Nadine Gordimer, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1991, is the leading lady of letters in South Africa. Through her fiction and nonfiction writings she has captured the despair and the triumph of a country that went all the way from the ignominy of apartheid to the heights of Nelson Mandela’s presidency.
In this conversation, Gordimer speaks with Michael Skafidas for the WorldPost about the disillusion of post-Mandela South Africa, her distrust of the digital era, and her decision to retire from writing fiction.
The WorldPost: Your latest novel is entitled “No Time Like the Present” (2012). To start off this conversation in a Dickensian fashion, is this the best, or is this the worst of times in South Africa?
Nadine Gordimer: You are asking the right thing, but I’ll leave it to the reader to decide. We no longer have apartheid, but we have had some unexpected disappointments and troubles with our ANC government in South Africa.
The ANC is the only political party I ever belonged to, and I have considered myself privileged to be attached to it, all through the good and the bad times.
But when I talk about “no time like the present,” I’m referring to my present disillusion.
We haven’t had censorship since 1994, when we got our freedoms back, but now there is a threat, and they call it the Protection of State Information Bill. It is a new threat of secrecy. At the same time, corruption is emerging. This bill aims to suppress freedom of expression and to protect corrupted politicians who don’t want any criticism of themselves. It’s ironic that this is happening to a country blessed enough to have walked to the path of freedom with Nelson Mandela as leader.
The WorldPost: In an interview with Nelson Mandela the year he became the president of South Africa, he had told me that “the outside world becomes very melodramatic when speaking about South Africa; people lose their humor, like padding on the shoulder of a patient in the path of recovery.” Mandela seemed aware that his own heroism and overpowering presence had romanticized South Africa’s image. Now that he’s gone, things have changed to be like things usually are with politics in many other troubled democratic states in the world.
Gordimer: Perhaps. But I don’t agree that Mandela romanticized South Africa. On the other hand, he was indeed an overpowering figure that rarely is seen in history. He turned strongly against apartheid without any concern for his own safety. He concentrated on the fact that nothing can change until we get rid of apartheid; he devoted his life to it. And he achieved it in 1994 when we all had that wonderful experience.
Because of him that was the best of times for us, to come out of the racist hierarchy of apartheid. But now we’ve had many disappointments and the most troubling one is the corruption: the politicians getting greedy and looking after their own comfort, security and luxury, in many cases with public money. I have not only been quite critical about this, I have been deeply disillusioned and disappointed. What can be done in any way with our freedom? That’s why my book is about the best and worst of times.
I am afraid that we have not done with our freedom what we said we were going to do. And that makes it now the worst of times because it is a great disillusion, having emerged from a terrible past while we are making in many ways a mess of the present.
The WorldPost: Is it true that you helped Mandela to edit his historical speech “I am prepared to die” at his trial in 1962?
Gordimer: Mandela did not need any help from me, I assure you! I did not help him with that speech; it’s wrong information that is been circulating like a myth. He knew what he was doing and he was ready to die for it. But when he was in prison several times he wanted to speak to me, indeed, and some of these times he wanted to talk about certain aspects of his personal life. I have so many memories of Mandela – I’m very fortunate to have that. It’s a cliché anymore to speak about his modesty. He was a leader with an ability to interpret life. You cannot have a Mandela anymore than you can have a Churchill.
The WorldPost: In your essay “The Image and the Word” you intensely criticize the digital era for undermining the integrity of literature. In your words, “First it became the book of the movie. Now it is the book of the website.” Do you see any alternative, any possible way of fighting back this out-of-control speed of aggressive progress?
Gordimer: It is for you and me, my generation, your generation and the young to keep the printed book alive, not to plug in on and off on a screen. The word is terribly important; the actual word that you write down and the word that you read. Now it is the spoken word that took over from the written word and that’s very worrying.
The digital culture promotes a very superficial and transient type of knowledge. Books last in people’s hands for a very long, long time. As every writer knows, the answer is read, read, read, not to try to emulate or copy. But, indeed, some idea of what you are going to do is part of the written word. On the other hand, the information revolution has indeed great possibilities for social development if well used, which means made economically available to the millions in the world whose lives will otherwise be bulldozed by the financial oligarchy of globalization.
