The humble freedom writer

Best known for her novels about apartheid, Nobel-winning author Nadine Gordimer hopes the world will stop judging South Africa.

nadine gordimer 88.298 (photo credit: )
nadine gordimer 88.298
(photo credit: )
vAt 82, Nadine Gordimer is still identified with her muscular political novels that chronicle the devastations of apartheid. Yet while her anti-apartheid fictions won her the Nobel Prize in 1991, Gordimer insists that there was nothing more liberating for her creative consciousness than apartheid's demise. "Life began, opened up, after the fall of apartheid," she says, speaking by phone from her home in Johannesburg last week. "Apartheid was limiting on our experience. Now we're free to think of anything, to enter all different relationships, to explore our feelings about them and our prejudices. We have far more subjects than ever before." In Gordimer's 14th novel Get a Life, the personal and the political remain no less entwined in her explorations of racially integrated South Africa. The desecration of the environment - once neglected by activists because of the greater urgency of fighting racial segregation - provides Gordimer's theme. Her protagonist, Paul Bannerman, is a 35-year-old conservationist, campaigning to block the development of a "pebble-based" nuclear reactor. Paul's wife, Benni, is an ambitious advertising executive, on the payroll of the corporations his team of ecologists is battling. When Paul is struck with thyroid cancer, he undergoes treatment that makes him radioactive - a threat to all who come in contact with him. As Gordimer puts it, "He becomes the one who is producing the very form of destructive power that he is fighting in the social and political field." Gordimer, who always resisted propagandizing, acknowledges the nuances of the case for the nuclear reactor. "We know that there are dangers. On the other hand, we desperately need more sources of electrical power, and fossil fuel resources are going to run out." Two years after Get a Life was completed, the plans for the pebble-based reactor haven't been abandoned. "The last amount of money needed hasn't yet quite come. One day it's on hold, the next day it starts again, but it's there." A long-time friend of Nelson Mandela, Gordimer is recognized internationally as one of most vocal and tireless critics of apartheid. Yet she remains modest about her role in breaking the back of the regime, insisting that she wasn't a genuine revolutionary. "I had friends who spent long periods in prison and who suffered the privations of exile, which I didn't. I didn't go as far as that in the actions that I took against apartheid." Together with her late husband, a Jewish refugee from Hitler's Germany, Gordimer sheltered persecuted firebrands in her home and helped to bring the liberation struggle to international attention. "We learned to disregard all the good training we had from our parents about telling the truth. One became an accomplished liar. If one was questioned, one said: Oh no, one hadn't seen so-and-so for years." Raised in gold-mining town 50 km. outside of Johannesburg, Gordimer endured an isolated childhood after her mother removed her from school because of an alleged heart tremor. "I didn't have young companions. I was writing as a child, so I had some interest in privacy, but it was terribly lonely." Gordimer is unwilling to discuss the less benign psychological motives which she's suggested were behind her mother's need to have her only daughter near her. "She's long dead, so let her rest in peace," she says. WRITING as a child, Gordimer never imagined she would pursue authorship as a career. "It seemed to me that you had to be in Europe to be a writer. Everything that I read came from Europe." She laments that the origins of her career lay in the privilege of her white upbringing. "I had the use of the local public library, which was closed to black people, and the only real training a writer has is reading." She first became aware of the gulf which separated her from her parents' attitudes when the family was woken one night by the sound of police searching their black maid's room for illegally brewed alcohol. "It occurred to me, how was it that my parents didn't say, 'How could you walk onto our property without a warrant?' They just assumed that anybody had the right to go and disturb a black woman in her quarters." That incident spawned her first published short story, which was accepted by a rarefied literary journal, unaware that the writer was 15. "The absolute freshness and thrill of it I don't think could be compared to [winning the Nobel]." A member of the African National Congress long before it became a legal organization, Gordimer never experienced any conflict between her independence as a writer and her political allegiance. Her 1994 novel, None to Accompany Me, dramatized the struggle for ascendancy within the new government between those returning from exile and those who languished underground or in jail. Each believed that they suffered the most and were therefore the more deserving of political power. "I got no reproach from the ANC about this. My lordship wasn't questioned,"she says. For a brief time, Gordimer and her husband considered going into exile. It was the early '80s, when the blacks in the liberation movement felt it necessary to split with their white fellow travelers. "It was something that I understood: there was no hard feeling between me and such people and we retained our personal relationships, although it saddened me. One began to feel, 'what am I doing here, living the white life, privileged whether you like it or not?'" Realizing that Europe and America wouldn't feel like home, they considered moving to Zambia, which had recently become independent and was making strides, "but then it came to me that there one would be a foreigner, and one wouldn't really have commitment to what was happening, so we stayed." During the transition of power, Gordimer was put forward as a parliamentary candidate by an ANC youth group. But she declined the calls to participate in the new political regime, recalling the Italian writer, Natalia Ginzburg, who entered the Italian parliament only to feel wasted. "I thought I would be much more service to the world doing what I know how to do: writing, contributing to literature, to what people turn to for a different view of life. Even the wonderful Vaclav Havel is still a better writer than a president." Gordimer describes her political convictions as socialist rather than Marxist, but she displays no fashionable disdain for communism. "All revolutions, unfortunately, bring abuses of the human values that they've espoused," she says. "But out of every revolution comes something that advances our idea of human freedom and dignity, so I don't think one can dismiss them. The South African communist party was non-racial long before anyone else. They contributed a great deal of brave people to the liberation struggle. Without them, apartheid would have gone on even longer." While indisputably the reigning matriarch of letters on the African continent, Gordimer isn't an easy icon for feminists. She traces her reputation as an anti-feminist to the controversy she sparked by withdrawing her novel, The House Gun, from the 1998 Orange Prize - a British award restricted to women writers. "I don't see how there's sex in the talent or the creativity that makes you into a writer. The next thing you'll have special prizes - God knows, maybe some exist already - for people who are gay or lesbian. As writers we're all trying to make sense of life. Whether we do so from a slightly different point of view, depending on our sex, I doubt very much. Writers have this ability to enter other identities - across gender, across age." It angers her that South Africa remains synonymous with the worst aspects of its history in the eyes of the world. "How much longer are we going to be identified only with apartheid? When you compare us with the countries sadly around us, I can't see why we should still be regarded with respect to something that we overcame without civil war. It's very arrogant of the outside world to judge us after we've only had just over a decade to deal with the horrors of neglect we inherited."