“Come away, O human Child!/ To the waters and the wild/With a faery, hand in hand,/
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”
~ Yeats, The Stolen Child
Visibly distraught, she slowly stood up from the podium chair. Turning right, she started walking across to the microphone. Hundreds of eyeballs, stretched-out in left-to-right rows, followed her steps. A throbbing, nervous anticipation was palpable under the bright auditorium lights. At 5’1 ft., she looked much too small. Almost inconsequential. But her steely eyes belied her physical frailty. She was, as one commentator put it, “the carefully cultivated fierceness of the fragile.” A deep, steady breath floated in through the loudspeakers.
Nadine Gordimer was under attack. An unexpected intellectual harangue of the most unsparing kind was just levelled against her for the last half hour. The accuser: her literary friend, and fellow intellectual stalwart, J.M. Coetzee. She has been attacked before, on countless occasions. She has been called a terrorist-sympathizer. An average political novelist. A hardcore lefty— those hacks who wail and bawl for the masses, but cannot shed a drop for an individual. She has heard it all. And she has fended them off. Triumphantly, and with dignity. But this was different. This tasted different. It was hard hitting. And hard to swallow. The earth stood still. This was a ‘clash of the titans’.
It was October 1988. Cape Town. Two weeks earlier, The Daily Mail and the anti-apartheid writers’ union, Cosaw jointly got permission from the South African government to officially invite Salman Rusdie to their literary conference. As a member of the writer’s union, Nadine Gordimer would be the chairperson. J.M Coetzee and other prominent intellectuals would be speakers and attendees. The festival was themed “Censorship under the State of Emergency“. Tickets sold out within days of announcement.
South Africa was, like the conference theme announced, under Emergency rule. The ground was tense. The white minority was rich and nervous. Nelson Mandela was in prison. His fellow brethren: poor, hungry, and unruly. The police was increasingly brutal and the jury was biased. Most of the ANC activists (Mandela’s African National Congress party) were in jail. Alarmed by the continuous breakdown of law-and-order, and pressured by the international community, the clueless and desperate government started curbing the freedom of press. Several mainstream newspapers were deemed “subversive”, and immediately shut down. Intellectuals exploded with fury. They were to all convene at the Censorship conference to assess the state of affairs and mark their protest. It was a victory in itself— to be able to organize it at the worst of times.
Nightmarishly, another hindrance appeared from nowhere and threatened to derail the whole conference. Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses’ had been released a week earlier. Rushdie’s questioning (and veiled mockery) of the Qur’an on almost every page, violently backfired. Unsurprisingly, the book was quickly banned in around fifteen countries, including democratic ones like India, in order to prevent unnecessary stoking of communal dissatisfaction. Less democratic nations were more explicit with their sentiments: religious conservatives and powerful imams put a price on Rushdie’s head. Angry mobs across the world burnt his books, and they wanted the same fate for its author.
Since the Conference was being held two weeks after the book’s release, the organizers started receiving the heat for inviting Rushdie. Organizations like the Africa Muslim Agency or the Islamic Council wanted the book banned, and the invitation withdrawn. Rumors emerged that secret Muslim hit squads were forming underground, keen on assassinating Rushdie during his visit. Ironically, months earlier, when the organizers chose the famous Heinrich Heine quote to advertise the Conference, their target was the apartheid government; now it was equally applicable to the reactionary sections of the Muslim community:
“Wherever they burn books, they will also, in the end, burn people.”
Karl Marx famously said “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” South Africa, on the fall of 1988, was posed for both. The threats seemed viable and the risk too high, the organizer’s decided. Salman Rushdie’s physical safety could not be guaranteed. Only days before the Conference was due to kick-off, Rushdie was unceremoniously disinvited.
It is this dis-invitation that sent some intellectuals, in particular, J.M Coetzee over the edge. He was livid. Not with the Muslims. Not with the apartheid government. He was frustrated with the organizers, and his fellow intellectual friends. When he took the stage just half an hour ago, no one expected him to utter the words he did. But then again, Coetzee was always unpredictable. In his article “South Africa: Clash of the Booker titans”, Anton Harber of The Guardian recollected the story with brilliant poignancy.
