Nadine Gordimer: The Writer as Conscience of a Nation
Author: Victoria Brownworth
July 16, 2014
There are few writers in the world to equal the breadth of Nadine Gordimer. The valiant fighter against apartheid and against the oppression of women and gays in South Africa died July 13 in Johannesburg, South Africa, her family announced. She was 90.
“She cared most deeply about South Africa, its culture, its people and its ongoing struggle to realize its new democracy,” a statement from her son Hugo and daughter Oriane said.
Gordimer was, in a word, a giant. Not just of letters, but of conscience, of conviction, of truth and of justice. Her stature is immense–not just because she was a Nobel laureate and a winner of all the biggest and best literary accolades, but because she wrote out history in a way few have dared to. That she survived to 90 is a testament to her will and to her determination to see wrongs righted in the world in which she lived. As she wrote recently, “Writing is making sense of life. You work your whole life and perhaps you’ve made sense of one small area.” She wrote to make sense of South Africa and her place in her country.
It was mere hours after the news of her death that the world stopped to take notice and send out its emotional, heartfelt sadness at her passing. But it was the ANC–the African National Congress of South Africa, the ruling party that was a banned and renegade group when Gordimer was working within its rank and file in the desperate years of the 1960s through the 1990s–whose comment might mean the most in historical context. The ANC said, “Our country has lost an unmatched literary giant whose life’s work was our mirror and an unending quest for humanity.”
An unending quest for humanity. That was Gordimer’s singular quest and one she continued to seek until her death. She showed this through her work and her life–they were never separate from each other as is often the case with writers. Her work details the peril of place as prison: South Africa was at once her homeland and the homeland of her friends and colleagues and at the same time it was also a repressive, totalitarian state.
It was this that Gordimer wrote about most often: the confluence of love for a country and outrage at what it was capable of. “I am not a political person by nature,” she would say after she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. “I don’t suppose, if I had lived elsewhere, my writing would have reflected politics much, if at all.”
That’s difficult to believe, since politics infuses all of her writing, fiction and non-fiction alike. But perhaps she imagined a time and place in which she would not have had to write about such things. Nevertheless, she wrote, “To be a writer is to enter into public life. I look upon our process as writers as discovery of life.”
Gordimer addressed myriad “life” issues in her writing–race, gender, sexual identity. She devoted equal intensity to each of her themes, but it was interpersonal relationships and how people interacted with each other that was the bedrock of her fiction. Love and hate were always on the page together, just as they are in life.
And the political as personal.
Over the years of her involvement with the ANC, Gordimer was also involved with Nelson Mandela, both politically and personally. In 1962, she helped edit Nelson Mandela’s famous I am prepared to die speech. As she wrote later in The New Yorker, “I knew the privilege of becoming one of his friends.”
It was a friendship that would last until his death in December 2013. There were myriad photos of the two of them together–the tiny, slender white woman and the towering, majestic black man. In one photo they stand side-by-side, both dressed in black, their right arms raised in a fist. In a photo just a few years before his death, Mandela is seated and she is awarding him a plaque. The smiles on their faces are those of old, dear friends.
Shortly after his release from prison in 1990, Mandela requested to meet her and they stayed in touch for the rest of his life. After his death Gordimer wrote about that meeting and about more of their relationship, about their relationship to South Africa and about their fight against apartheid in a personal tribute piece for The New Yorker. She began, “To have lived one’s life at the same time, and in the same natal country, as Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was a guidance and a privilege we South Africans shared.”
She also said of Mandela that even when he was imprisoned at Robben Island–where her books were smuggled in to him–”For a spirit like his, ‘walls do not a prison make’; his spirit could not be in the custody of apartheid. We could still feel his political intellect.”
She had previously described Mandela as being “at the epicenter of our time, ours in South Africa, and yours, wherever you are.”
But while she was not a head of state nor a political leader, it was Gordimer’s own political intellect that propelled her forward as a writer. She captured all the nuances and minutae that are themselves the sum of history in her books–over a dozen novels, over 20 collections of short stories, as well as many books of essays and a number of plays.
The consummate short-story writer, a form she deemed “the literary form of our time,” it was nevertheless her novels that made her famous and which the Nobel committee cited. She was awarded two dozen literary accolades, including the Booker Prize and the Nobel, the highest literary honors.
