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Nadine Gordimer: Conscience of South Africa

December 07, 1986|MIRIAM BERKLEY

NEW YORK — This interview was conducted when Nadine Gordimer visited New York City earlier this year for the annual conference of PEN, the international writers' organization of which she is a vice president.

"Right from the beginning," South African writer Nadine Gordimer said, "I used my own background. Everything that I wrote was related to what I knew." For nearly half a century, since she began writing in childhood, Gordimer's fiction has meticulously delineated the many different realities of her white-dominated, multi-ethnic land.

In nine novels and nearly as many collections of stories, she has made palpable the pernicious, all-pervasive result of her country's race laws, which in her view not only deny basic rights to the majority of its inhabitants, but poison all human relationships and make it impossible for even basically decent members of the ruling white race to live decently. As South African political and social conditions have worsened, Gordimer's writing has taken on an urgency approaching desperation; her most recent novel, "July's People" (1981), presented a frightening picture of interracial war in the near future.

Fighting Apartheid

Despite the opportunity to emigrate, and to live and work under more secure conditions, Gordimer has chosen to remain in Johannesburg, where she continues "to oppose apartheid with might and main."

Gordimer, a small, slim woman of 62 with a lean, expressive face, gave an interview in her hotel room at the end of what was clearly an exhausting week of appearing on panels, at meetings, giving readings and attending parties. In the months since, she traveled through Europe, and readied two books for publication: "Lifetimes: Under Apartheid," a nonfiction work done in collaboration with photographer David Goldblatt, published last month (Knopf), and her 10th novel, "A Sport of Nature," coming in April from the same publisher.

Nadine Gordimer was born on Nov. 20, 1923, in the small mining town of Springs in the Johannesburg area of the Transvaal. She was the second of two daughters born to Isidore and Nan Gordimer, both of whom had come to South Africa some years before, he as a 13-year-old watchmaker fleeing poverty and oppression as a Jew in Czarist Lithuania, she the descendant of a long line of London Jews, her father lured to this "open place for white people" by the diamond and gold rush (although he was to find neither diamonds nor gold). Gordimer's father, who gradually built up a jewelry business, was detached from politics. "I think like many people who've had a tremendous struggle when they're very young," Gordimer said of him, "he had in a sense expended certain energies and was only concerned with his own survival."

Her mother was "a generous-minded, generous-hearted woman with a genuine feeling for people," but if her strong social conscience led her to perform various good works--such as helping start a nursery school for black children in a nearby ghetto--it did not make her question "the political order of the country. She didn't see that you have to carry it to political action."

Gordimer's family was not a religious one and Nadine, as did her older sister, attended a convent school for its supposedly superior education. She was "a bolter," however--"I kept running away," she said. "I seem able to discipline myself, but from a very early age have been unable to be disciplined by other people." Early on, she accepted her parents' view of society, her only political awareness a vague consciousness of antagonism between English speakers, of which she was one, and Afrikaaners. It was in adolescence that she began to be aware of racial injustice.

"Then you begin to question and think about many things. And this became an enormous question, and also quite a shattering one, because you realize that your whole life, your whole inheritance, is based on something that is wrong. My father had come as a poor little boy from exactly the same kind of family situation that blacks were living under: his parents couldn't afford to live with their own children, the children were restricted from schooling, and so on. And then he became the overlord and white master. He was acceding to, if not actively taking part, in the administration of repression of another people. I began to understand that."

By this time, Gordimer had become the intellectual of the family, although, she said, "It wasn't noticeable. When you do things that other people in your family are not doing, you become very secretive about it." At 9 or 10, she had begun writing stories, which were published in the children's corner of the local newspaper. "I'm sure they were extremely derivative of other children's stories--I obviously took the same type of little plot--but using the elements of my surroundings. I wasn't writing about primroses and robins in the snow, even though that's what I was reading about. I had never read one word related to my own country."

'Nice Little Hobby'

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