't had the opportunity to read any of his books but my family has talked about it."
Gurnah said that he didn't visit Zanzibar often, but he is now the talk of the semiautonomous islands region.
"And many older people are very, very happy. As a Zanzibari, I am also very happy. Since the internet has taken over, it's a great way to get people reading books again.
This prestigious award includes a gold medal, 10 million Swedish Kronor (more than $1.14 million) and a prestigious award. Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor, left the bequest that funds the prize. He died in 1895.
The American poet Louise Gluck won the prize last year. After years of controversy, Gluck was popular. After sex abuse allegations were made against the Swedish Academy, the secretive body that selects winners, the award was delayed in 2018. Protests erupted after Peter Handke, an Austrian writer, was awarded the prize for 2019. This was due to his strong support of the Serbs in the 1990s Balkan Wars.
The Nobel Committee awarded Monday's prize in physiology/medicine to Ardem Patapoutian and David Julius of the United States for their research into the human body's perception of temperature and touch.
Tuesday's award of the Nobel Prize in Physics went to three scientists whose research found order in apparent disorder. This helped to predict and explain complex forces of nature, which includes climate change.
Benjamin List and David W.C. MacMillan were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry Wednesday for their discovery of an environmentally more efficient way to create molecules that can then be used for compound making, including pesticides and medicines.
Prizes for outstanding contributions in the areas of economics and peace will be awarded.