JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — It has been 40 years since the white Parliament passed the infamous laws creating "grand apartheid." During that same year, the New Yorker published a short story by an unknown 26-year-old South African.
That story launched a writing career that has reached a vast international reading audience, angered successive white South African governments and earned the author regular mention as a leading candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Through a body of work that includes such novels as "Burger's Daughter" and "July's People," and the short-story collection "Six Feet of the Country," Nadine Gordimer has painted a subtle, yet powerful portrait of the effect of apartheid on the people who live in South Africa.
Gordimer, 66, still writes regularly on her manual Hermes typewriter, working in a study of the suburban Johannesburg home she shares with her husband, an art gallery owner. Her 17th book, a novel called "My Son's Story," is due out this fall. She spends more time these days encouraging young artists through the Congress of South African Writers, a mostly black organization of 5,000 writers that she co-founded in 1987.
She is a small, gray-haired woman, only 5 foot 1 and 90 pounds, and a picture of solemn concentration as she talks about her work and her life, even as the family German pointer snores peacefully at her side. Playwright Athol Fugard calls her "fiercely uncompromising, uncomfortably uncompromising for a lot of people."
Her country has changed radically in a matter of months this year and, for the first time, Gordimer says she has begun to feel more at home in this nation that has been her lifelong home.
The African National Congress is legal again, after 30 years of waging a guerrilla war from exile. Nelson Mandela, the man Gordimer considers her political leader, is free and meets with President Frederik W. de Klerk. And hardly a week goes by that Gordimer doesn't greet an old friend who has returned from exile to rejoin the legal political process.
Gordimer joined the ANC the other day with her usual sense of quiet purpose. She walked into a building near downtown Johannesburg, feeling a special warmth in the rooms where she and her friends once met secretly. Then she filled out a single-page form, pulled 12 rand (about $5) from her pocketbook and became a card-carrying member.
It was the kind of simple scene that she might have used for one of her own characters: the life-affirming act of a novelist who sees the future of which she dreamed coming true.
"I had waited a very long time. It was really quite moving," Gordimer said the next day. "I had been in and out of that office for years. It was such a nice, familiar place for this kind of commitment to happen."
Question: Must a writer in South Africa today be politically active?
Answer: I'm not by nature a political person at all. In the early '60s, I couldn't even get up on a platform and express an opinion about literature . . . . I was petrified. And I think if I had lived in another country, I would have remained like that . . . .
My whole lifetime here, there has been this enormous struggle coming toward the climax it reached in the past decade or so. And to stand aside from that and say, "No, I'm not going to pass an opinion on detentions. I'm not going to take part in any type of protest against what happens here. I'm not going to speak about anything." Whether this is out of reticence or out of fear of the danger, I don't think you can work here. I don't think you have a right to.
Q: What is the burden of a white person, and particularly a white artist, in South Africa?
A: If you're a writer, you really need to be left alone. So the burden is that you really can't be left alone. Whatever you do here, even if you just belong to a writers' organization, it's all intensely politicized because culture is intensely politicized . . . . It is a burden. I feel ashamed saying so, because then you look at other people who really sacrifice all kinds of personal fulfillment in order to bring about change.
Q: Is art itself a way to bring about change then?
A: That's a delicate matter. All literature is . . . trying to make sense of life . . . . And if there's any honesty in a writer at all, any self-searching in your society, it's going to be a (social) critique . . . .
You get involved in your society. You cannot just be a writer. You have to be a citizen as well. But I think it's terribly important not to become a propagandist, even for the cause that you believe in most. If you're going to produce anything worthwhile, you must retain the freedom to write about that society, warts and all . . . .