WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Nadine Gordimer? Let's see -- she writes about apartheid, right?
After a quarter-century in which it honored exclusively male, often obscure writers, the Nobel Prize committee has awarded its 1991 literature prize to Ms. Gordimer, a woman whose talent and courage are known around the world. She is a dedicated white enemy of apartheid who could have fled South African censorship, but chose to stay in her homeland.
She has done 10 novels and more than 200 short stories. She is 67 years old and still writing strong. She also is still fighting, but in her insistently individual way. The shimmering quality of her work and its recognition by the Nobel committee may be instructive toothers whose lives are so closely tied to a cause that sometimes it binds them.
Despite the breadth of her stories, those who know her only by reputation think of her primarily as an unremitting opponent of South Africa's repressive governments. She is so closely identified with that cause that it has threatened to smother her art. She has struggled as hard against that threat as against racism. And because she has been successful, the impact of her work is immensely greater and more convincing.
Sixteen years ago, she said that a writer's freedom "is his right to maintain and publish to the world a deep, intense, private view of the situation in which he finds his society. If he is to work as well as he can, he must take, and be granted, freedom from the public conformity of political interpretation, morals and tastes."
The key word there is "private":
"All that the writer can do, as a writer, is to go on writing the truth as he sees it," she said. What that meant vis-a-vis the South African government, its censorship, its banning of her books, is obvious. "You can burn the books, but the integrity of creative artists is not incarnate on paper any more than on canvas -- it survives so long as the artist himslf cannot be persuaded, cajoled or frightened into betraying it."
That, she said, is the part the world finds easy to understand. The other, more insidious threat "comes from the very strength of the writer's opposition to oppression." His wider freedom "may be threatened by the very awareness of what is expected of him. And often what is expected of him is conformity to an orthodoxy of opposition."
That way lies propaganda, lies the fate of those who served "socialist realism," like the Soviet novelist Mikhail Sholokhov, whose gift might have made him great if he had had the courage of a Solzhenitsyn -- or a Gordimer.
The writer will share ideals, suffering and loyalty with others, who may thus "regard him as their mouth-piece," she said. "His integrity as a writer goes the moment he begins to write what he is told he ought to write....
"The fact is, even on the side of the angels, a writer has to reserve the right to tell the truth as he sees it, in his own words, without being accused of letting the side down....He needs to be left alone, by brothers as well as enemies...."
Ms. Gordimer has written about blacks as well as whites, looking inside both, with both as heroes and villains. In this country, in the age of political correctness, that is a no-no: only African Americans should write about African Americans, only women about women. All others must tread carefully.
Some of South Africa is more open-minded. As an African National Congress organizer said, "Some white people would be very patronizing and go along" with black opinion, but Ms. Gordimer "always speaks her mind. That's why she has the respect of black people."
Writers here and elsewhere can learn from that, as Ms. Gordimer says she learned long ago from a thoroughly American writer.
He was the dean of muckrakers, Upton Sinclair. His 1906 novel "The Jungle" described life in the meat-packing plants of Chicago so vividly that it brought on reforms and laws that still protect us today. That started her thinking about the hellish life of black underground miners in her own country, and that started her writing.
It is heartening to those who write, even on an altogether different level, to realize again how the words of one man can survive across decades and oceans, to inspire others to change their world. It is heartening to know the words and the example of one woman named Gordimer will last, and surely will flow the other way to inspire others to tell the truth as they see it.