Interview with the 1991 Nobel Laureate in Literature, Nadine Gordimer, by freelance journalist Simon Stanford, 26 April 2005.
Nadine Gordimer talks about her childhood in South Africa; how she became aware of the racism around her (7:01); her first novel and the development of her writing (13:02); changes in South African society (20:10); the anthology ‘Telling Tales’ (25:50); and receiving the Nobel Prize (30:32).
Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Literature Laureate 1991, welcome to our interview.
Nadine Gordimer: Thank you.
From what origins did Nadine Gordimer come to be born in a gold mining town in South Africa?
Nadine Gordimer: The usual sort of background for whites in South Africa. My mother came from England and my father came from Latvia.
Is that typical white middle class type of background?
Nadine Gordimer: No, what I meant was that almost every white person, for perhaps a generation, two generations, even three generations before, they come from various parts of Europe. So mine is not the background, it is just one of a number.
And what was the sense during your youth, during your childhood; did you get a sense that you were part of an elite that owned South Africa?
Nadine Gordimer: It went without saying, if you could call what my background was an elite. It was a small gold mining town, but of course, being white in South Africa, up until the change came and till we got our freedom, to be white was to be automatically belonging to the ruling caste, no matter how humble you were as a white.
And did you feel that humility at the beginning?
Nadine Gordimer: No, I didn’t feel it at all, because it’s natural for a child to accept the milieu in which he or she lives. I went to a convent school. Of course it was also gender restricted as well. So I went to this convent school. Everybody was white; the other girls were white. On Saturdays when you got your pocket money and could go to the movies it never occurred to me, as a child, I think, or to any of the others as a small child, that there were no black children there; black children didn’t go.
The most important thing was that the local municipal library … My mother read a lot and she, having read to us, my sister and me when we were little, by the time I was six years old I was inscribed in the children’s library and that library indeed I still regard as my principle source of education, because without that library I don’t think I would ever have been a writer, because the only way you can become a writer, the only training is to read and if I’d been a black kid I couldn’t have used that library.
At what point in your childhood did that realisation come, that you were part of a privileged elite and that there was an enormous imbalance?
Nadine Gordimer: I think it came in, you know, in less formal terms, it came from experience. When I walked to my convent school across the veldt, on the left was one of the big mines, the Springs mine, and there was the compound where the black mineworkers lived and they came from all over Africa and I was always warned, now you know don’t go anywhere near the mine boys. So you were instilled with the fear of blackness even though there was the black maid of all work, nanny, whatever in the house, but of course she was a woman. She was black, but at least she didn’t seem to represent the sexual threat that has always existed about white attitudes towards black, what they regarded as a threat, as if every black mineworker was waiting to jump on some ugly little 10 year old schoolgirl. But to be serious about it, there were the mine concession stores.
The mines would build a row of little stores and they would rent them out as a concession to local people who wanted to run them and the idea was to keep the miners from going into the town. So that I would pass these stores and then I would see how the mineworkers, many of them still in their semi travel dress, blankets and so on, and what have now become dreadlocks but were just the way they wore their hair, coming along and they would want to buy something. Now the counter, there’d be a counter and there would be a wire across it; strong wire, kind of fence between the shopkeeper and the customer and the customer would point at this or that and the owner of the shop would take it down and then the black man, he couldn’t try anything on, he couldn’t touch anything to see whether it was what he wanted. He would have to push his money through and then he would get the goods. And child as I was, I suppose 11, 12, I couldn’t help thinking this is strange, because when I go with my mother into town and I’m buying a pair of shoes or a dress or something, we go into a little booth and we try it on. Why do these black people just have to point something, they can’t even look at it and see what it really, what quality it really has. So it was incidents like this that made me think about the difference.
