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After Apartheid

Nobel Prize-winning author Nadine Gordimer talks about integrity, illumination, illiteracy, and the dubious relationship between art and social conflict

February 9, 2000

Seventy-six years old, Nadine Gordimer has written about her native South Africa for more than fifty years. She has almost thirty books to her name; she has won the Booker Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature. Yet despite her creative achievements Gordimer is just as often recognized for her other lifelong commitment -- her role as an anti-apartheid activist. Often in the public's mind the two roles bleed together. In fact, some readers and critics of Gordimer have wondered what she'll find to write about now that apartheid is over. It's a futile question -- Gordimer's writing was never limited to apartheid in the first place. Nuanced and unflinchingly honest, her novels and stories expose the stew of contradictions that make up any life, not just a life shaped by racial discrimination.

"My Generation Gap," Gordimer's story in the February issue of The Atlantic, is a case in point. (Atlantic Unbound was not granted online rights for the story, so it can only be found in the print version of the magazine.) About an "affectionate, loyal, considerate" father's infidelity and the shock and betrayal registered by his wife and their adult children, the story is an unsparing account of family dynamics at their most complicated. "A husband leaves his wife: it is one of the most unexceptional of events," Gordimer writes. "The father has left the mother: that is a completely different version, their version." It is precisely this ability to identify and tease out the particular story crouched beneath a common theme that Gordimer exercises in all of her fiction. As she says in this interview, not one of her books has gone untouched by apartheid, but to approach her work as simply that of a polemicist is to miss out almost entirely on what it offers.

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Along with twelve novels and nine books of short stories, Gordimer has written four collections of essays. Her most recent book is Living in Hope and History: Notes From Our Century, a collection of her nonfiction writings culled mostly from the past decade. Included is her 1991 Nobel Prize lecture, "Writing and Being"; an epistolary exchange with the Japanese novelist Kenzaburo Oe; and essays and lectures on topics ranging from Günter Grass to Nelson Mandela to globalization.

Gordimer lives and writes in Johannesburg, South Africa, where she serves as a member of the African National Congress. She spoke recently with Atlantic Unbound's Katie Bolick.



Nadine Gordimer    

You have cited the Indian filmmaker and writer Satyajit Ray as having said, "It is the presence of the essential thing in a very small detail which one must catch in order to expose larger things." The attention to detail and nuance that marks your fiction bears out this principle; did you come to this emphasis naturally?

I think that saying of Ray's is one of the most wonderful encapsulations of what a writer needs to aim for that I've ever heard. It's about finding the essence of what you have to say. If you're writing a description, the essence is in the detail -- not a list of everything that was in a room, or everything that was in a landscape, but that one detail. The same goes for when you're creating characters, or, indeed, when you've got characters talking. There's no such thing as naturalism in dialogue, even in books by the more naturalistic writers working during the nineteenth century. There is always this sense of selection, this search for the significant thing. And it's not easy to find. Many writers starting out don't have the insight into what people are saying to be able to convey what is actually being said without writing all of it down. It's a very important skill; it's what helps you not to overwrite. And it's something that indeed is at the base of my work.

It's been observed that over time you've shed the lyricism that characterized your early novels and stories. Do you agree?

Yes, I do agree. I think lyricism generally belongs to one's early writings, before the narrative power has fully developed. As one gets more and more to the essence of things -- as one goes deeper -- one sheds the decoration, so to speak. Of course, you can't say this of poets, who continue to speak very often through lyricism throughout their writing lives. But I think that's the explanation for me in my own writing.

In your own career, how have you reconciled the paradox of writing about colonialism's ravages in the colonialist's tongue?

As you know, this was Gandhi's dilemma as a politician. He's the one who said originally that it was an irony to be fighting British imperialism in the language of British imperialism. But vis à vis myself, using English in South Africa -- English is used by my fellow writers, blacks, who have been the most extreme victims of colonialism. They use it even though they have African languages to choose from. I think that once you've mastered a language it's your own. It can be used against you, but you can free yourself and use it as black writers do -- you can claim it and use it.

