'The truth as I see it'

Print edition : August 01, 1998
Interview with Nadine Gordimer.

Nadine Gordimer was only 16 when she read for the first time A Passage to India. More than 50 years later, she still remembers that what had then struck her most in this early chronicle of a failed encounter between Europe and its Other was not so much the ontological distress of the protagonists, but just the two words: "only connect". "I was becoming aware of my growing up in a society, my country, where there was no connection recognised between ourselves, the whites, and the surrounding blacks. A world of strangers. Only connect, was it possible for me, for us?... Through Forster I began to have an inkling of understanding of my place and time, the world around me," she writes.

The two words that showed the way out of the narrow world of a South African mining town where Gordimer grew up, are also probably the best key to the understanding of her fiction. Her oeuvre comprising 12 novels and more than 200 short stories (available in Penguin paperbacks in India) is based around the predicament of colour and race, exacerbated in South Africa by the inhuman segregation laws of the former apartheid regime. She shows the impact that segregation has on human relations and the way it affects the lives of the people. Her characters are blacks and whites, but she seems to be most comfortable with the white liberal heroes who forge relationships ("connections") across the colour barriers and divisions. She explores with masterly craft their contradictions, their fears and the sense of guilt that drives them sometimes into emotional and ideological impasses.

Nadine Gordimer began to write in the 1950s and joined the African National Congress (ANC) more or less at the same time. Throughout the apartheid years, she wrote with a great sense of commitment: commitment to the ideals of reason, of social justice and of a non-racial state. Her fiction reflects her attachment to these convictions, but at the same time manages to rise beyond specific national contingencies by weaving these into universal patterns of human quest for love and liberty. It is this "transforming imaginative dimension" of her writing and the quiet irony of her prose rather than the political involvement which appealed to the 18-member jury of Nobel prize for literature who bestowed on her the award in 1991.

With the end of apartheid and of white supremacy in South Africa, there is today a visible shift in Nadine Gordimer's concerns. The two novels that she has published since the demise of the old regime, None to Accompany Me and The House Gun, describe the hopes and woes of a new South Africa where former black exiles and the white bourgeoisie discover unexpected complicities which help them to cope with personal despair and social violence. But will they be able to connect?

In this interview with Tirthankar Chanda, Nadine Gordimer talks about her childhood, the authors who influenced her, her political involvement, her own writing and the future of literature in a free South Africa. Excerpts:

You conclude your latest book of essays on literature (Writing and Being) by affirming that you are no longer a colonial. When does one really cease being colonial?

You cease being colonial only when law makes the coloniser and the colonised absolutely equal, when there is nothing that favours the coloniser in the law. So long as I was favoured as a white by the law, whether I liked it or not, I was a colonial. I am no more a colonial because today we are all equal under the law, everybody has the same freedoms as I have, everybody has the same social institutions that I have. Till now I could only say that I was born in South Africa. Now I truly belong to it, because I am not favoured in any way under the law. The psychological side is another thing. Some people will always remain colonial in their mentality. But I was fortunate to free myself of it long, long ago.

Through writing?

Partially yes. But it has been a long process.

I believe your first piece of original writing was a laudatory poem on President Kruger.

That was in 1932. I was only nine then. Three years later, Johannesburg's Sunday Express published in its children's section my first short story. But I wrote my first serious piece at the age of 16. It was a short story which I had called "Come Again Tomorrow". It appeared in a Johannesburg weekly.

What did actually draw you to writing?

First of all, reading. I was fortunate because in this little gold mining town called Spring where I lived, there was a very good library. My mother made me a member of the children's section of the library when I was six years old. Once the children's section had revealed all its secrets to me, I remember I would wander around that library, pick up something that caught my fancy from the adults' section. I was then 10 or 11 years old. I was just feeding on everything like a pig in a pigsty. One book led to another. From Forster to D. H. Lawrence, from Lawrence to Chekhov, to Dostoevsky and to Proust. So it went on. I half-understood what I read. But I was very lucky because nobody guided me. It was just my own appetite that led me.

Your appetite seems to have led you essentially to fiction. But I think you wanted to be a journalist?

Well, I think it is my imaginative temperament which drew me to novels. That is what probably explains why I have become a novelist and not a journalist. Imagination is something that you are born with. There are lots of people who want to write. For various reasons. Many want to write because they want to see their name printed on a book. But during the writers' workshops that I conducted for the Congress of South African Writers, I realised that only those who have imagination are capable of writing stories that move us. I suppose I had that natural faculty of imagination. I have always found it exciting to make up an imaginative life, which is other than my own, and I was endowed with a tremendous curiosity, which all children must have if they are going to be writers. They must be able to look at the world with a sense of wonder.