Also the question of liquor raids. It was of course at that time, I’m talking about the ‘30s now, late ‘30s. It was forbidden for blacks to buy liquor and so people made their own beer everywhere, all over the place, in the backyards of white houses and when I was a little older, I think about 11, then there was a raid one day. I woke up, my parents woke up. We went out into the yard and there were the policemen, white and black, turning out everything in the servant’s room, in this old retainer of ours we’d had since I was two years old, turning her mattress over, pulling her clothes out, looking for beer and my parents stood by, didn’t say “Where’s your warrant to search? You walk into my property.” It was simply accepted and so was a humiliation of the woman and indeed, one of the first adult stories I ever wrote came out of that.
Only two to three years later when, at the age of 15, I wrote a story which indeed appeared in 1939, the year the war broke out, in a journal, a literary journal in South Africa. Nobody knew that I was a child, but the fact that I’m wanting to point out is that this was such a traumatic thing that I saw, with this woman, that these two things together that I described to you, began to make me think about the way we lived and why we lived like that and who were we to have the privileges that nobody else had if they were the wrong colour?
Do you think that once you began to recognise that injustice, that humiliation, you began to sort of piece together a more three-dimensional picture of black South Africans as opposed to the many South Africans who either supported or ignored apartheid, who never really let black people come into focus as real people to them?
Nadine Gordimer: Yes, but I think you have to look at the circumstances. It was unthinkable for me to meet or know black people who would share my interests, with whom, in other words, there could be some sort of natural rapport and meeting. It was always on the servant/master basis and even if you were the child of the master or the mistress, you still had this particular position, but being troubled about it and, great reader as I always was, beginning to find out that there was something called racism that existed in the world and I was living in it, I was part of it.
And then when I was older and went very briefly to, took the train every day and went to the university, and there for the first time I met, even then there were one or two, there were a few young blacks. Remember the university of course was whites only, but there were certain courses that were not available in the black universities and then, as a concession, at graduate level, post graduate level, a few blacks would come in and so I met one or two black people, with whom I had far more in common than I had with the young whites that I knew in the town.
I wasn’t sporty. Many of the things that they did were of no particular interest to me and here were young people, black, who were trying to write, who were beginning to write. So we had this enormous, not just ambition, we had this enormous way of approach to life and the mystery of life and social questions in our own lives and then I began, at that age, to make black friends. And then as I, myself, became a young published writer, then I moved into a different circle, which was, again, journalists, actors, people in the arts who normally indeed don’t follow the rules, the conservative rules, and where the feeling about the incredible distortions of racism, not only the oppression of blacks, but the distortions in your personality, in your mind as a white, these became very much part of my life and indeed started my way to freedom from racism, from racist ideas that I’d been inculcated at school, at home, everywhere since childhood.
You describe yourself as a natural writer. Perhaps some of those other people that you met were also natural writers.
Nadine Gordimer: Yes.
You know, there was the recognition of the injustice. There must have been the anger that you felt. What nurtured and fed your voice?
Nadine Gordimer: Well, I suppose that did, and then, of course, it meant that this extended to the times when people who said what they thought got into trouble and if you were black the consequences were dire. So that your connections, which had been personal and through the arts, became political and your friends got into trouble and you found yourself having to, indeed, when questioned by the police to tell lies, to say that you hadn’t seen them or you didn’t know them. Apartheid made fantastic liar out of everybody who was against it. You had to in order to your friends and others to survive, never mind yourself. So that the two really then developed together.
You have a whole generation who grew up under apartheid whose children are now getting a different kind of education. Is there a sort of a generation gap which doesn’t offer the type of support that is necessary to nurture young writers?
Nadine Gordimer: Yes, but this is nothing to be distinguished by colour. Black children and white children, they come home from school and they turn on television and the bedtime story doesn’t exist. You put the kid in front of the television and turn on the kiddies programme and that’s that. You don’t read to them anymore. And when you’re being read to, probably you are, you’re young but you’re of a generation where you read to probably, and then you begin to look at the words and want to recognise them for yourself and you become literate. We have an enormous problem of illiteracy. We have very high illiteracy and I put it down to the fact that people have got no access to the joy and the pleasure of books. Having to read a particular book in school is one thing, it’s a task, but to amuse yourself and to let you enter into another world, that’s really something different, but of course that is becoming almost universal. I was reading the other day how in England and in America the functioning literacy, the standard has dropped.
