Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

An Interview With Nadine Gordimer

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Nadine Gordimer, 1923-2014

In the winter of 2008 Nadine Gordimer, the South African novelist, political activist and Nobel laureate was travelling in India as a guest of the Indian government and I made considerable efforts to reach her through official sources.  But such are the misjudged notions of government hospitality, her escort was neither a literary-minded civil servant nor someone especially knowledgeable about India; it was an armed forces officer who successfully stonewalled contact at every stage. Finally, it was through the good offices of her hotel in Delhi (who ferried a personal written request) and the novelist and career diplomat Vikas Swarup, then India’s deputy high commissioner to South Africa, that she agreed to the recording.

Nadine Gordimer (b.1923) grew up in a mining town near Johannesburg, the  daughter of Jewish immigrants. Her education was scanty but she was writing from an early age, first children’s stories and later stories for The New Yorker.   

Since her first published novel The Lying Days (1953), she has published more than a dozen novels apart from plays, collections of short stories and essays.

She was an early champion of the anti-apartheid crusade, joining the African National Congress when it was illegal and befriending Nelson Mandela’s defence lawyers. Several of her novels, A World of Strangers (1958), The Late Bourgeois World (1966), Burger’s Daughter (1979) and July’s People (1981) were either banned for long periods or censored. Many dealt with intense political and sexual relations between black and white people when such connections were considered criminal. When Mandela was released 1990, Gordimer was one of the first people he wished to meet.

Her post-apartheid fiction such as My Son’s Story (1990) and The House Gun (1998) deal with rising crime, political violence, racial hatred and personal and grief. Nadine Gordimer has been crowned by many literary laurels in her long career culminating with the Nobel Prize for literature in 1991.  “Writing is making sense of life,” she has famously said. “You work your whole life and perhaps you’ve made sense of one small area.”

In person she is a small-built, white-haired woman, the image of a cosy grandmother. But her grave, reflective manner can become animated and charged as when she described how she was attacked in her home by robbers in 2006. I carried twin burdens to the Gordimer interview—the nervous anticipation of meeting a great writer but also a heavy bag weighted with her books from friends and colleagues to be inscribed. With infinite patience and good humour she finished the pile as I passed her chits with the correct spellings.    

You are on Indian soil at a pretty historic moment. America has just elected it’s first black president. What does Barrack Obama’s arrival on the world stage mean for you? 

It means a great deal because he is black and white. He brings the two together in his own blood and DNA. He has a white parent and a black parent. So it is symbolic but, at the same time it goes further, because I’m sure that it influences him in his values. One can see that this will then pass into the government and administration and I hope to the American people. The fact that he won the candidature represents a big break within the Democratic Party. When I was much younger, the Americans said, “You can never have a Catholic president in Protestant America.” And then we had Kennedy, and now, all these years later, a black. But, as I say, he is not black. He is black-white which is even better.


Black and white—that has been the subject of your life’s gaze both in your writing and in your social and political activism. Yet the abolition of apartheid in South Africa has not ended tensions of race and. Iit remains, like India in many ways, a divisive, often violent and difficult society. Do you think it’s still a matter of two racial communities, black and white, coming to terms in democratic South Africa?


It’s not a matter of the two communities. The progress is amazing there. The Congress alliance, which was the African National Congress, was completely black which then became an alliance of white members, he Indian Congress comprising of South African Indians and the small communist party. The strong links forged in the freedom movement brought about the change led by a man like Nelson Mandela who has no racial feelings. Throughout the anti-apartheid movement there was already a meeting of the so-called irreconcilables of an earlier time.


What we have now is something we had never thought of because our eyes were on getting rid of the enemy of apartheid rule. We did and, that too without a terrible civil war. People say it’s a miracle. It’s not a miracle because a miracle comes from somewhere else—this was brought about by the people of South Africa. But now we have class differences. We have a small but growing black middle class which is a very good thing when it is supposed to be a democracy. But we also have a black upper class along with the white upper class. So class differences have risen.


And when social and political structures rapidly change other problems arise, like corruption…


Yes, and the corruption that comes with change. As you well know from your own country’s example, corruption goes all the way from the traffic cop who takes a bribe way right up to the cabinet. It’s the same there.


In one of your recent novel, The House Gun, you dwell dramatically on tensions of class when, a white couple, whose son is accused of murder, hires a black lawyer…


Actually if you look at that book it’s got nothing to do with colour or even class, for that matter. The white couple happen to choose the black lawyer but not because he is black or white; it’s just because he is a good lawyer. What is troubling, therefore, is another question—equitable economic opportunities and employment policies for blacks.  Just look into our past, these are necessary, because blacks were discriminated against for so long.


People think discrimination began with apartheid in the 1940s when racial segregation was institutionalized but it actually began in the 17th century—and we have had exactly 14 years to put it right. The world expects us to provide a perfect democracy without any overhang of racial feelings, with houses for everybody, with level education for everybody—in other words equality where there was none before—after all these centuries of discrimination. It was not all that long ago that the civil service or the post office was not only completely white but completely Afrikaner. Now the post officers are 80 per cent black and the other 20 per cent are Indian and coloured. In the banks there were all white employees; now they are 90 per cent black or Indians and a few coloured.


Despite equitable representation and job opportunities, why are cities like your hometown Johannesburg and others, racked with street crime, social tensions and violence?


This is because of poverty. The poverty exists because we have this tremendous burden of refugees. We have over three million from Zimbabwe alone. We have refugees from Somalia and from the Congo. They arrive and they have no way to live because they have no work. If I arrive from somewhere, and I have smuggled some of my family in, and my children are hungry, I walk past you, with your camera, cell phone and wallet, I am afraid that I, too, will become a thief. So we cannot be moral about the motives of the crime that exists.


