by Claudia Dreifus
In this 1992 interview with The Progressive, the Nobel Prize-winner in Literature, who passed away on July 13, shared her insights on life, literature, politics—and more.
It was a frosty New York autumn afternoon, and Nadine Gordimer, South Africa's preeminent novelist, was sitting in the Union Square offices of her American publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Just a week later she would become the first woman in a quarter century to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and the second member of the African National Congress to win any Nobel. (Chief Albert Luthuli won the Peace Prize in 1960.) Gordimer, sixty-seven, had come to New York to see her grown son, to do some public readings, and to promote her newest book of short stories, Jump. Like most of her fiction, Jump is full of realistic political tales of how apartheid destroys the souls of all who live in South Africa-though this collection also includes stories set in Mozambique, England, and the South of France. During our two hours together, I mentioned that Gordimer had made the Nobel short list several times but had never received the award. "I really don't think about it," she said. "It's really unlikely to happen if I think about it." A week later, the Swedish Academy made its announcement: "Nadine Gordimer, who through her magnificent epic writing has-in the words of Alfred Nobel-been of very great benefit to humanity .... Her continual involvement on behalf of literature and free speech in a police state where censorship and persecution of books and people exist have made her 'the doyenne of South African letters.' " I spoke with Gordimer again, briefly, on the day of the Nobel announcement. The interview that follows is an amalgam of the two conversations.
Q: Jump seems like a set of transitional stories for you. Are you living now in a transitional country in a transitional time?
Nadine Gordimer: Well, I always think of a line from Gramsci, "living in the interregnum." But you know, there have been few times in the last ten years that haven't been a kind of interregnum-in Europe, too, though that one will be more quickly resolved than the one in South Africa.
Q: Few writers have been able to influence the politics of their place as much as you have.
Gordimer: I wonder if I have. A handful of South African writers, including myself, if we helped at all to bring about change there, we helped through our influence on the outside world. In what countries have writers been influential? It seems to be happening again now that you have Vaclav Havel in Eastern Europe.
Q: In Latin America, the writers have been influential.
Gordimer: Yes, in Latin America. But it's pretty rare. Can you imagine writers influencing things in this country? Can you imagine a writer in England influencing? Absolutely not. And in France? It used to be, but no more-absolutely not. France used to, at least, have writers as diplomats, but not any more.
In a country like South Africa, we have nuisance value, because those of us who have become known overseas have certainly helped to inform people about what life is like there.
Q: Is the Nobel Prize an endorsement of your anti-apartheid work over the years?
Gordimer: I really can't say. I can only say that if you look at the recent Nobel Prize winners, one couldn't say that the work didn't matter and the political commitment did. Who had ever heard of the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz? He is not politically involved. Octavio Paz is a great poet, also not politically involved. The Nobel Prize is for literature, for the quality of work over the years.
Q: Some of your recent writings have been set in places far from South Africa. Do you consider yourself primarily a South African or a citizen of the world?
Gordimer: I don't think I am a citizen of the world; I am very much a citizen of my own country. But my own country is closely related to other parts of the world and influenced by what happens there. I think this has happened more and more in my lifetime. When I was a child, we seemed to be living in a world remote from the rest of the world. But television has made a great difference to all of us. If something happens where I live, you see it tomorrow or perhaps even at the same time it is happening there. It's not "one world" in the sense that conflicts are resolved in the world. But we are more one world in that we know what is going on and are psychologically influenced by what goes on around us.
Q: The Afrikaner government long resisted putting television in. South Africa was the one place in the world where Dallas wasn't to be seen on a Friday night. What was their problem with it?
Gordimer: Well, I think they made quite a wrong calculation; they thought television would spread ideas that were inimical to the kind of society they were trying to preserve. But when television was brought in-now about twelve years ago-it was entirely state-owned, and they discovered they had been neglecting the most effective tool for the propagation of their ideas. From their point of view, they had made a mistake to keep it out so long. I myself have not appeared on South African television.
Q: Are you semi-banned from South African television?
Gordimer: I banned myself! I decided that I wanted nothing to do with South African government television while any of my fellow writers were banned and couldn't speak publicly.