So you moved beyond the sort of particularities of apartheid. You see that as a universal problem?
Nadine Gordimer: Oh yes, this has got nothing to do with apartheid. This is the threat of the image against the word, the written word, the published word in a book.
Your early writing, The Lying Days, was that a sort of coming of age, a realisation of … the first articulation of your understanding of the society around you?
Nadine Gordimer: I had been writing stories, which indeed were looking at questioning how we lived and then that first novel, it’s the only thing I’ve ever written in my 14 novels, in my nine or ten books of stories; it’s the only autobiographical thing. I’m not a writer who uses her own life. My writing is widely ranged in terms of who is the central character, whether it’s in the first person, whether it’s in the third person, whether it’s a mixture of the two, but I’m not an autobiographical writer. But the first novel, like everybody’s first novel really, had lots of autobiographical elements in it and I think the first novel is usually some kind of revenge against your background and, you know, you’ve got to get it off your chest.
You write from very, very diverse points of view, very diverse characters, diverse situations. You write about gender, you write about sex, you write about injustice, you write about race.
Nadine Gordimer: But I write about it from within. I don’t write about it. I write about how it shapes the people who are shaped by it. To write about it is to write nonfiction, to write essays, which I have done of course, but in my novels and stories they’re not about …
You write very much as an insider, from very diverse positions. I’ve just been reading some of your short stories in Loot. For instance “Mission Statement”, you know, it’s a very, very intimate portrait from within a particular situation, from within somebody’s life. How do you manage to get under the skin of such very, very diverse characters in diverse situations?
Nadine Gordimer: I can only say I don’t know. I really don’t know.
But is there a process, because obviously you display an intimate knowledge in that case of the world of an aid worker. Do you actively set out to experience and get into these situations, get to know these kind of people?
Nadine Gordimer: No, I’m not a journalist, I don’t do this, but of course I have known, in my long life, a variety of people and, as I’ve said, there is this curiosity about other people and also the alertness to what they are thinking or doing and the way that they give away their real feelings. But I can’t explain it, and I don’t think any writer can explain it. It happens and of course there are some people who, and there are some occasions in your life when there is one of your characters is going to be engaged in some particular aspect of life, about which you don’t know very much, so then I, others may enjoy this, but I have to force myself, very reluctantly, to go into what is called research to make sure that I haven’t used the wrong term or whatever, but that’s pretty unlikely. For instance I could never write an historical novel because I haven’t the capacity, the ability to do the research that is necessary.
Education. You attended Wits University. You didn’t graduate.
Nadine Gordimer: No, I was only there for a year doing occasional courses.
Isn’t that rather unusual for an author of your stature that you have, you know, the process has come from within? How have you developed yourself as a writer? How have you developed the powers of language, the descriptive powers, the idiom that you have created? Where does that all come from? Is that just hard work?
Nadine Gordimer: Books, no from reading. From reading since I was six years old, truly.
Is that a real discipline?
Nadine Gordimer: And living of course. No, the reading was never a discipline, you know, an enormous pleasure, an unending pleasure in my life but one can’t explain it. I suppose the love of words comes into it but then where do the words come from if you haven’t had a long academic education, which I certainly didn’t have. I don’t know. Would I have been a different kind of writer, I sometimes ask myself, and, on the other hand, I often see in academics’ fiction the stiffness and the set of academic language coming in. So maybe I was lucky. The only thing I really regret is that I would like to have studied languages, more languages.