What were you curious about?

Curious about the world in general. I was also very much looking for an answer to the question of existence. I had been brought up without any religion. My parents were both Jewish. My father came from a very conventional, orthodox background. He was born in a little village in Latvia and came to South Africa at the age of 13. My mother's family had been living since generations in London. They were cockneys. And they were very much assimilated. As a result, my mother did not follow any Jewish tradition and was completely deracinated. She made my father, who was a profoundly religious person, feel very uncomfortable. To her all these beliefs in God and after life were a lot of nonsense. Moreover, as she was the dominating figure in the house, we children - my sister and I - were brought up without any religious background at all. We were for instance never told that here is the explanation for death: You go to a higher state and God receives you in heaven. I never had that kind of assurance. I began to write and I still write out of an overwhelming need for explanation - explanation of myself, of you, of what human beings are.

Was there a conscious decision from the moment you began to write to use writing to denounce political and social injustice?

At the time I wrote my first stories, I was totally ignorant of politics. But I think I was slowly becoming aware of what politics and political conflicts are based on: the social destiny of human beings. What I was seeing around me in my life made me begin to question the way blacks were treated in our society. The answer was in the political formation of the country, the answer was in racism that took on a political form. In fact, one of the first stories that I wrote was about how blacks were harassed for brewing liquor. This story reflected something that was common at that time. Black people were not allowed to buy liquor. As a result, there was a tremendous amount of illicit home brewing everywhere. And it went on in the backyards of white people's houses too.

From time to time, the police would come into the suburbs where the whites lived and raid the backyards where the servants lived to make sure that they were not brewing beer. This was something so tolerated by the whites that the police would not even knock on the door to ask if we would not mind if they searched our servants' quarters. They would just come in, open the gate and go in.

When I was about 15, this happened in our house at about two o'clock at night. I was reading in bed and there was this hullabaloo in the garden. I looked out by the window and I remember seeing torches lighting the garden. The police used to look into the compost heap, under flowerbeds, because naturally the blacks had got very clever at hiding the stuff. We then had a woman working for us. She had been with my mother since I was two years old. She was a sort of second mother to me. She would give me three on the bottom if I did not behave. I got up. So did my parents. There were the police all around in the garden, in the yard. This woman Littie had a room there, a miserable little room! The police had forced open the door, dismantled the bed, turned the mattress upside down, pulled out all her poor little possessions. Everything was spread around and she was just standing there. My parents did not do anything. They did not say: "What are you doing to this woman?" Because obviously they approved of the idea that if she was brewing beer, she had to be punished. They just let her be humiliated in this way.

What I saw that night troubled me so much that I wrote one of my first stories, very much from the point of exposing this brutality and this indifference through a fictitious white family, which was really my own. I wanted to express my outrage.

Did you have black friends at that time?

I started having black friends since about 1948 when I was in my twenties when I went briefly to university in Johannesburg. I did not live in residence. I travelled back by train to where I lived. At the university there were a few black students whom I got to know because we had a common interest in writing. There was nobody in my town in this little petit bourgeois milieu in which I lived who was interested in literature. My writing was a secret occupation. But here I suddenly found people who were passionate about the same thing as I. It did not matter that they were blacks, or Indians or of mixed origin. They wanted to write, they read a lot because they wanted to understand more. We naturally became friends. These friendships across the colour barrier were much more important to me than the kind of friendships that I had at home. I call this the beginning of the human side of my political consciousness.

When did your active involvement with politics begin, with the African National Congress, for example?

That began in the late 1950s, during the time of the passive resistance campaign. It was a very Gandhian tactic at that time. The only difference was that if you lay down in front of a train in India the driver would not go over you, as far as I know. But in South Africa, if you did that, he would have. So, those were the limits of passive resistance. However, this campaign made people think about what blacks were being deprived of and it was the first time that a number of whites, who had just been sympathetic - it was easy to be sympathetic - till then, risked themselves for the first time and went indeed to prison.