Once you have some sort of reputation in the outside world, they will try to woo you. They will say, "Won't you come and be on a talk program about books? That's not political." Then they can say to the outside world, "See how free it is, she appears on television. See how free it is." So I refused to have anything of mine read or dramatized on South African television. In 1990, when the African National Congress and the other movements were unbanned and Nelson Mandela and our other leaders came out of prison, they had to make an agonizing decision, which was then passed on to the rest of us: whether to continue to boycott South African television. Nelson and our other leaders decided that the time had come to use television. Once he'd done that, we writers met and discussed our position again. In the meantime, the cultural section of the South African Broadcasting Company was beginning to woo us. They wanted to do an in-depth program about my work. So I went to the African National Congress, of which I was a member, to discuss what I should do. We asked how this was to be done, if l would have final cut. I also made a condition that I wouldn't be told afterwards that it was a half minute too long and had to be cut. So everything that I said went out exactly, intact. It was quite a breakthrough.
Q: When did you join the African National Congress?
Gordimer: A year ago last March. I had been a long-time supporter. I had identified with the ideas of the ANC, and now one could come out and make one's allegiance public. I still hope that many other white people will follow suit. There are many people who are sympathetic toward the Congress but haven't actually gotten to the point of joining. In Johannesburg, there's quite a large membership of white people.
Q: Who are they?
Gordimer: Well, it's quite interesting. In the area where I live, they get a mixture of elderly people who've been in the left-wing movement-some were in the Communist Party-and you get fighters for justice and liberation.
Q: People like "Lionel Burger," the fictional anti-apartheid leader of your Burger's Daughter?
Gordimer: Well, people of that generation. And then, a lot of young people. Where I live is near the university, and a lot of the young people are joining. And then, of course, you get an amazing mixture, because quite near where I live there's a crowded apartment-house area where lots of black people have moved in, whether it's legal or not. So this chapter of the ANC now has quite a lot of blacks, even though it is not near a black township or a black ghetto.
Q: How did it happen that a neighborhood in central Johannesburg came to be integrated?
Gordimer: Well, it was a triumph of people power. Two things have brought about change in South Africa. One was the incredible endurance and determination of black people who really hung in there. One can't measure how a mood of confidence comes about. Somehow, in the last ten years, blacks have simply begun to move in where they've always been kept out. It's partly the fact that you could no longer run a country of something like thirty-six million people with four-and-a-half million whites. So areas where blacks have never been able to get jobs before have had to be opened to them. Banks, for instance. Banks have had to train black tellers. And by blacks, I mean all kinds of people-people of mixed blood, people who are completely black, Indians, and so on. Then people began to use facilities that had not been open to them, and with that came the confidence that when an apartment building had some apartments to let, when the building had been empty for some time, the owner would decide she would risk prosecution and black people would move in. And so this whole area is now full of people of all colors.
Q: What have the last two years-as you've watched such intense social change in South Africa-been like for you personally?
Gordimer: Very exciting, certainly. It was something you would hardly believe would happen because it had gone on so long. It had been deadlocked for so long.
Q: If the heroine of Burger's Daughter, a young white woman whose father dies in prison for his anti-apartheid work, were living in the South Africa of today, what would she be doing?
Gordimer: It's interesting that you asked. What was she doing at the end of the book? She wasn't active in politics. I think, as she put it, she was teaching victims of apartheid, children, "to put one foot before the other." Now that the ANC is unbanned, I think she would probably be running one of its branches. She would be living a much freer and open sort of life.
Q: John Edgar Wideman, in a review of a recent book of yours, wrote, "Her withering insights deflate us; they show a fine contempt for the human species." Do you think that's accurate?
Gordimer: Totally inaccurate. I don't know what is meant by "contempt for the human species." It's the last thing in the world I have. I couldn't be sufficiently interested in human beings to be a writer if I had contempt for human beings.
Q: Are the people you know personally happier now that apartheid has eased up?
Gordimer: Certainly the people who are close to me are happier. They feel freer. I'm thinking, for example, of a black friend, a regional organizer for the Congress. He's twenty-nine. At the age of seventeen, when he was in the youth group of the ANC, he went to prison, to Robbin Island, for five years. After prison, he went..into trade-union work. He's spent his whole life in black ghettos in great poverty with great dignity. And now he and his young wife, who is an actress, have just moved into an apartment where only whites have lived before. They have no furniture there, just a bed for themselves, a bed for the baby, and a big TV, of course. But I think the very space around them is something extraordinary. It's still a struggle, but they are living more fully than they did. But they are city people; for country people, things are as they were. They are very remote, very poor, very dependent on the white farmers they work for. It's very difficult to organize them. There are still huge, huge problems to be tackled.
Q: Doris Lessing, in the preface of her African Stories, says Africa provides no end of source material, no end to the horrors and dramas and joys and the courage you can witness. Do you agree?
