Scrivener (McGill University Literary Journal) Winter 1984 Issue
Nadine Gordimer's work focuses on life in her politically troubled native country. She criticizes the South African government for its policy of apartheid and its treatment of black citizens. Her published works included such celebrated novels as A Guest of Honour and Burger's Daughter.
The controversial nature of her writing has aroused the displeasure of the South African government. Three of her books have been banned for periods of up to twelve years. Nadine Gordimer had refused to appeal the bannings because, as she said, "I didn't want to recognize the board of censor's authority."
You have been compared to such writers as Virginia Woolf and Solzenitsyn. How do you respond to reviews?
You know, I don't take much notice of that. Oh, it's encouraging when the book gets good reviews, but the specifics and with whom you are compared, you've got to keep a sense of proportion about that.
Do you write for a particular, ideal reader?
I don't write for anybody in particular. I write for whoever reads them. I never have an audience in view. And indeed, I think it's fatal for a writer to have that. I once said, "you really need to write as if your writing is posthumous." Then you have absolute freedom. You're not going to offend your best friend, or your mother, or anybody. That's what you have to try and do.
Do you consider your writing to be a form of political protest?
No, I don't, but whatever else that's in it is implicit. It seems that there is a social meaning and social protest that comes out through the people I'm writing about. It is in them. But, I'm not a politician, I'm not a propagandist, I'm a writer.
You do not have the traditional prejudices found among other white South Africans. Is that because of something different in your background?
No, my background is exactly like everybody else's, but you know, I'm not alone in this. There are thousands of South Africans who don't have the traditional prejudices. There are very many black South Africans who don't have what would seem to be the inevitable prejudice against whites. It's one of the things that make it possible to go on living there, to see that people can, even under the most inauspicious of circumstances, overcome this and feel that human beings are human beings. You drift towards your own kind, people who share some of your ideas of life. Your own kind doesn't depend on the colour of the skin, or the shape of the eyes, or the colour of the hair. I think that's something that conservative people don't want to let you discover.
Are you alienated from the white community in your country because of your views?
What I must say, and I hope it doesn't make me sound arrogant, but it hasn't really bothered me very much because you either mix with...It's strange, you know. People are peculiar. I sometimes have the reaction the other way. Somebody comes up to me and says, "Oh, I love your book!" Now I know how that person lives. I know that person's attitude to life in South Africa and I think it's strange that he loves my books because it seems to me that everything's that in my books would be....but maybe in that way I have some influence on people, if just to make them doubt their own prejudices. But for instance, you know there's a certain set of white people in South Africa with whom I don't have anything to do. I mean if we happen to meet somewhere, one talks about trivialities and agrees to disagree. You can't always be on the defensive, attacking. You have to choose your moment. I wouldn't let any racist remark or behaviour pass. I would always challenge it. But you know what people are like. They don't always tell you what they're thinking about you, or about the way you live. I don't have very much to do with them. There are enough people who think broadly for me not to feel this alienation. There is total alienation from the establishment, but that's inevitable.
You said you have an understanding of black South Africans that few white South Africans have. How did you obtain this knowledge?
If this comment is true, it seems to me to have come naturally. I was born there, I lived among South Africans of all colours. I haven't lived the closed-in white life because it is not my nature to do so. You know, for instance, we have these so-called National States where blacks are pushed away. They're way out there to see how people are living. Many people have no interest in doing so, but I have, and so have people that I know. In South Africa you could close your eyes and ears or leave them open. You also take things in all the other ways too, through all your other senses. It's so difficult for me to explain because I never think about it.
Do you envision the kind of transformation, the long overdue equality among black and white South Africans taking place within your lifetime or in the lifetime of your children? How do you think that that change will take place, through political means, or a violent revolution, or through non-violent protest as espoused by Bishop Tutu?