After the passive resistance stage came the period of militant rebellion and the first big treason trials. I went then for the first time in my life to a political trial in a courtroom and there I got to know the relatives of people who were on trial and even the people themselves. That's when I really began to think about what one could do about the situation. It was no good saying how terrible that blacks are oppressed this way! But what does one do about it? Having black friends and partying together, which was not done in the 1950s, was very nice from the human point of view. This was a kind of liberal attitude. You liberated yourself from the racism that was imposed upon you, but you did not liberate the people who were on the other side of the colour bar. At that time they still had a pass in their pockets. They were living segregated. They could not do any of the things that you could do. According to the liberal logic, by mixing with black people you were liberating them, but you were not. I then began to think more closely about politics and to inform myself. Then came the real test.

In the 1960s, my black friends got into terrible trouble. They were on the run. They would come to me for help. But to hide somebody on the run was dangerous because you could end up in prison yourself. That was the test. I began to do these things, to help people get out of the country. I learned to lead a kind of double life and became a wonderful liar. We all became the most accomplished liars in order to protect other people. You had all the time to maintain a facade so that you could do the other things that you were doing behind that facade. That is really how I became more and more drawn into the whole political scene.

Although I knew people in other movements that came up at that time such as the Black Consciousness movement, I was naturally drawn to the ANC. The ANC did not have white members as such, but it always held the non-racial aspect. If you shared their aspirations or their political philosophy, you were acceptable.

How did the literary institutions in the 1950s and 1960s cope with segregation?


There was a lot of turmoil among writers. It was all very political. There was a branch of the PEN Club International. It was run by whites and indeed because of the kind of books I had written even when I was young, it took them a long time to invite me to become a member. It was a white Sunday writers' club that published their own books, a mutual admiration society. They had little parties during which they patted each other on the back. They were convinced that literature was something that belonged to them. It came from Europe. Then they began to get a bit nervous and they invited one or two blacks. It was usually black academics who had written some harmless historical things that had little to do with contemporary politics. But this was nothing more than just window dressing.

So, along with a couple of other people, we decided to form a writers' organisation, which should reflect what such an organisation should be and not become a little white club. We started the Congress of South African Writers (COSAW). From the beginning, COSAW had a very strong political orientation. We saw writers as the cultural wing of the struggle, whose task was to fight constantly against censorship, encourage small publishing houses to take the risk of publishing stuff that probably would be banned. We saw our role as giving support and courage to each other and to writers who were having great difficulty. We even functioned as a support group for writers who needed help not only for what they wrote but also for their political activities. For those who went to prison, we collected money and supported their families and we also paid for their defence when they came up on trial.

The 1960s and 1970s were also the years when many of your books were banned by the apartheid government. Did you consider going into exile as many of your black counterparts did?

I considered exile only once. That was when the Black Consciousness movement came up and rejected the whites. It was an awful period of political malaise. The ANC had been banned. Its major leaders were in prison or had gone underground. Radical black intellectuals were pointing out that collaboration with the whites who were supposed to be on the side of the blacks had not brought liberation. Why not do things on our own? So they formed an association called African Writers' Association (AWA), which was exclusively black. At one time it would not even have coloured people or Indians. What a paradox! Because certainly among Indians there were so many people who were heroes of the liberation movement, who were in prison!

For a person like myself, this meant that I could go on writing books that would get banned, but I could not be with any group with which I could identify. This was before COSAW. During that time, I asked myself what I was doing there. I was living the life of a privileged white. I was simply living there without being effective in the community at all. I was unable to identify. I was shut out. So, perhaps I should go. But where could I go? I was not a European. To me the idea of going to Europe or to London was totally unimaginable. I mean, if I had been in danger of going to prison for years I would no doubt have taken the decision to leave. At that time I had connections in Zambia. I thought maybe I should go to a neighbouring African country where I can identify myself freely. But then I realised that in a place like Zambia I would be like any other expatriate. I would be identified by my whiteness. I would never be accepted there as part of their national reconstruction. My status there would not be very different from that of the Western experts who were sent there by their country or their university and did their term for a year or two. So I would really have been without any identity. I did not go and was soon very pleased that I did not go because very soon the liberation movement lifted its head again and the United Democratic Front (The UDF was set up in 1983 in order to unite all opposition to the apartheid government. The organisation disbanded after the unbanning of the ANC in February 1990.) was formed. I was able to move in a community context once again.

Fragmentation, discontinuity, the tragedy of history are some of the themes that you have developed in your apartheid fiction. In the two novels that you have published after the advent of universal democracy, you seem to reflect upon more contemporary concerns such as the return of the exiles as in None to Accompany Me or, as in The House Gun, the traumatic reconciliation of blacks and whites at an individual level. What are your major concerns today?

