Nadine Gordimer’s typewriter has run out of ribbon. Her precious Olivetti, the instrument used in inking thousands of pages, is now a relic of a romantic past. The first South African to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Gordimer has published thirteen novels, volumes of essays and over two hundred short stories. It appears that Gordimer’s greatest literary challenge may be converting to a computer.
As a young girl Gordimer longed to be a dancer. She’s got the fine stature of a ballerina, but her mother reacted to a doctor’s diagnosis of a hyperactive condition. In fear of a failing heart, her mother coddled her into a life of inactivity. Gordimer was sent to a convent, along with strict instructions to never dance, swim or run again. A tough sentence for a young girl, a deprivation that she only came to terms with later in life.
At the age of 11 her mother removed her from school, halting Gordimer’s education for a year. This may have been devastating for the girl but could be considereda gift to the woman who would emerge. Gordimer retreated, became introspective and indulged in reading. Her fluid pen was the natural progression. Gordimer was published by the age of 15 and began a storyteller’s journey into expressing the social turbulence of a nation shackled to segregation, fear, resistance and censorship.
Forever holding the sanctity of her craft aloft, she describes literature as the ‘Word’, a force far greater than her, insisting that the noun be spelt with a capital. She’s right. Her work, the Word, goes beyond. He stories do more than engage a reader; they reveal the social intricacies of the world they describe. She is an observer of politic, relationships and sexuality. She is forthright and intimate within theturn of a page.
A police raid on her childhood home ignited Gordimer’s first sense of racial inequality. The police charged the backyard and upended the room of the family housekeeper. They stripped out the contents of her quarters and scattered them around the yard. Indiscriminate liquor raids were common at the time – black people were not entitled to alcohol.
The search came to naught, but the incident drew a question mark in the mind of the young Gordimer. Her parents didn’t intervene, the police did not provide a warrant, the family watched the drama unfold. What was this about?
With little formal education to satisfy her inquiring mind, Gordimer turned her attention to classical European fiction. The words of Dostoyevsky and Proust helped to shape her development as a writer. But it wasn’t until a brief stint at the University of the Witwatersrand and her interactions with black students, poets and artists, that Gordimer found her place as a politically conscious adult.
Divorced with a small child, Gordimer found that the life of a writer is seldom cushioned by wealth. “I didn’t have a car, I didn’t have anything that everybody takes for granted nowadays,” she says. Friends advised that she take a job writing advertising copy. “I knew this would be the death of whatever talent that I had and so I just remained in this difficult, but not unhappy position because many of my friends were also struggling. We had a good life, we had a lot of fun together, and we were all exploring our society.”
The Lying Days, a novel first published in 1953, described a young woman’s political awakening. Ten years later, Occasion for Lovingportrayed a white woman in love with a black man. Published in a period when interracial relationships and politically-based narratives drew the furrowed brow of censorship, Gordimerwas delivering a broad-shouldered intention to battle against prejudice and the social fall-out churned up by apartheid. Her weapon was her word.
Spurred into the anti-apartheid movement at the time of the Sharpeville massacre, Gordimer pressed a thumb to the nerve of the regime. She harboured escaping dissidents in her home and openly resisted the state’s control of information by refusing to let any of her work be aired by the SABC because of its government control.
Her 1979 novel, Burger’s Daughter, is a story about white anti-apartheid activists on a mission to overthrow the South African government. It is saidto be inspired by her friendship with Bram Fischer, Mandela’sdefence lawyer. The story is rooted in the history of the anti-apartheid struggle with references to events and people of that period. Nelson Mandela, who had made acquaintance with Gordimer around the time of the Rivonia treason trial, asked for a copy while in prison. The book was smuggled to Robben Island and on his release, well over a decade later, Gordimer was one of the first people he asked to see.
“When he came out of the prison I was in Cape Town and I will never forget seeing him walk out and take Winnie’s hand. I was rejoicing and emotionally overcome because I‘d been lucky enough to know Mandela personally and had a friendship with him from the day he went on trial,” she says.
Gordimer was in New York on the day that she heard that she was to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. She frequently travelled abroad to lecture, but was steadfast in her refusal to accept offers of residency. South Africa was home, the banned ANC was the best hope in reversing social injustice and she was determined to see out the struggle on her own turf.
Years on, living under the newfound South African constitution, Gordimer continued to explore the issues facing a nation in transition. The 1998 novel The House Gun, a story based on the ever-increasing violent crime scarring the new South Africa, was a clear indication that she would continue to challenge, regardless of who held the government office.
Her feisty resistance to discrimination has reached beyond South Africa. Gordimer joined forces with other Nobel Laureates to challenge the US policy on Cuba. She has openly challenged Israeli policy and refused to accept short listing to the 1998 Orange Prize because it celebrated only female writers. “A writer is a writer, we don’t write with our genitals. We write with the head and the heart,” she said.
Heart and mind set Gordimer on a voyage of discovery. “You are questioning, and you’re moving to discover what the real meaning of life is. I have been tremendously lucky in my life and I have had an extraordinary life.” Gordimer has captured the essence of life experience, she has confronted bold, often dangerous, themes and given them form. This writer has been tireless in illuminating our world.So before she wastes any energy figuring out that PC, would someone please find a new ribbon for her typewriter?