Your short story "The Generation Gap" (February Atlantic) is about marital infidelity. You've written often about this and other forms of personal betrayal. What about these themes compels you?

Betrayals happen all around us. And in my particular experience I've seen that the reasons to betray -- the purposes, the motives -- differ. There's political betrayal, which I've also written about, and there's personal betrayal. And sometimes, if people live in a highly charged atmosphere of conflict, the two come together.

There was a time in South Africa -- a long time, during some of the worst days of apartheid -- when betrayal was a real issue in our lives. Often, when you were talking in a certain circle and you felt quite certain that you could say whatever you thought, it turned out there was somebody there who would, under pressure perhaps, betray you. Or maybe there was somebody who was indeed already a spy, paid by a special branch of the police. We had to guard against betrayal by others, and in ourselves.

You have written that "in a certain sense a writer is 'selected' by his subject -- his subject being the consciousness of his era. How he deals with this is, to me, the fundament of commitment." What is the role of the writer who does not have as his subject "the consciousness of his era"?

People make the mistake of regarding commitment as something solely political. A writer is committed to trying to make sense of life. It's a search. So there is that commitment first of all -- the commitment to the honesty and determination to go as deeply into things as possible, and to dredge up what little bit of truth you with your talent can then express. If a writer hasn't got the consciousness of his era, then he's a zombie. How can a writer not be aware of how he or she and others are living, why they are living? How can a writer possibly ignore everything that surrounds him or her and the questions that these things bring up?

I think I misread you. I thought you meant an active engagement with one's era. But what you're saying is that a basic awareness of one's own circumstance counts as the consciousness of one's era; that any level of consciousness is the consciousness of one's era.

Yes. Even if you're living in quite a remote part of the physical world, and you're perhaps cut off from what are regarded as the main streams of thought, there are still changes in the circumstances of your life that are the result of the forces of your era. Whether you happen to live in the era of colonialism and you're, I don't know, an American Indian, or a black person in Africa, or if you're living during the early years of the Industrial Revolution in England, you cannot be unaware of this. It is happening to you. That consciousness is the result of what you take in with all of your senses.

It seems your roles as a novelist and an activist have been fused in the public's perception. What is your reaction to this twinned celebrity?

Well, for the writer it's a bore, quite frankly. It's a perception that comes either from a lack of knowledge of the scope of my fiction, of its freedom from didacticism, or it comes from the wishes of the readers.

People read their own books into the books other people have written, after all. Some readers want me to act out that which is missing or being avoided in their own lives. It's an identity thing. They think, What she ought to do there is what I would do if I were there.

Some critics of my latest novel, The House Gun, focus on the fact that the family employs a black advocate, who is recommended as the best. The critics see this crisis of employing a black advocate as the focus of the book. But what about the relationship between the parents and the son? What about the responsibilities of love between people who say they love each other? These weren't seen as central themes of the book at all. If a book takes place in a certain country where there have been terrible political problems based on race, as soon as there is one person who is a different color than the other, then some people assume this is what the book is about. I may fail in many ways in my work -- I'm always the first one to be aware of where I've succeeded and where I haven't -- but I know that in this case there's a lack of perception in the reader. He or she just isn't reading what is there.

Could you talk about what you see as the relationship between social conflict and creativity?

Again, I think there are many misunderstandings about this. There is an idea that creativity is born out of social conflict, in the sense that people write better when they are oppressed. I think this is a very doubtful kind of judgment to make. Looking at my own experience of living in a time of great conflict -- and seeing what came out of it -- much of the writing, and even some of the theater, was really not more than propaganda. Propaganda for the best reasons in the world, the best cause, but propaganda nonetheless. It was limited by the restrictions of propaganda, in that everybody in your camp, so to speak, is an angel, and everybody else is a devil, instead of the extraordinary combination of contradictions and motivations that all human beings are.

So I think that situations of conflict produce a lot of testimony rather than truly creative writing. But of course at the same time they also produce extraordinary masterpieces. You have Tolstoy, for instance, looking back at a situation of conflict like the Napoleonic Wars and expanding it in the most wonderful way to write War and Peace. It's a very difficult question. One could argue about it for hours.

