Three Births of Gordimer’s Writings

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By Karin Magdalena Brink

(A literary lecture on Nobel Price winner Nadine Gordimer)

ONE can outline Nadine Gordimer’s life structuring around, what I would like to call, her three births: her natural birth into South Africa’s colonial situation, ie the first birth, her awakening from the colour bar, ie the second birth, and the embrace of her new status as a postcolonial agent, ie her third birth. To begin, I would like to quote from Gordimer’s Nobel Lecture in which she said:

“When I began to write as a very young person in a rigidly racist and inhibited colonial society, I felt, as many others did, that I existed marginally on the edge of the world of ideas, of imagination and beauty. These, taking shape in poetry and fiction, drama, painting and sculpture, were exclusive to that distant realm known as ‘overseas’. It was the dream of my contemporaries, white and black, to venture there as the only way to enter the world of artists.

It took the realisation that the colour bar – I use that old, concrete image of racism – was like the gate of the law in Kafka’s parable, which was closed to the supplicant throughout his life because he didn’t understand that only he could open it. It took this to make us realise that what we had to do to find the world was to enter our own world fully, first. We had to enter through the tragedy of our own particular place.”

If the Nobel awards have a special meaning, it is that they carry this concept further. In their global eclecticism they recognise that no single society, no country or continent can presume to create a truly human culture for the world. To be among laureates, past and present, is at least to belong to some sort of one world.

Before her world, South Africa, became the world and before she could become part of some sort of one world, she had to undertake a long, at times painful, and often dangerous journey.

Gordimer’s first birth occurred on November 20, 1923 in Springs, a town east of Johannesburg that used to be the centre of the gold-mining industry. Gordimer’s mother was of British descent and came to live in South Africa at the age of six. Her father was a Latvian Jewish emigrant. Gordimer and her sister enjoyed a comfortable British upbringing, thinking of Britain for a long time as their own home country is an illusion Gordimer awakened from only in her teenage years. She described part of that process in the awakening of the female protagonist of her first novel, The Lying Days (1953), the only novel Gordimer admits to being partly autobiographical. Her protagonist, a young Jewish woman, comments on reading English and European books: “But in nothing that I read could I find anything that approximated to my own life; to our life on a gold mine in South Africa.”

Gordimer read a lot as a child. She was struck by the discrepancy between the worlds she was reading about and her own. She writes in one of her post-apartheid essays titled That Other World that Was the World, included in the 1995 essays collection, Writing and Being: “From an early age I had the sense that that other world – the world of the books I took from the library, the world of the cinema – was that other world that was the world. We lived outside it.”

As she states earlier in the same essay, South Africa was at the bottom of the map; we did not count, had little sense of ourselves beyond the performance of daily life.

One of Gordimer’s greatest achievements was venturing into that daily life with her pen and putting it on the literary world map.
It is the awakening to this discrepancy between her own experience and the colonised worldview that constituted Gordimer’s second birth, as she herself called it in one of her more recent interviews.
This process of awakening went hand in hand with her literary work. A lot of different factors contributed to this successful turn in her life.

She started publishing stories in 1937. Through her writing she began to break out of what she called the colour cocoon. The process took place on two interconnected levels: the literary and the social one. Her early reading and education gave her the impression that great literature was written out there, in the Western World, not in her own home country. However, she recognised quite early that there was something amiss in these circumstances and began using her own world as a source of inspiration for her stories, she used the mine dumps and veldt animals as her literary background.

Through reading other colonial authors, such as Katherine Mansfield and Pauline Smith, she recognised her own precarious position and began focussing on South Africa. The literary awakening made the social awakening possible. Focusing on South Africa and her own experience in the country,
her work almost from the onset attained the quality that classifies it as postcolonial, since it has been critically scrutinising the colonial relationship, resisting colonialist perspectives, undercutting thematically and formally the discourses which supported colonisation and apartheid.

Through writing about her community’s experiences she started questioning the accepted interpretations of its patterns of behaviour, and finding them amiss, she began subverting them in her writing.

To be continued next week.

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