Thursday, July 31, 2014

Nadine Gordimer

Nadine Gordimer, South Africa’s first Nobel laureate for literature, died on the 13th July at the age of 90.  She was a political activist all her life, but her protests were directed where she felt things were wrong, not by any political agenda.  She was a friend of Nelson Mandela and greatly admired him, and she supported his successor, President Thabo Mbeki, but she was strongly outspoken about his AIDS denialist policy.  She organized writers in South Africa to oppose the recent law here which restricts newspaper reporting under the 1984esque titled Protection of Information Bill.  (I wrote about it at the time in No News is Good News.)  She refused to compromise on her principles.  Ever.  She demanded that her name be removed from the short list for the Orange Prize for literature because it is only open to woman writers.

The day after she died, I heard an interview about her with one of the younger literary fiction writers in South Africa who knew her and whom she helped.  One of the questions he was asked was whether her writing would last, given that it was so much set in the political era of Apartheid and the struggle against it.  Of course he said that her writing would transcend its context, but I thought it was a fair question.  Motivated by that question as well as her death, I reread July’s People. I chose that particular book because its backstory is an apocalyptic collapse of Apartheid through a black revolution with support from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and the communist states.  It was published in 1981 and such a scenario seemed anything but farfetched at the time.  When the book was published in the US, a review in the New York Times said: “Since Nadine Gordimer writes more knowingly about South Africa than anyone else, this may be history in the making we are reading.”  The book was immediately banned in South Africa as subversive.  After the new government it was accorded the status it deserved, but in 2001 one of the provincial education departments removed it from the school reading list describing it as “deeply racist, superior and patronizing.”  If you’re making everyone unhappy, you must be doing something right!

The July of the title is a gardener for a reasonably well-off liberal white family living in Johannesburg.  Of course that’s not his real name, but we don’t learn that until three quarters of the way into the book.  He has worked for them for many years, initially illegally because of the abominable pass system.  He is regarded as 'one of the family'.  That is, from the perspective of his employers, the Smales – husband, wife and three young children.  The adults toy with emigrating, but just don’t get around to it.  When the rioting and fighting approaches their neighborhood, they know they have to leave, but have nowhere to go.  July says they can come to his home where his family lives in the country.  When the story opens, the five Smales find themselves in a round hut with nothing but the few things they managed to grab as they fled and a single bed.

This much I remember from the first time I read the book many years ago.  What I didn’t recall as clearly was the relationships that developed between the participants in the village – July, Maureen and Bam Smale, the children – differently depending on their ages – and their counterparts in the village.  Bam comes with a yellow ‘bakkie’ – a small van – and a shotgun.  These are status.  All the rest is based on the historical relationship between servant and employer and between cultures that think and behave very differently.  How much do the Smales know about the man who works for them – this ‘member of the family’ - about his background, his real family? How much do they really want to know?  How much does anyone from one culture and social group want to know about others beyond polite friendliness and mild curiosity?

Many novels have been written about this ranging from amusing to tragic.  I can’t think of any one where the relationship is exposed in this way through enforced integration into the poor rural culture.  Now I can’t think of any other way you could do it as well.  (Of course it takes a genius to see that in the first place.)  The relationships are laced with the racial background, of course, but that is almost secondary to the cultural one.  I think of the people who work at my townhouse complex and how little I really know about them.  This writing is as true today as it was thirty years ago.  So I have my answer.

Hamba Kahle, Nadine.  You will not be forgotten.

Michael - Thursday


  1. Michael, thank you for this. I will read July's People too. It was one hers that I missed. She had an enormous affect on people like me, outside of South Africa, who were looking in those days for a compass to explore what was happening in Africa. I read Alan Paton, Chinua Achebe, and J. M. Coetzee. But she was the only woman, and I set a lot of store by her. In Greenwich Village in the 70's, one could identify oneself in a group just by mentioning her name. Never forgotten, I am sure.

  2. Beautiful post, Michael. I have this sense I actually heard her speak in person somewhere, but can't quite put my finger on it. Or maybe it just seemed she was everywhere.