Nadine Gordimer: Oh yes, I mean obviously English is my own but just to have studied foreign languages and not to have learnt an African language. So like most other South Africans, there I am sitting with my black friends and we’re all talking in English and then I may go out of the room perhaps to get a bucket of ice or something and come back, we’re having drinks together, and they have broken into their own language. They’re talking Setswana, they’re talking Zulu, whatever, and I am then a stranger in my own country and among my own people. So that’s a great regret in my life.
You speculated a little bit that you might have been a different type of a writer if you’d had a more academic background. Of course you might have been a very different type of writer if you had not experienced all the injustice, the confrontation, the drama, the trauma of growing up in the side that you did.
Nadine Gordimer: No, I wouldn’t have been. If you’re going to be a writer you can make the death of a canary important, you could connect it to the whole chain of life and the mystery of life. To me what is the purpose of writing? For me personally, I don’t know others, it is really to explain the mystery of life and the mystery of life includes of course the personal, the political, the forces that make us what we are while there’s another force from inside battling to make us something else.
What stories are we going to see coming out?
Nadine Gordimer: I must say, on the other subject, that I’m an atheist. Perhaps if I had a religion then I would think that there was some answer to the mystery of life, but as an atheist and in all humbleness, I know that there’s no religion that can give me that answer.
For many years a lot of South African culture, art, performance, writing has been informed very much by the struggle against apartheid. Is there going to be a kind of liberation in the arts where people are able to confront and express more personal, more intimate, more self discovery now?
Nadine Gordimer: I wouldn’t like to see literature turn inward. I wouldn’t like to see it contemplating its own literary navel. The change is so extraordinary and as a new generation grows up in totally different circumstances from those that I, my children or my children’s children would really know, there is so much unexplored, there’s so much of the mystery of the way we love to be explored now and I am waiting now, not quite so patiently anymore, to see some of this expressed in young writers at present.
There’s some people who are writing very well but they’re obsessed by the past. It’s particularly black writers and it’s more understandable then because the weight of all that was on their backs, holding them down, changing the lives of their parents and grandparents and so on.
Changing, what am I saying, they were not changed, each one was exactly like the one before. Then this seems to be something they want to express all this. It’s the return of the repressed in Freudian terms, but it seems to be happening with whites as well and there’s been quite a rush of books, it’s the breast beating book. Oh, I couldn’t help it, my parents were racists and so, you know, and I was always uncomfortable about it. This is something that you should go to your psychotherapist for, not bore everybody else with it. This is not to say that white experience is irrelevant, of course it wasn’t, but I’d love to see much more of what is happening now, because to me little things are they’re not so little. They’re little incidents but they have huge social implications.
Near where I live there’s a primary school, which of course was always white. Very nice school, not too big. Now, if I walk past there and it’s break, lunch break time, the kids are coming out, they’re smallish because it’s a primary school and it still gives me a sort of start when I see two boys, a black boy and a white boy. You know how you’ve all wrestled, you were a boy and it’s natural for little boys to kind of play battles, wrestling with one another, but this is a white and a black. This was unthinkable even in my children’s time and then go to a play or to a movie and there you have a mixed couple; a black/white couple on this side, you have two blacks there. This gives me a shock of pleasure.
And you declared yourself in your public life, very early on, as a very staunch and active opponent of apartheid. Now it’s a new era and I mean just 2001 you had a situation where July’s People was taken off the recommended …
Nadine Gordimer: In one province.
In one province, exactly.
Nadine Gordimer: Not a national …
… and it ended very quickly but that must have been something of a shock. It might have been just an aberration but are you still confronting the injustices of the new South African society?
