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Friday, July 18, 2014


(The following article is made available in arrangement with the Arts & Culture Trust (ACT) and the Dramatic, Artistic and Literary Rights Organisation (DALRO). See ACT’s website

(Nadine Gordimer)

Article by Rahiem Whisgary of the Arts and Culture Trust.

The opening line to Nadine Gordimer’s The House Gun most accurately describes our sentiment to her passing: Something terrible has happened. Recognised by Seamus Heaney as one of the ‘guerrillas of the imagination’, Gordimer has, through the course of her long and illustrious career, become one of South Africa’s most lauded and prominent literary personalities. Among her many achievements, she has won the 1974 Booker Prize, the 2002 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature, as well as the inaugural ACT Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature in 2012.

But her writing is not only known for its literary merit. Like most of the great artists, her work resonates politically. Her novels, A World of Strangers and Burger’s Daughter, were banned by the apartheid authorities. She became one of the literary world’s most powerful voices against apartheid, famously editing Mandela’s ‘I Am Prepared To Die’ speech.

The power of her words sound beyond the precision of her last, perfectly placed full stop. In conversation with Classicfeel’s Lore Watterson, human rights lawyer George Bizos speaks of Gordimer’s first, semi-autobiographical novel, The Lying Days: “It really painted a picture of what our young lives were about. It captured the spirit of our generation.”

Writer and activist Morakabe Raks Seakhoa, who first met Gordimer at a 1987 conference to form the Congress of South African Writers (COSAW), relates his impression of Gordimer: “One thing that always impressed me about Nadine is her keenness to impart skills to writers, particularly younger writers. With her and other comrades we ran creative writing skills development programmes… When she won the Nobel Prize, she took part of the money and donated it to COSAW Publishing so that the journal could continue.”

The Nobel Prize jury famously noted that Gordimer “through her magnificent epic writing has – in the words of Alfred Nobel – been of very great benefit to humanity.”
In Gordimer’s first short story published by Granta in 1982, City of the Dead, City of the Living, the political themes that links all of her work, is expressed bluntly by Moreke, the story’s protagonist: “You don’t read the papers…the blowing up of that police station…you know, last month? They didn’t catch them all… It isn’t safe for Mtembu to keep him any longer. He must keep moving.”

In spite of the hostile South African environment, Gordimer did not limit such candid expressions to her literary works. Bizos recounts how her characteristic frankness has come close to putting her in danger: “We called Nadine as a witness in the Delmas Trial. She gave evidence much to the irritation of the trial judge – he didn’t like her one bit but that didn’t prevent her. We spoke during the trial of discrimination against black people in general and particularly Bantu education, the value of books and the detention of writers. The prosecutor asked her, ‘What is your attitude towards the African National Congress?’ She answered, ‘I support it.’ He then asked, ‘What about Umkhonto we Sizwe?’ She said, ‘Same thing, Wynand, I support them too.’”

It is in this poignant expression that Bizos, in reference to Gordimer, encapsulates the power that art is able to exert on politics: “Nadine’s writings – her short stories and books – were a mirror that portrayed a different image to what the apartheid regime wanted the world to believe. That was an important part, where the writers, journalists and filmmakers all contributed in their own way to the rejection of the propaganda of the regime.”

Watterson elaborates that, “in her fearless pursuit of both her craft and her ideals, Gordimer has secured her place as one of South Africa’s greats and as a truly fitting first recipient of the ACT Lifetime Achievement Awards for Literature.” - Rahiem Whisgary