The novels–notably the award-winning The Conservationist, Burgher’s Daughter and The Pickup–were superb tales of South African life and the conflicts shattering both the nation and individual lives under the brutality of apartheid. There is terror in her tales–the horror is real, not an artist’s projection. The Kafkaesque politics, the torture, the imprisonments, the deaths: These are not the heightened imaginings of a fantasist: Everything she writes about happened, if not to her, to others.
Gordimer’s collections of stories hold many gems, with their pitch-perfect stylization and surprising depth, given their brevity. In her 2007 collection of stories Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black, there is a deeply moving tale, “Allesverloren” (it means “everything lost” in Afrikaans). In the story a widow is recalling her life with her husband, and how much it meant to her. It was a second marriage for each and it was a deep love for each.
But as she sorts through the effluvia of her husband’s life, the widow becomes fixated on a confession–he had an affair with another man between his first marriage and his marriage to her.
The reader follows her two-fold journey. There is the emotional one in which we learn, from Gordimer, a woman who was herself a widow and also in her mid-80s when she wrote the story, what death means in the context of loss: “The beloved hasn’t gone anywhere. He is dead. He is nowhere except in the possibility of recall, a calling-up of all the times, phases, places, emotions and actions of what he was, how he lived while he was.”
And then there is the quest the widow sets herself on–to find the man who may have been her husband’s lover.
It’s a breathtaking story of how we talk to ourselves about love, about the meaning of memory, about the solitary suffering that is mourning. And yet the widow has discovered this gay man, this lover of her dead husband, and she seeks him out, taking with her a bottle of South African wine, the Allesverloren of the title. Finding this other man who shared her husband’s body and being is the pilgrimage set forth at the beginning of the story where she queries of her loss: “Whom to talk to? Grief is boring after a while, burdensome even to close confidants. After a very short while, for them. The long whole continues. A cord that won’t come full circle, doesn’t know how to tie a knot in a resolution. So whom to talk to. Speak.”
There was so much Gordimer said, so much she wrote about and explored. And despite her decrying the importance of her own activism, it never wavered. In the post-apartheid years other activist issues commanded her attention. From the mid-1990s on, Gordimer was active in the HIV/AIDS movement. According to UNAIDS, South Africa has more people with HIV/AIDS than any other country in the world, with more than 6 million infected people. Among those, fewer than five percent are receiving anti-retroviral drugs.
In 2004, Gordimer organized major writers to contribute short fiction for Telling Tales, a fundraising book for South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign. TAC lobbies for government funding for HIV/AIDS prevention and care to provide medications to South Africans with HIV/AIDS.
For Telling Tales, Gordimer enlisted Salman Rushdie, John Updike and Gunter Grass among others. All proceeds from the book, published in 11 languages, went to Treatment Action Campaign. Of the book, Gordimer said, “I wanted these to be beautiful stories celebrating life, which is what people suffering with HIV and AIDS are deprived of, the fullness of life.”
Gordimer had few public criticisms for the new South African government of the ANC, but this was one–the ignoring of AIDS and the pretense that it was not caused by HIV. She said that as a longstanding member of the African National Congress, she “approved” of everything President Mbeki had been doing as president except his stance on AIDS.
“I cannot understand how someone with Thabo Mbeki’s high intelligence, someone who is so well read and obviously has thought about the origins and prognosis of AIDS, how he can turn away from it,” Gordimer said while promoting Telling Tales. The book was released on World AIDS Day 2004.
Gordimer’s activism continued almost to her death. Last month she spoke out against censorship–her own books had been banned under apartheid–as President Jacob Zuma has recently proposed a law which limits the publication of information deemed sensitive by the government.
“The reintroduction of censorship is unthinkable when you think how people suffered to get rid of censorship in all its forms,” she said. “Censorship is never over for those who have experienced it. It is a brand on the imagination that affects the individual who has suffered it, forever.”
Gordimer’s was a full, prodigious and productive life, the work of which happened to change history. She noted, “Time is change. We measure its passing by how much things alter.”
It’s difficult to imagine how much changed in Gordimer’s lifetime, over the forty or more years she battled apartheid and often her own people, but she left a lasting legacy in all those books and in her own work.
She said, “Truth isn’t always beauty, but the hunger for it is.” Gordimer left us hungry for that elusive truth of humanity and the messages in her work about how we find it in ourselves and each other.