Gordimer: About the joys and the courage, I really don't know what other people think. I just know that I've never left Africa. I've lived there all my life. And one of the wonderful things, in spite of all the terrible things that happen in South Africa, is the way people continue to keep their dignity. They continue to love, to laugh, to get pleasure out of life. People come out of jail and pick up their lives and go on. I've met people in exile who have gone through terrible prison experiences-I'm talking about blacks now-and who've gone through all the terrible experiences that exile can mean, and suddenly they discover they've fallen in love. They marry and produce a baby-even though they know that they may be shot where they are, that they may have to move on to somewhere else, without any of the bourgeois calculation of, "How can I bring up children if I can't give them a settled life?" They just have the idea that you simply live your life to the full and accept whatever comes. This idea that revolutionaries are martyrs who go around looking gloomy and noble, this is a romantic idea for people who've never met anybody who's gone through the experiences.
Q: In your newest collection of short stories, Jump, you have one about a Middle Eastern terrorist who moves in with a working-class English family, impregnates the daughter, and then sends her on a plane with a bomb. This sounds suspiciously like a true-life story that I read some years ago.
Gordimer: Yes, it's one of the few stories in my whole life that has ever come out of three lines in a newspaper.
Q: Could you say something about the process?
Gordimer: I read the newspaper account. Journalism picks up the dramatic point, but what led up to it? What happened after? How did these people meet? One simply doesn't know, so this intrigues the writer's imagination, and you invent the life. I think Graham Greene once said, "We invent alternative lives for people." We catch a glimpse that intrigues us of somebody's life, and we invent an alternative life for them. And that's what happened with that story.
Q: Did the events strike you as particularly horrible, so that you felt a need to write about them?
Gordimer: No. I mean, what he did was inconceivably awful. But if you've known people who believe that the cause they work for justifies everything, and that everybody else is to blame for this, and he belongs, as he must have, to some cell, and he's disciplined to do what he's told .... The mystery remains for me, when he started sleeping with that girl, or further on, when she was pregnant, at what point did he actually decide to give her that bomb to carry on? But to me this is what fiction is about; it asks questions, and it doesn't answer.
Q: Another story in Jump tells about the current nightmare of civil war in Mozambique through the eyes of one child-victim.
Gordimer: People should know more about that situation. Two years ago, I made a documentary film with the BBC on Mozambique, on the South African side, where these camps are. And I realized, though I live just over the border from where these camps are, that I didn't know what a terrible, terrible thing this war in Mozambique is. And it is something being done in our name.
Q: The changes in South Africa seemed to occur almost in response to the changes in the Soviet Union.
Gordimer: I think it was coincidental. The real influence of the events in the Soviet Union was to spread a lot of unease and anxiety in the African National Congress, because the Soviet Union had been the only country, really, that had stood by us all those years. The West never lifted a finger or gave a cent to the African National Congress. America, England, Germany-everyone supported the South African government against the attempts of the African National Congress to bring about change. So actually, there was worry about losing that support-somewhat offset by the fact that now the ANC began to receive support from the West. Of course, the strange thing is that the South African government is now madly wooing the new Soviet Union, or what is left of the Soviet Union. So we have Russian journalists there, and a Russian trade commission is coming, having lunch one day with the government and the next day with the ANC.
Q: When Nelson Mandela emerged from prison two years ago, he seemed to be almost the last person on Earth who still spoke about "socialism."
Gordimer: I know. But the Communist Party is very popular in South Africa, especially among the young people. Never having had a chance to travel, and having suffered so much under capitalism, they still can't believe that the Russian people themselves have rejected it.
Q: What are your impressions when you come to the New World Order, U.S.A.?
Gordimer: I come to this country a lot, and have for over twenty years. I've seen New York City, where my son lives, go up and down, and it seems to be in a down phase at the moment. People have had this idea of how wonderful it would be to live in America-the dream of so many Europeans, so many Africans-but it doesn't seem to be a desirable dream to have at all. I find it odd how now, with the breakup of the Soviet Union, America has become so powerful internationally. You call the tune wherever you are, whereas at home, things just seem to be getting worse and worse. I would have thought this would have caused President Bush to lose a lot of popularity, because by and large people only care about domestic policy. I wonder what's going to happen here, because it seems to me the material life in this country has decayed.
Q: How do you feel about President Bush recently having lifted sanctions against South Africa?
Gordimer: I am pro-sanctions, and I was very sorry to hear that President Bush had made the decision to lift sanctions. I know, as someone living there, that sanctions have been tremendously important in forcing the South African government to finish the job.
Q: If the sanctions are removed prematurely, what will happen?
Gordimer: I share the fear of Mandela and others that there will be a sliding back, that we will stay only halfway to freedom.