This question comes up quite interestingly now in South Africa. People say to all of us here, "What are you going to write about now that there's no more apartheid?" Life hasn't ended with the end of apartheid, though thank God apartheid has ended. But what about what happens afterwards? What happens in people's lives? How much change? All of that is fascinating. Yet the notion exists that people have to be caught up in something cataclysmic before they can write anything of any real worth. I think if you really are a writer you can make anything -- even the death of a pet dog or a canary -- significant.

What has South Africa's post-apartheid transition been like for you -- as an activist and as a writer?

I've always kept these two states of being separate. First of all I'm a writer, and my first integrity goes to that, because it's all I have to offer myself and my society. To write as well as you can is the best way of serving your society, whether it's in conflict or whether it's post-conflict. (If there is such a thing as post-conflict.)

That being said, the end of apartheid means that writers are all much freer than before. This includes even those of us like myself who wrote exactly what we wanted to write and what we believed in, whether or not it was banned. But I think it especially has a freeing effect on young writers who didn't have the confidence to write during the time the whole conflict over apartheid continued. The end of apartheid relieved the pressure on them to write only about certain subjects. Because even though we didn't have an official anti-apartheid revolutionary edict on what was and wasn't "correct" to write about, that old business of villains and angels still existed. Also, writers -- especially black writers -- were somehow discouraged from writing anything about their childhood, or the concerns of childhood. And writing about the personal frustrations and dramas that sometimes had nothing to do with apartheid -- or were only subtly linked -- was frowned on, even though it was the circumstance of apartheid that very often determined people's personal relations. Neither I nor anyone else, I believe, wrote anything during apartheid that was entirely personal, unaffected by apartheid. Everything written was affected, if subconsciously, by the restrictions, the straitjacket of the laws. All of us were affected. Even those people who were perpetrating the restrictions on others were damaging themselves. They were putting in question their own humanity and their own ability to develop, feel, love.

As for being an activist, well, things are very different in a way. What was difficult and had a certain danger and risk in it doesn't have that anymore. But then one has a duty, I think, and indeed a desire, to be part of reconstructing a society, of putting it together in the way that we all said we wanted it to be. So I feel I have responsibility to that now as well.

I've read that you attribute your own political awakening as a young woman, in part, to The Jungle, by the American novelist Upton Sinclair. Are there similar ways in which writers less visible than yourself, coming from South Africa, say, can influence North American readers?

The question of how much literature can influence people is an interesting one, but it's so difficult to say. I think the last writers to have any influence on what really counts -- and that is the changes in people's perceptions that lead to changes in their governments' policies -- were Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre in France, and Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass in Germany. But who else? I don't think America's great writers influenced American policy in any way. Faulkner didn't, for example. And I can't even think of a British writer who really has had this kind of active influence. The influence of writers is a very slow thing.

I'd like to give some credit, though, to the writers and artists in my own country. There was so much information about the laws of apartheid and about the crises -- there were riots on television, you saw people being killed -- but you people in the outside world didn't know anything beyond what the headlines told you and what you saw on TV. You didn't know what the lives were like before the riot, and you didn't know what happened afterward; what happened after the black people of South Africa saw the bodies of their loved ones lying dead. The way people abroad understood South Africans' ordinary lives came from fiction, and from the theater as well, because our theater did begin to penetrate the rest of the world. So in a modest sense writers were an arm of the liberation struggles, because writers made the world realize what was behind the headlines -- how people really lived under apartheid.

What sort of future do you see for literature on the Internet?

Only two percent of the people on the whole continent of Africa have computers. So if the future of literature is going to be on the Internet, it doesn't look too good, does it? Obviously one can't turn one's back on the development of communications -- for many purposes it's very important. But how can there be talk of globalization in a cultural sense, when on an entire continent only two percent of the population have computers (and, I might add, that two percent is mainly in my own country, because it happens to be the most highly developed)?