Nadine Gordimer: Oh yes, indeed. I’m not talking about this little incident with July’s People. I’m talking about for instance the position on AIDS, this reluctance on the government. It’s taken such a long time to get them to move at all and we still have a Minister of Health who is very reluctant indeed to accept that antiretrovirals are absolutely necessary. No-one’s denying that you also have to be decently fed, that you have to have living conditions which allow you the treatment indeed to be backed up by the nourishment in your body, but this denial against the need for the drugs is something that I’ve spoken out and continue to feel very strongly about and regret very much that our President, whom I admire and support in the other things that he does, I think he’s an excellent President, I cannot accept or understand his lack of determination and his lack of being convinced that we have to tackle HIV/AIDS with drugs, with the appropriate drugs and that the connection between HIV and AIDS is proven over and over and over again and it troubles me that he who is a man of really remarkable intellect, very much a man of the world, that he somehow denies this.
You compiled this extraordinary collection of stories from very distinguished writers and this is a global statement. Can you tell us a little bit about Telling Tales?
Nadine Gordimer: Well, now it’s I suppose 15 months ago, there were, and it continues of course, these wonderful big musical events, mainly pop stars, musicians and singers but also some of the classical musicians as well, but mainly the pop stars, holding these enormous gigs where they have enormous performances, where indeed they raise money for the cause of HIV/AIDS sufferers and, at the same time, made people aware, roused people’s awareness of this pandemic disease and did a lot, I think, to give a shove to the whole problem of denial and the shame that people feel is attached to having contracted the disease. And I thought, well fine, there’s Bono, there’s Geldof, there’s everybody else doing these things, what are the writers doing?
PEN, the international organisation of writers, which has been wonderful over 30 years and continues for writers who become politically oppressed and indeed hunted down by various regimes, it’s still going on in some places. They have done wonderful work there but there hasn’t been a peep out of PEN about HIV/AIDS, and you would think that they would know writers who had succumbed to this. So I thought, well it’s no good going on grumbling about it and saying why doesn’t this one do something, why doesn’t that do something? Well, what can you do as an individual?
So then I thought, what about a book of really lovely stories, wonderful stories. There are plenty of books about HIV/AIDS, textbooks and manuals to help you if you do contract the disease and so on. But these should be stories that are not on that subject at all and, quite commercially, go for big names, wonderful stories and try and get them published at a time, especially near Christmas when people are looking for gifts, but in other words to have a book that people will want to buy for themselves and give as a present. So out of the blue I wrote off to 20 writers and said: Look, I have this idea, would you let me have a story? I didn’t write to people who were mainly novelists because I don’t think that bits out of novels work very well. So I wrote to them all, from the five Nobel Prize winners and a lot of others, and from Woody Allen to Günter Grass and John Updike and, you know, everybody whose stories I think are really wonderful and I admire.
The response was marvellous. I didn’t get one refusal and they all sent me these wonderful stories and then of course publisher. I went first to my own publisher in America and said, look, I don’t know how you’ll feel about this but will you publish this book and will you take only production costs? You will not get a penny of royalties, the writers are not going to be paid and all the money will go indeed to the Treatment Action Campaign since we are such a heavily infected area and Treatment Action Campaign of course now, as you know, works quite a bit in the surrounding territories as well, and to my astonishment they were very pleased, said we’ll do it. My English publisher the same and now I have 14 publishers worldwide. It’s just come out in Greek; I got it the other day, a copy of it. It’s come out in German and indeed it’s on the way in France, in Italy, China. You name it, it’s all over the place. Russia.
It’s a fantastic effort. I haven’t read all of them but I’ve loved what I’ve read so far.
Nadine Gordimer: The stories are really lovely, so the people they buy it and, at the same time, they have the great pleasure of knowing that what they’re enjoying is also helping other people, but I don’t know how to thank enough the writers who generously gave what we have, you know, our talent and the publishers, after all they’re business people, and 14 publishers agreed to this.
To get back to the Nobel Prize. Tell us about it? I mean 1991. Did you get a phone call, you knew that you were on the shortlist? What was the procedure?
