12:20pm

Tue July 15, 2014
Remembrances

Writer Nadine Gordimer Was An 'Ambassador' For African Literature

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

So we wanted to continue our discussion of Nadine Gordimer, one of the most influential South African writers. Ms. Gordimer passed away Sunday at 90 years old. She was the winner of the Nobel Prize in 1991, and she grew up in a small, South African mining town, the daughter of two Jewish immigrants. She's best known for her fictional novels centered on themes of injustice during the South African apartheid regime. Joining us to tell us more about Nadine Gordimer is Neelika Jayawardane. She's senior editor and writer at the Africa is a Country blog and also associate professor of postcolonial literature at State University of New York, Oswego. She's with us today from Cape Town, South Africa. Welcome to the program, Neelika.

NEELIKA JAYAWARDANE: Thank you so much, Jacki.

LYDEN: Let's review Ms. Gordimer's dozens of works. We'll just go through three of them at the moment because I'd like to focus on the three that were banned in South Africa - one, "World Of Strangers," which she published in 1958. That was followed by "The Late Bourgeois World," and then "Burger's Daughter." That was the most recent one - 1979. Would you take us back to the context in which these novels were published, Neelika? And tell us their effect and why they were banned.

JAYAWARDANE: You know, I think in many ways I can reduce the reason why she was banned to saying she wrote about what was unspeakable in South Africa. In the '50s, the struggle was becoming an armed struggle. And our leaders were being sent to prison. And she was the first person to kind of address some of those things that people were not allowed to speak about anymore. And in fact, her fourth book was also banned - "July's People" was also banned under apartheid. And in fact, it faced censorship under the post-apartheid government, as well. A provincial education department temporarily removed "July's People" from the school reading list, describing it as deeply racist, superior and patronizing. So I mean, I think that Gordimer ran afoul, in a way, of both governments. But definitely under apartheid she was a person, a spokesperson, for freedom. And she definitely riled the system.

LYDEN: Let's hear her voice a little bit, Neelika. I'd like to play a clip. This is from an interview that Nadine Gordimer did with Fresh Air's Terry Gross 1989. Let's listen. Here she is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

NADINE GORDIMER: I think that a writer must always maintain the independence - the artistic independence - to use his or her insights, something that a writer has beyond the insights of other people, without worrying whether you're going to offend your mother, your best friend or whether your political confreres are going to decide that you have let down the side. A writer must never let herself become a propagandist.

LYDEN: So she told it as she saw it - a clear-sighted writer. But I think that she herself has said often that she would not, perhaps, have written about apartheid or become the writer she did if she hadn't lived in South Africa when apartheid was going on during her lifetime - began and ended during her lifetime.

JAYAWARDANE: Right, and she did pay a price for it. It wasn't that her life was easy because she was a white person. In fact, "Late Bourgeois World" was banned for 10 years. "World Of Strangers" was banned for 12 years. Then she said that after that length of time, most books are pretty well dead. And it's only, you know, after the end of apartheid that people paid attention, again, to her old books. And so she paid an artistic price, but she always lived, you know, under the threat of more than censorship. And I think that she had a political impact on the country. And people who were in prison in Robben Island - political prisoners - read her. And today, on Africa is a Country, we have somebody who wrote about that - that alongside the writings of Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Samora Machel, Fidel Castro and Chinua Achebe, and countless other revolutionaries and authors and thinkers, Nadine Gordimer's work occupied a pride of place, he said, in the study and reading menu of Robben Island. So I know that it wasn't that she only wrote for white people in South Africa or for a foreign audience. People far and wide, including me, of, you know, three generations removed in a small, rural town in Zambia, read her. And my imagination caught sight of something that felt familiar and explained something that I yet had - didn't have words to explain.

LYDEN: Do you think that you credit her with becoming a writer yourself?

JAYAWARDANE: I think she was one among many. I think, you know, she was really the first African writer that many of us in my generation read. And although I don't teach her because I want to teach a generation - younger generation - about the black writers, I know that my students are able to return to her through - after reading Ndebele, after reading Ishtiyaq Shukri, the young writers of South Africa, for instance. And they may not read Nadine Gordimer first, as I did...

LYDEN: How...

JAYAWARDANE: But they are able to return to her.

LYDEN: How did different groups respond to her? Black South Africans, Afrikaners and others who come from Sri Lanka, as your family originally did.

JAYAWARDANE: Yeah...

LYDEN: In the minute we have left.

JAYAWARDANE: You know what? People far and wide have sent me messages on Facebook and on Africa is a Country saying she was the first African writer they read. Everybody, from people in Mexico City to Bombay, read her. And they saw the world of African colonial struggle, struggle against colonialism and apartheid, through Nadine Gordimer first, before they read anything else. So I really credit her for being the ambassador.

LYDEN: And a favorite book?

JAYAWARDANE: A favorite book. You know, honestly, it was her first book collection of short stories that she first published as a young woman. It's not the ones that are popular. If you read those, they speak to a world of a young woman who's just beginning to question her world. I love that book.

LYDEN: Well, thank you so much for being with us. Neelika Jayawardane is the senior editor and writer at the Africa is a Country blog and associate professor of post colonial literature at State University of New York, Oswego. Neelika, thanks ever so much. It was a real pleasure speaking with you.

JAYAWARDANE: It was a pleasure, too. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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