Well, that's a big question. Will it happen in my lifetime, I don't know. I'm getting rather old, I'm beginning to wonder whether it will. Maybe it will. Certainly, it's moved along tremendously in my lifetime, that is, in my adulthood since the 50's. The progress toward liberation has been constant even though it doesn't appear. You see a wave of protest get crushed and you despair. You think that it's going to last forever. But then people rise up again. New people are emerging constantly. I think that is how change comes about, that is how revolutions, whether peaceful or not, come about. Step by step, check by check, people are thrown back, they rise again. As for the means of change, that would be impossible for me to answer. I'm afraid that the kind of means that people are being forced into now, the dreadful element of self-sacrifice...There was a whole generation of young people who are sacrificing themselves to further the cause, not just in terms of risking their lives, but after all, 40 people have been killed in the past few weeks and they're mostly young people. It's not only in terms of this kind of courage, but of sacrificing their education and their access to schools. This year, half the time the schools have been closed. It's the way the government reacts to unrest in the schools. First of all, we have these dreadful scenes where people are shot and then the government can't control the protest. Then the schools close down. This is one of the questions that worry people like Bishop Tutu. He addresses himself to very big questions and very small ones. He is the one who, when this new wave of so-called student unrest began, went along to the government in the Ministry of Education and said, "Look, won't you meet the parents, won't you meet the teachers and the student delegations? Won't you try to make it possible for people to continue their education, because, with all this upheaval, blacks are so disadvantaged anyway by the poor education given to them that to miss a lot of school is a disaster." So it's a double sacrifice. I think this sort of protest will go on and on. There may be a further deterioration into violence and the inevitable state violence. In the present situation it is not yet a civil war. So I think, unfortunately, there will be a long time of attrition, unrest, misery mounting. One can only hope that the outside world will begin to back the initiatives for peaceful change in South Africa. I'm very encouraged by the fact that Bishop Tutu has been given the Nobel Peace Prize. What happens is that a powerful country like America, what do they come up with? They applaud the new constitution. They say, "This is constructive engagement. This is progress and we're right in there with them." But we know that it is not progress! It is dividing the black community from the white and from the so called coloured and Indian in a drastic fashion, worse than ever, rousing black frustration to an unbearable point. But you don't get much encouragement from the outside world for the people who are trying for peaceful resistance within the country. These are the people whom the outside world needs to back and help morally and materially if there are going to be peaceful solutions.
Has your experience as a Jew influenced your perception and sensitivity?
Yeah, I suppose one would expect that it would have. I have been fortunate enough, I myself and any immediate member of my family, except for two generations back, I suppose, not to have experienced pogroms or the whole ghastly Hitler thing. But I don't think that being Jewish has had any real influence on my attitude towards racism and towards black people. It would seem to be proven by the fact that there is this division among Jews in South Africa in the vanguard of opposition and struggle against apartheid. Since the 20's there has been a proportion of Jews – disproportionately high, too, to the percentage of the population – and now indeed the only white man who is serving a life sentence in prison for political reasons is a Jew called Dennis Goldberg. So that says something.
If you were asked to teach the rest of the world about what is happening in South Africa, what would you like us to see and hear?
Well, I'd want you to see what some people are doing to cope with the situation. You see the terrible victimization, but you don't see how people are resisting. You don't see how they're holding together. For instance, what some black women are doing. You get women in the ghettos, black townships and also in those dreadful "homelands," but to a smaller extent owing to their isolation, forming self help groups. Women who are left alone to raise the family and work with the land they have while their husbands are away. Here and there, they are grouping together and pooling such resources, in agriculture, in skills that they might be able to sell, and starting up very tiny cottage industries. These are all things that give people self-respect and also teach people how to manage their own lives. One of the terrible things that has happened, I think this was experienced in America, is that people at the lowest economic level get used to having everything decided for them. There's a terrible fear that you can't do anything for yourself. So there are many black women who are working to counter this. And there are other organizations, for example Legal Resources, which is a private organization. There are top lawyers, black and white, who at the sacrifice of their own careers work there and look after not just the run-of-the-mill rights, of black people but also test constitutional issues. Testing, pushing all the time – that is the reform aspect where good work is being done. It's a struggle and fight that people don't even write about here.
Is there some way of reconciling your patriotism and your moral values?
I think so because I'm regarded by the South African government as a terribly disloyal South African...a crime and shame upon my country. I resent that very much. I believe in the real South Africa, the South Africa that belongs to the whole 30 million people, not just to the 4 and a half.