Nadine Gordimer: Well, I’d been on the shortlist for a few years, as you usually are I think, and journalists would phone me and say, you’re on the shortlist, you’re probably going to get the Nobel Prize, what do you think about it? And I would say, if I ever get it I’ll tell you, goodbye, and put down the phone. Finished. And on this occasion I happened to be in New York for another reason and staying with my son. I got up before anybody else did in the apartment because I wanted to call somebody in London and when the time difference, you know, was convenient, but as I went into the kitchen where the phone was the phone rang and indeed it was a Swedish journalist who had found out, through a friend in Sweden, where I was and phoned to tell me that I’d got the Prize. So that was really out of the blue because I think that year, probably because I was away, no-one had phoned and said you’re on the shortlist again.
How did that feel? How has that affected your life?
Nadine Gordimer: Of course it’s a wonderful thing to get because it is the premier prize in the world since it’s not just one country. I’ve also had the Booker but was for Commonwealth and people who get the Pulitzer here and so on or the National Book Award, you’ve got to be an American to get it and that’s ok, these are national prizes, but the Nobel, that is both, its strength and some people would say its weakness is that it looks at books from all over the world in all languages.
I’ve come to the conclusion this is a very, very good thing. For instance someone whom I now consider, and I should have long before but he didn’t exist in translation sufficiently for me to have noticed his work, that’s the Portuguese writer, José Saramago, who is a very great writer and suddenly it’s announced he’s got the Nobel Prize and I’m saying, who, you know, never heard of him. Then of course the translations came out and I realised what a wonderful thing that someone who was not widely known now is recognised worldwide in so very many languages.
Does that give extra force to your voice? You get a bigger readership, you get the recognition?
Nadine Gordimer: You know it’s a very moot point about readership. Probably the readership thing is for the year when you get it, for the most recent book, but then after that, you know, it’s a line on a cover. I don’t think it makes all that much difference. More and more writers are expected to be performers so that if you have a new book out, if it’s a good book of course, if it gets well reviewed, then you must be going round talking about it and being on talk shows and things. So that side of it comes into the sales.
But changing your life. You mentioned it gets you … Of course it gives you a voice, shall we sa,y that is likely to be listened to a bit more. So for instance, in the case of Telling Tales, it probably helped me when I wrote to the writers and it helped me with the publishers to get this off the ground and then of course you get invited, my god, I think they don’t even know what kind of Nobel Prize you’ve got. So you suddenly get invited to open some conference on saving the whales or whatever, you know, in various parts of the world. But, on the other hand, it does give you a voice when there’s something that you care about, that you want to give some push to.
And of course every year, once you’ve got it, you have the privilege of absolutely confidentially, only to the Foundation, of putting up, nominating someone for the current year. So since ’91 … it’s absolutely confidential. People send you their books and say, could you please put me forward and so on, just ignore it. Since ’91, and I’ve made use of this privilege each year, I’ve had only two successes and that I can tell you because they got the Prize. The first one was the great German writer, Günter Grass, and the other was Kenzaburo Oe, the Japanese. So I don’t know, it’s a very low average.
So you can tell me who you’re going to nominate this year? I promise I won’t tell anyone.
Nadine Gordimer: No, I know.
So where to next? What are you doing now?
Nadine Gordimer: Writing, what else would I be doing?
Do you have a direction?
Nadine Gordimer: Well, I have recently finished a new novel, which will come out toward the end of this year.
Nadine Gordimer: No.
Nadine Gordimer: I never talk about what I’ve just written.
To conclude, I’m looking at the Nobel website and I’m looking at this interview and I’m a young aspiring writer, what would be your most valuable words of advice?
Nadine Gordimer: Boringly, I always repeat; read, read, read and don’t read the book coming in a stream of words on a screen, don’t depend on that, which you now have in your car and on your, god knows, your cell phone and everything. Please, just go to the library and read.
Then you go through the stage, when you’re very young, that you begin to imitate the writers that you admire but that will pass. If you’ve got your own voice you will hear it. So there we are.
Thank you very much for being with us.
Nadine Gordimer: My pleasure.
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