I was attacked in my home, over a year ago, in the middle of the day. Somebody climbed over from the neighbour’s garden, the dog barked at the man, I came out of my little room where I write, but someone was already in the house and I was clasped from behind. There were three very young men. I can’t tell you much about their faces because my head was pushed between the shoulder and the neck but an arm was around me. It was a very young, smooth black arm with a beautiful hand. These were young people who shouldn’t have been robbing an old woman and her housekeeper. They were not experienced criminals. They did not have a gun and they didn’t threaten with a knife.  But they treated my black housekeeper terribly. She cried and screamed, so they knocked her down on the floor and, at one point, I just lost my cool. I wrenched my head up and said, “What is the bravery in all this? She could be your grandmother, leave her.” And I’m afraid, since they were so young, it worked.


The life of the fictional imagination and a life as political activist come together in you.  Do you believe that a writer can change the world through his or her writing?


I think when we look at it very humbly, where has this happened? In recent times great writers like Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir didn’t have much influence on the French government, on the War or on French colonialism. In my own country, I had three books banned and I fought for the collection I had put together of stories by young black writers.  I got it published and it was promptly banned. Those of us writing in English have the advantage that it’s a world language and the books can be published elsewhere.


 Where we fiction writers come in is that we go into the lives of the people, into what I call the inner testimony of people—how they lived before the turning point, what brings them to the point of conflict and how they deal with its aftermath. Our work as fiction writers is to give another dimension that you can’t get from first information and because you don’t know what happened afterwards.


Everybody saw on television and newspapers what happened in the anti-apartheid battles in 1976 when the youth rose up. Some died. But how were their families, their brothers and sisters, affected? You see the moment of conflict on TV  and you read the political analysis afterwards in the newspaper—but you do not know what brought the crowd of people to that point, what gave them the guts to face the police?


Did the novelist’s imagination, or the search for the inner testimony as you call it, develop in your case because of your interrupted and incomplete education? Because, despite this, you began writing when very young, before you were a teenager, and never stopped. So where did the training to become a writer come from?


Reading, my dear, is the only training for a writer from a young age. You only become a writer by being a compulsive reader. I can thank my mother for making me a member of a children’s library when I was six years old. And as she was a friend of the librarian, by the time I was ten or eleven, I was like a pig in clover. I had the freedom of the whole library. I was reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H Lawrence and I first read A Passage to India by E.M Forster then. I also read non-fiction biographies. That was my education. It didn’t come from my convent schooling.


Later on, when you became a political activist, was it your encounters in the turbulent politics of South Africa that became the subject matter of some of your most original and insightful fiction?


Yes, because I began to move amongst people whose existential state it was. You could not stay apart from it. You know what Flaubert once said—it’s not very polite but true. He said, “I tried to live in an ivory tower, but the shit kept beating against the walls.” That is what happened. You couldn’t just say that I’m going to be a writer and I will write about problems between human beings on the personal side—love, sexuality, the relationship between children and parents and so on. The outside world presses in upon your most personal life.


So the writer must wade deep into the sea of humanity…


Right. The writer is immersed in it. The writer is imbued by what happens in his or her immediate surroundings—at school, at work, in society and, above all, in the laws that enclose us all.


There is a large and old Indian community in South Africa and you are well-acquainted with many of them. Mahatma Gandhi’s nationalist revolution also arose out of his life and experiences in South Africa. How has South Africa’s freedom changed the lives of Indians in South Africa?


I am proud to say on behalf of the Indian population there that they are unique. There were Indians everywhere, mostly merchants, but the only place where they entered the prominently entered the freedom struggle, was in South Africa. They have earned their place to be Africans because they took part in that struggle. Of course we have to thank the Mahatma because he started it off. The African National Congress was influenced by Gandhi’s thinking and, indeed, during the 1950s its policy was one of non-violent resistance. But then we came to a stage where the South Africans in power were ill-treating those who took part in non-violent resistance. They were poisoned, they were beaten and they were treated with unbelievable cruelty. There was no white innocent, including myself. If you were born white you were part of the privileged race.


Nelson Mandela has been canonized in his own lifetime but in neighbouring Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, has proved to be far from than saintly. What’s your opinion of Mugabe?


I have been appalled by Robert Mugabe. It is so sad because he was part of the anti-colonial struggle. He was a brave man; and when he first became president, his reforms of the education system, which had favoured the white community, were remarkable. I don’t know what happened to him. He is the perfect illustration of the old saying that when power corrupts, it corrupts absolutely. I don’t know how Zimbabwe is going to get rid of him. There is abject poverty there and people are starving. As I said, we have millions of them in our country, adding to our problems. Nothing can be solved there because our former president Thabo Mbeki has tried for many years to bring the different sides together but Mugabe wouldn’t give an inch. If God came down from heaven, Mugabe would say, “You are a white imperialist in disguise.”


This is your second trip to India. You were here 15 years ago and I hear your favourite spot in this country are Ajanta and Ellora caves. What are the most noticeable changes you have observed?


I must be very careful about this. I found that Mumbai is 20 times more crowded than it was 15 years ago, mainly because of people flooding into the city for work. Kolkata I had never been to before—I found the poverty appalling. Because here I was in a beautiful hotel and though it wasn’t like Mumbai, where the poor live in other districts, they were on the pavement right outside, stall holders, beggars and people sleeping on the street, while I was in an air conditioned room. There was a wall between you, that was all. I was also very upset to see the abandoned animals, not only dogs, but horses and cattle that, unable to pull carts, were just abandoned. And I thought, India has had   independence from oppression by outsiders since 1947 so why is there is still so much cruelty? But I also realise that India is an enormous country and what a struggle it is to deal with it.

November, 2008  



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