So I think the battle of the word against the image needs to continue being waged. Of course there are words on the Internet and on TV, but I mean the word in the sense of the written word on the page that you can take anywhere and ponder over -- turn the page back, look again. This is what books can give people that no other medium can. Books are there to be held in the hand and taken and read anywhere. You don't need an expensive machine to access them. You don't need electricity. You just need a library, yes, to go and take the book out of, and then you can go and sit somewhere on the grass, you can take it to bed. The book is the most portable, accessible, and intimate form of culture, information, and illumination -- illumination being the most important of all.

You have written often about your belief in literature's ability to "restore the healing and humanizing faculty of empathy." What are your thoughts on literature's current place in the schools in South Africa, North America, and elsewhere?

The decline of reading -- of children being introduced to the pleasure of reading -- is due very much to the substitution of the image for the word. And it extends into other areas of perception and enjoyment of life. You see children sitting on a beach -- there's the sea, there's the sand -- playing video games. Instead of getting up and playing real games that entail human touch and imaginative activities, they're playing video games.

Of course, in my own country, and in most of the African continent, and in large parts of Latin America, it's a question of high illiteracy. During apartheid our writers' organization conducted a little survey in the schools in a highly populated part of the country. If the black schools there -- the schools were segregated -- had a so-called library at all, it was a dusty shelf in a cupboard, and the teacher had to be asked to open it. Clearly it wasn't available to any kid who might wander in. There on the shelf were what I call "How-To" books: Teach Yourself Accounting, or How to Fix Your Bicycle -- no imaginative literature at all. With only these and the books prescribed for their studies, and no access to books for pleasure, reading wasn't associated with enjoyment. And in the black townships, and of course in the rural areas, there were no libraries at all. It was only something like twenty years ago -- imagine, in our entire history -- that the libraries began to be desegregated and blacks could use the libraries where they existed in the towns. I think it is very important that children should be given the opportunity to read, to have the pleasure of reading.

You described Living in Hope and History, your most recent collection of essays, as a "reflection of how I've looked at this century I've lived in." What are your concerns here at the start of the new century?

Uppermost in my mind is concern about the 1.3 billion people living in poverty in our world. And that's not including forms of poverty one doesn't think of. It's not only being hungry and not having a roof over your head that constitutes poverty, it's also being illiterate. Illiteracy is an offense against human rights. It's a tremendously important, fundamental human deprivation. It really is. Not only because the illiterate are terribly limited in the kind of work they can do, but also because they are cut off from what we've just been talking about, from the pleasures of the intellect. And the pleasures of the intellect really begin with the written word.

How can you solve poverty? Development. Countries must have a chance to develop their resources, from developing the natural resources in the soil, to developing the resources in the mind through education and training. In certain circumstances it certainly can be done. But there's the question of the endless wars and conflict. Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, has said there's no development without peace, there's no peace without development. It's a conundrum that I really have engraved on my heart. You can't uplift people if they're in the middle of a civil war. And this figure of the 1.3 billion desperately poor -- even while we're talking it's mounting. There's even a new term, "internal refugees." Refugees used to be regarded as people who had to flee their country. But now all over the place -- in what was formerly the Russian empire, in Angola, in Sierra Leone, you name it -- there are people who are internal refugees. Their homes are being destroyed. They have to wander about, being pushed from one part of their own country to another, leaving behind their homes, positions, jobs, their children's schools, everything. This is a big problem for this new century.

What's next for you?

One can't really say what's next for oneself. If you're a writer what's next is finishing the book you're writing, and then doing whatever you can in these other areas: watching how your society is developing, being open to new ideas. There are so many interesting changes happening, especially in terms of what we used to call the boundaries of the intellect. What recognition of sensibilities long ignored, coming from peoples regarded as "primitive," pre-intellectual, will be developed? People on the streets, the slums, the backwoods of the world? And on the intimate level, what about this magical term globalization -- are we going to know more by remote control, so to speak, and less and less about ourselves and our immediate companions within touch?


Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

More Atlantic Unbound interviews.

More on books in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.


Katie Bolick is an editor of Atlantic Unbound. Her most recent interview was with the poet Mark Doty.

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