Coetzee, in his trademark quiet, soft voice, provided one of the most bombastic speeches which would later only be reserved for the likes of Nelson Mandela. The disinviting of Rushdie is an ugly politics that should shame the intellectual community for it makes them look stupid and indecisive on the face of tyranny, he forcefully exclaimed. He censured the Conference organizers for being selective with their definition of “free speech”, and cherry-picking people who are allowed to speak out. This was a direct assault on Gordimer, who was representing Cosaw.
He labeled the conference as a “sorry spectacle”, one he is attending in order to share his rage and lodge his complaint against the silencing of Rushdie, and to speak out against religious fundamentalism.
“Islamic fundamentalism in its activist manifestation is bad news. Religious fundamentalism in general is bad news. We know about religious fundamentalism in South Africa. Calvinist fundamentalism has been an unmitigated force of benightedness in our history. Lebanon, Israel, Ireland, South Africa, wherever there is a bleeding sore on the body of the world, the same hard-eyed narrow-minded fanatics are busy, indifferent to life, in love with death. Behind them always come the mullahs, the rabbis, the predikante (ministers), giving their blessings…As the various books of the various fundamentalisms, each claiming to be the one true book, fantasies themselves to be signed in fire or engraved in stone, so they aspire to strike dead every rival book, petrifying the sinuous, protean, forward-gliding life of the letters on their pages, turning them into physical objects to be anathematized, things of horror not to be touched, not to be looked upon. This is what Rushdie wrote about in Satanic Verses and why the fundamentalists of Islam want him dead. Rushdie presents the prophet not as prophet but as writer.”
Cotezee predicted that there must be “smiles in the mosques”, and “chuckles in the corridors of Pretoria”, for the organizers, who fought for Rushdie’s entry visa in the first place, proceeded to self-destruct themselves out of cowardice. In unequivocal terms he lambasted the decision to compromise on the face of fundamentalist threats.
The audience, surprised and shocked, nonetheless gave him an extended applause. Now, finally, it was Nadine Gordimer’s turn to speak. What is she going to say? How is she going to respond? The audience braced itself.
Gordimer’s defense was equally forceful. She counter-attacked by claiming that the audience’s and Coetzee’s views were based on partial, incomplete facts. She reminded them that Rushdie, being an outsider, had no way of knowing how real the danger was to his life in Cape Town.
“What would you have done?” she asked. “Do you think Cosaw has the right to bring a man here to risk his life and safety for our principles? We did not think so and neither did the majority of people in the Weekly Mail…What a copout? How was he to judge? He had not met these people, he had not seen the threats, the dangerous harassments, the notes under the door of it with clean hands.”
What a strange moment that must have been for Gordimer. A product of unrest, an unapologetic supporter of freedom, an unafraid proponent of ANC politics, was now suddenly faced with “liberation movement realpolitik, having to “Islamic fundamentalism in its activist manifestation is bad news. Religious “What would you have done?” she asked. “Do you think Cosaw has the right to explain an organizational decision she did not seem wholly comfortable with.”
After the incident Coetzee and Gordimer never quite saw eye to eye again. Just a few decades before this Cape Town clash, two intellectual mega weights were torn apart from each other in a similar fashion, again, in the midst of violence: Albert Camus and Jean Sartre. Their disagreement: the Algerian resistance. In part, this is what violence does. It sucks out our power of imagination, our compassion, and our ability to compromise. Violence polarizes us and forces us to define ourselves only through this lens of bipolarity. Suddenly the universalism of ethics is split apart. The line between what is moral and what is monstrous grows thin.
It is therefore unsurprising that the restrictive logic of violence is what attracts authors like Nadine Gordimer to explore its darkest crevices through the luminosity of their pen.
When Nadine Gordimer climbed the steps to the stage of Oslo in 1991 to accept her Nobel Prize in Literature, she knew how rare the occasion was: she was only the seventh woman ever to receive it. And the first South African! The Prime Minister, in a prepared speech, claimed that Gordimer has made the country proud. This was full of irony, since she built her career writing against the apartheid government, to which the Prime Minister belonged. More poignantly, three of her novels were banned in the country by the same apartheid government.
