Apartheid's Daughter

October 06, 1991

Her words bring to life the song of a weaver bird, the bloom of a jacaranda tree, the red dust rising from the road. They tell of squalor and beauty. Of men and women, whites and blacks, young and old, Communists and liberals and reactionaries, trapped in their worlds together and apart. Of fear and lost hope.

This is the seventh decade in which Nadine Gordimer has been a published author, no mean trick considering that she is only 67. A South African magazine published a story of hers in 1939, when she was 15. The New Yorker magazine published its first Gordimer story in 1950. Ten novels, 200 short stories and many journalistic essays later, she still writes of what she knows.

"A writer is 'selected' by his subject," she once wrote. Growing up in a South African mining town, marrying into South African white middle-class life, mixing with other kinds of people, South Africa was what she knew, its human relationships what she wrote about. Later with her traveler's eye, her self-described "white African" eye, she set fiction in newly independent countries as well.

Hers is not political fiction in a polemical sense. She creates people caught in environments that make them behave and believe as they do. So the politics is indirect in such books as "The Conservationist" and "Burger's Daughter," and the "Selected Stories" of 1975, which the Swedish Royal Academy singled out for praise. But as a citizen she has become political, taking out an African National Congress (ANC) membership card, testifying for ANC leaders on trial for treason in 1988, crusading against censorship.

So much is she published in this country, so much has she taught and lectured here, that she is as familiar as any American author. But her subject is where and what she has lived. "I would have been a writer anywhere, but in my country, writing has meant confronting racialism."

She is but one of many writers, black and white and "colored" and Asian, in English and Afrikaans, who have done that with clarity and power. As the first South African awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature she is representative of a larger body of meritorious work. (South Africa's human rights crusaders, Chief Albert Luthuli and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in, respectively, 1960 and 1984.) She is also the first woman so honored in 25 years, a gap of which the Swedish Royal Academy was aware.

Nadine Gordimer, through clear, precise writing of the human condition, helped to bring her country to its present position, where change is the only certainty and past and future coexist. Which will give her no end of stuff to write about.

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