Nadine Gordimer: a writer's life, an activist's voice

October 16, 1994|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Staff Correspondent

Washington -- She wouldn't say it in so many words, but one got the feeling that Nadine Gordimer wasn't too impressed to be having dinner at the White House.

It was the morning after a gala state dinner for South African President Nelson Mandela. Mrs. Gordimer, a longtime friend of Mr. Mandela's and the preeminent writer in that country, had been invited as a guest. So she had come down in early October from Cambridge, Mass., where she is spending the fall as a visiting lecturer at Harvard, to observe perhaps the most significant social event of the fall in Washington.

But, sitting in the living room of her American agent, Timothy Seldes, Mrs. Gordimer gently reminded a visitor that seeing Nelson Mandela break bread with Bill Clinton was not the most significant setting in which she had seen her president.

There was May 10 of this year, for instance. That was when Mr. Mandela was sworn in as president of a country whose former government had made him a political prisoner for 27 years. He had been a leading opponent of apartheid, but that system of racial segregation had been dismantled in the early '90s.

Five months earlier, in December, Mrs. Gordimer had witnessed an even more memorable event.

"I was part of Nelson Mandela's official delegation when he went to Stockholm to accept the Nobel Peace Prize," Mrs. Gordimer says with quiet pride. "That was an extraordinary occasion that can't be eclipsed by anything else."

That was an interesting admission, as Nadine Gordimer, 71, has her own Nobel -- for literature, which she won in 1991. The first writer from her country to be awarded the Nobel Prize, Mrs. Gordimer has written eloquently about South Africa under apartheid since the late 1940s. Even then, she had worried about an oppressive society that segregated the races so rigidly. In "The Lying Days," her first novel, published in 1953, a young white character worried that living in such inequity was "like having a picnic in a beautiful graveyard where the people are buried alive under your feet."

In the years that followed, she chronicled life in South Africa in such books as "A World of Strangers" and "Burger's Daughter," both of which were banned by the government. But she continued to write, and along with such authors as Alan Paton, J. M. Coetzee and Athol Fugard, she made the rest of the world aware of the crushing cost of apartheid on South Africa and its people.

She did so in eloquent, controlled prose free of easy answers and cheap sentiment. That is Nadine Gordimer in conversation, too. She is small and slight of frame, but her carefully considered words convey undeniable force. The eyes lock onto her visitor, and one feels little escapes her. Similarly, it's easy to sense how this daughter of working-class immigrants to South Africa could ignore government sanctions and cling to her writing. The question isn't whether she would suffer fools gladly, but whether she would at all.

Though she writes and speaks about South Africa's situation with great vigor, Mrs. Gordimer contends: "I've never been a great political figure. Politics has never been my life. My life is the life of a writer."

Still, she concedes: "I'm also a human being and a citizen of my country. That sounds a bit schizophrenic, but I've really had two lives. One is as a writer, and writers are very selfish beings. You have to put that first. But I also have a responsibility to my society and my country. That's how I took on certain political responsibilities."

The word "responsibility" comes up several times in conversation -- responsibility to her craft, her country, to other writers. It's clearly a driving force in her life.

For instance, when she won the Nobel Prize, she was scheduled to give a reading at Loyola College that night. A writer certainly could have been excused for canceling the appearance, given the tumult of the day, but Mrs. Gordimer insisted on showing up in Baltimore that night -- and received a thunderous ovation. Reminded of that night, she answers quickly, "Yes, well, I was supposed to go there, and I didn't want to let them down."

Her dual selves -- writer and activist -- are apparent in her collected work. She's written 11 novels and nine collections of short stories, nearly all about South Africa under apartheid.

In the novel "None To Accompany Me," which was published last month, she centers on the friendship of two couples, one white and one black. They had become friends when social relationships between whites and blacks were nearly impossible South Africa; now, with the dismantling of apartheid, they are observing a new social order -- one both scary and exhilarating.

Mrs. Gordimer writes at length about the strange taste of freedom in South Africa. She describes a celebratory party that apartheid opponents attend after many political prisoners have been freed:

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