I don't know. I started to write None to Accompany Me in 1989. It was written in the middle of the period of transition. Naturally it has got its tentative aspects because it belonged to that period. However, some of the themes that I have touched upon there are, I think, going to be the big themes in the coming years. The question of the exiles is extremely important. I am every day in touch with my young black friends who have come back from abroad. I can see how different their lives turn out to be from what they thought they would be.

Many interesting situations come up with this whole idea of integration, of moving into town. Class differences have also become a tremendous issue. For instance, the television people. Some of them are now very successful, they are well-paid and quite rightly live in very nice houses in the best suburbs. Their children go to good private schools. On the other end of the spectrum, there are people who are also blacks, who come from the same black ghettos as the former, but they continue to live in overcrowded small apartments in certain areas of town, having to lead a life of precarity. Lower down still are the squatters who have nothing, no work, no skills, no education. I am sure the emerging writers will deal interestingly with this issue of class differences.

Imaginative fiction - novel, short story - seems to be your favourite mode of expression. Have you ever been tempted by travel-writing a la Naipaul or by testimonial literature that you have said you value highly today?

For me to write non-fiction is a great effort. It's not my metier at all and probably if I had not become politically engaged, I would never have written any non-fiction. The non-fiction that I write comes out of the necessity to speak my convictions whereas when I am writing from the imagination, I have a greater freedom to see things much more at a distance. That's why my characters are never monolithical. They may be heroes as revolutionaries, but I have always attempted to show them with all their faults as human beings, with all the personal betrayals. It's not because they adhere to the political views that I hold, that they are without faults or are not devious. In other words, human beings are fallible and in my fiction I am free to present them warts and all.

What will post-apartheid South African literature look like?

We can't have a South African literature which is only in English with a little sprinkling of Afrikaans. Both English and Afrikaans are European languages. We must give the blacks the opportunity to write in their mother-tongue because that is where the emotions are, that is where for many people the deepest feelings reside.

I am not suggesting that the blacks must abandon English. People should be free to write in any language. But while conducting workshops I have seen that writing in English is something unfamiliar to many. And yet people don't feel motivated to write in their mother-tongues because no one is ready to publish them in these languages. Publishers say that it is too difficult to distribute books in African languages, which is quite true because the bookshops and the libraries are in the towns, in the cities, and there is nothing in the big areas where blacks live and will continue to live for a very long time.

But I still think that there is a big reading public who would like to read not just political tracts, but interesting, imaginative literature, even detective stories. God knows the black people have enough experience of the police. There is a market for decent, popular literature that people will enjoy reading and that is what I have been trying to promote.

In the emergent South Africa, you are perceived as being close to the Establishment. Don't you fear that your closeness to the Prince may in the long term effect your credibility as a story-teller?

I think you are right. There is a danger. But I know in myself that I will never toe the party line - my party being the African National Congress. I have to face the fact that I will be regarded as somebody who belongs to a group that is politically correct, but I have to accept that. I know in myself that I am not adjusting my writing in order to please my political colleagues and comrades. I think I have proved that in None to Accompany Me, where people come back from exile and enter political life. There is a lot of conflict shown there. The new South Africa is not portrayed in my latest novels as a wonderful place where everybody agrees, where nobody has personal ambitions, where the people who are now in power don't struggle with one another for power.

To me, storytelling is more important than political correctness because storytelling is the truth and in the end the best way you can serve your society is through the arts. My integrity as a writer demands that I tell the truth as I see it and it is by telling the truth as I see it that I can best render service to my society, to my community.

Nadine Gordimer's works

Novels 1953: The Lying Days, London, Gollancz. 1958: A World of Strangers, London, Gollacz. 1962: Occasion for Loving, New York, Viking. 1963: The Late Bourgeois World, London, Gollacz. 1970: A Guest of Honour, New York, Viking. 1974: The Conservationist, London, Cape. 1979: Burger's Daughter, New York, Viking. 1981: July's People, New York, Viking. 1987: A Sport of Nature, London, Cape. 1990: My Son's Story, London, Bloomsbury. 1996: None to Accompany Me, London, Bloomsbury. 1998: The House Gun, London, Bloomsbury. Short stories 1956: Six Feet of the Country, London, Gollancz. 1960: Friday's Footprint, London, Gollancz. 1965: Not for Publication, London, Gollancz. 1971: Livingstone's Companions, New York, Viking. 1975: Selected stories, London, Cape. 1980: A Soldier's Embrace, London, Cape. 1984: Something Out There, New York, Viking. 1992: Jump and Other Stories, London, Bloomsbury.

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