Nadine Gordimer passed away earlier this year, in the middle of a hot summer day. She was 90. She wrote her first story by the age of 15 and published her first novel by 30. In the next sixty, she managed more than a dozen novels and hundreds of essays.
Gordimer’s intimate, confused, and sometimes painful experiences instructed her literature. And since her life was always surrounded by South Africa, so was her writing. Re-reading Nadine Gordimer’s entire body of work, stretched over seven decades, feels like shadowing the social history of her country.
Take for instance, ‘The Lying Days’ (1953), Gordimer’s very successful first novel. Compare it with her Booker Prize winning ‘The Conservationist’ (1974), widely regarded as one of her best works. There is little resemblance to be found between the two. The difference is not one of quality, depth, finesse, or style.
To the contrary, Gordimer was always a dazzling, sophisticated writer. “She has a way with words” Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said. But to Gordimer, it wasn’t simply about words either. It was about the truth. Truth, told the right way. Stephen Fry once remarked “A true thing, badly expressed, is a lie.” In this regard, she was lucky. What Flaubert agonized his whole life to capture—that elusive sense of “le mot just” (the right expression) — Gordimer seemed to have adopted naturally throughout her prodigious and long career.
What then makes ‘The Lying Days’ so different from ‘The Conservationist’? Put simply, the ground reality. Lying Days is centered on the lead character Helen Shaw, a white woman who is very much part of the white community, but who deplores the racial inequality faced by the fellow black citizens. Yet, that is where her intellectual dilemma stops. She does not possess the courage to physically stand up to injustice. She remains distant when riots break out right outside her window. Much like the society at large, her personal life remains unfulfilled as well. Lack of a successful romance leaves Helen confused, and incomplete.
In more ways than one, Gordimer is portraying herself here. Being born into the protection and comfort of a white family house in Springs, right outside of Johannesburg, Gordimer was educated at an all-white Convent until she was 10. Then she was home-schooled. In college, at University of Witwatersrand, she was again surrounded by middle-class, white liberals. Her social sphere was both determined by and restricted to the extent of her skin color. And although she could feel the presence of turbulence outside the walls, like her lead character Helen, she could not quite comprehend its scope or depth. Like Helen, she was disappointed in love — a short-lived first marriage left her a single mother after divorce. Futility in her own life drove her to force the boundaries of personal comfort and look for moral enlightenment outside of it—a recurring theme that she would revisit in many novels that followed.
By contrast, ‘The Conservationist’ portrays a much more morally ambiguous lead character, who is male, arch-conservative, and a regular Joe, one who is struggling to grab land against its black inheritors. He is unaccustomed to the times as society around him changes too fast. He is in a battle that he has no way of winning, yet he barely knows how to lose. This remarkable confusion is not the same as Helen’s ignorant innocence. His pain stems from the burden of experience, not from the lack of it. Despite being a work of fiction, the force with which ‘The Conservationist’ captured the white-male dilemma of the 1980s South Africa was fiercer than reality itself.
For one, Gordimer found her own people, and through them, her own voice. Ever since she discovered that she had more in common with her black male friends at college than those she grew up with in her white-community cocoon, Gordimer led a life of dangerous opposition. She engaged herself into their grassroots political-literary organization. She attended meetings at the Congress of South African Writers. She spoke at gatherings of the United Democratic Front. Her involvement, and unequivocal support, for the ANC is well-documented. Even when the ANC was banned by the white, apartheid government, she refused to distance herself from it. Despite serious death threats, Gordimer never went on exile outside her native South Africa. (In fact, Mandela and Gordimer were life-long friends. Many years after her husband’s death and his release from prison, they would go on dates).
The pattern then is one of historical trajectory: as the reality around Gordimer grew more uncompromising, so did her novels. It is therefore unsurprising to find, for instance, the political weight of her later novels. Gone were the yearning and hopes for an idealistic liberal society of peace and tolerance, a hallmark of her very early novels. Instead, more politically conscious characters took its place.
