Nadine Gordimer’s speech at the Nobel Banquet, December 10, 1991
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellencies, Fellow Laureates, Ladies and Gentlemen,
When the six-year-old daughter of a friend of mine overheard her father telling someone that I had been awarded the Nobel Prize, she asked whether I had ever received it before. He replied that the Prize was something you could get only once. Whereupon the small girl thought a moment: ‘Oh’ she said, ‘so it’s like chicken-pox.’
Well, Flaubert said that ‘honours dishonour’ the writer, and Jean-Paul Sartre declined this particular honour, but whether as malediction or malady one cannot say. I certainly find being the recipient at this celebratory dinner more pleasurable and rewarding than chicken-pox, having now in my life experienced both.
But the small girl was not entirely wrong. Writing is indeed, some kind of affliction in its demands as the most solitary and introspective of occupations. We writers do not have the encouragement and mateyness I imagine, and even observe, among people whose work is a group activity. We are not orchestrated; poets sing unaccompanied, and prose writers have no cue on which to come in, each with an individual instrument of expression to make the harmony or dissonance complete. We must live fully in order to secrete the substance of our work, but we have to work alone. From this paradoxical inner solitude our writing is what Roland Barthes called ‘the essential gesture’ towards the people among whom we live, and to the world; it is the hand held out with the best we have to give.
When I began to write as a very young person in a rigidly racist and inhibited colonial society, I felt, as many others did, that I existed marginally on the edge of the world of ideas, of imagination and beauty. These, taking shape in poetry and fiction, drama, painting and sculpture, were exclusive to that distant realm known as ‘overseas’. It was the dream of my contemporaries, white and black, to venture there as the only way to enter the world of artists. It took the realization that the colour bar – I use that old, concrete image of racism – was like the gate of the law in Kafka’s parable, which was closed to the supplicant throughout his life because he didn’t understand that only he could open it. It took this to make us realize that what we had to do to find the world was to enter our own world fully, first. We had to enter through the tragedy of our own particular place.
If the Nobel awards have a special meaning, it is that they carry this concept further. In their global eclecticism they recognize that no single society, no country or continent can presume to create a truly human culture for the world. To be among laureates, past and present, is at least to belong to some sort of one world.