When freedom came in 1991 and Nelson Mandela was elected President, she was elated. But the change she hoped for never came. Once again, she started writing, this time against the same people in whom she had put so much hope—the ANC and its members. By the time her last novel, ‘No Time Like the Present’ (2012) came out, during book interviews, she refused to talk about the novel itself. Instead, she was criticizing the State Information Bill – aka The Secrecy Bill. The bill was subversive and alarming in every sense— designed to hide corruption, protect information to maintain status-quo, prosecute and jail challengers.
Was a life of resistance, spent both in reality and in literature, worth it? After all, what change has really come? Gordimer acknowledged the problems that plagued South Africa to an interviewer —
“we were naive, because we focused on removing the apartheid government and never thought deeply enough about what would follow.”
So what? So what that her political visions did not come true? That shouldn’t diminish her novel’s appeal, she insists.
“You accept or reject the influences around you, you are formed by your social enclosure and you are always growing. To be a writer is to enter into public life.”
And by implication, public discourse.
Sadly, in South Africa today, public discourse is crippled by the fact that the apartheid generation was denied a decent education. So when the blacks got jobs as teachers, their students suffered. They are still suffering. Illiteracy and jobless numbers run high.
Gordimer herself became a victim of this unstable, dissatisfied society. But she refused to be victimized. In 2006, armed burglars entered her house, beat up her old female care-taker, snatched away her wedding ring, locked both of them in a storage-room and systematically robbed the whole house. Young black people, whose liberty, freedom, and civil rights she always fought to upheld, had now restricted her own. After the incident, she acknowledged her city’s crime problem but also expressed sympathy toward the perpetrators.
“I think we must look at the reasons behind the crime. There are young people in poverty without opportunities. They need education, training and employment.”
And yet, after this traumatizing incident, she refused to move into a gated, secure community.
In an era when we are somewhat obsessed with the reification of the unnatural (from cartoon characters to comic-book superheroes) on one hand, and the petrifying idolization of historical figures (from George Washington to Mandela) on the other — rendering them inaccessible, cold and distant—it is rare to treat people for what they are truly worth. “To do justice to a great soul, discriminating criticism is always necessary.” Churchill once wrote. “Gush, however quenching, is always insipid”. We should pay heed, or else we run the risk of losing the easy approachability that Gordimer’s literature readily invites.
Nadine Gordimer was very much a product of her times, a product of her people. She tried to demonstrate that by always claiming her a-political disposition, a claim hard to accept for many of her readers.
“I am not a political person by nature. I don’t suppose, if I had lived elsewhere, my writing would have reflected politics much, if at all.”
She wrote what she saw. “Many of the novels I read do not deal with today”, she disappointingly protested to an interviewer. And for that very reason, in a sense, Gordimer could never rise above her circumstances. Her novels were urgent, political, and humane. But Gordimer, consciously or unconsciously, never achieved that magical and timeless quality, in a way that J.M. Coetzee and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or American novelists like John Updike or Cormac McCarty has.
And yet, although she wrote with a sense of unwavering duty and tortured pondering, at the end of the day, Gordimer wasn’t trying to be a role model for any political party, creed or ideology. As she once wrote, “truth is not always beautiful, but the hunger for it is”. There was only one way Nadine Gordimer knew to arrive at it. It was through her writing.
Shortly after accepting the Nobel Prize, Gordimer categorically rejected the suggestion that “winning the prize” was the “happiest moment of my life”. Far from it, she giddily confessed to an interviewer.
“It was at someone’s party, all the way back in the 1950s. I found myself standing beside a woman I didn’t know, both of us amiable, drinks in hand. He appeared in the doorway. She turned aside to me and exclaimed excitedly, ‘Who’s that divine man?’ I said: ‘My husband.’”
Ralph Waldo Emerson once observed that “Do you love me?” actually means “do you see the same truth?” The fact that most of Gordimer’s memorable characters were struggling, through inexplicable pain and profound sadness to find love and truth, perhaps inseparably, is a testament to both the author’s vision of humanity, and her contribution to it.
“I write to make sense of life” Nadine Gordimer always used to say.
Barnil is an Assistant Researcher at the University of Texas, Austin. With degrees in Political Science and Economics, Barnil works in International Relations policy-making circles. During holidays, he travels extensively across Europe and America, and writes stories about his strange encounters with peoples and places. He is planning to retrace the famed route of Che Guevara across South America, on a motorcycle.