The WorldPost: If you had a face-to-face meeting with one of these “oligarchs,” such the CEO of Facebook, perhaps, what would you advise them?
Gordimer: To promote libraries and the written word that is being published for people to read it over and over without having to plug in anything, without having to use any energy at all, and that is also very important because these days we consume unbelievable amounts of energy. Once a book is published you can pass it on and on, and it doesn’t require to be plugged in, it doesn’t require any battery.
The WorldPost: Back in 1987 you had said that writing fiction is an attempt to organize life, to put it in a meaningful context. Is that still possible at a time that history defies order more than ever before?
Gordimer: Well, history has always defied our efforts to order it. Defying our will, it has decided public order and much of the private order. You still have to decide, indeed, your own particular discovery of what life is about. And it seems that most of the time it is about materialism, and writing fiction is a response to it.
There have been some times in recent history that people reacted with skepticism to materialism. We saw that in the 1960s, which seemed to be a very promising period. People had distanced themselves from materialistic ambitions – or so they thought. It seems that life goes in circles. I remember visiting Columbia University when I was in New York in 1969. What clamoring, what resistance! The students had taken over parts of the university. Five or six years later I went back to the same university, and the students had their radios tuned to reports on the stock market!
The WorldPost: Even though your fiction has always been highly political, as a critic once remarked, your voice never emanated the didacticism of a Solzhenitsyn, but rather went for the acute insight of Proust, who, as you’ve said, was one of the strongest influences on your writing. Was that a conscious decision in your early years as a writer?
Gordimer: I don’t think so. Proust had indeed a great influence on me as a young girl, because, as he showed us, an artist must always follow his or her instinct. As a child and when I was very young, I spent a lot of time alone reading. It was through this endless adolescent reading of various writers that I formed an idea of what the world is about.
So in fact my stimulation came from my wide reading. Later, I left university because I felt that I wouldn’t gain anything out of it since, if I studied, I’d study literature, and that was something I was already doing since I was a little girl. I had read as much as the people who taught me.
That was a mistake, of course, because I could have studied many other things. If I can be considered educated, I am self-taught. That’s why I am anxious today in the digital era. Books, novels and short stories should be read and never be put aside in schools and in prisons. To me, the real education, certainly for a writer, is to read and read with an open mind. The ancient writers found their own path of discovery. We still need to do the same. One has to find the path of discovery and knowledge for him or herself. And that’s what I hope I bring to my reader.
The short story
The WorldPost: As a literary genre, the short story is getting attention again, especially after the Nobel Prize was awarded to Alice Munro last year. Do you think the short story might have a better future than the novel in our culture of acceleration?
Gordimer: It might. As you know, I am also a short-story writer, and part of the Nobel I received (in 1991) honors the short story. Some of the greatest writers, such as Chekhov and Hemingway, have given us wonderful short stories. A short story comes to you more spontaneously; you don’t prepare it like a novel. But when completed, it can tell the reader as much as a novel. It is a wonderful form.
The WorldPost: As people get older, they complain that time goes faster and faster. This year you turn 90. Do you find this to be true?
Gordimer: No, I don’t, quite frankly. There are emotional changes in your life, and as you get older, you just jump from one phase to the next. Personal memory, of course, expands to hold all of these phases, but at the end it rejects the trivial things. In one of the previous interviews we have done together, I mentioned to you that for me old age is not a plateau of calm, but rather another chapter of moving ahead. Now that I am alone with my old age since my husband passed away, I am still questioning everything as I did when I was an adolescent.
The WorldPost: Do you ever reread your own books?
Gordimer: I don’t once I am done with them. I am always concentrated with the current one that I am writing.
The WorldPost: Are you working on a new novel?
Gordimer: Actually, no. I wrote 15 novels and 12 books of short stories and quite a number of nonfiction. I have been writing since a very long time. I started getting published in little magazines when I was 13 or 14 years old. So, I feel, you know, you can’t be greedy! Also, now my abilities would fail me. I am still writing some articles, but in terms of novel writing, I think I am done.
The WorldPost: Is a writer ever “done”? When the American writer Philip Roth publicly announced his retirement from writing, readers were intrigued. Can a writer ever intentionally retire?
Gordimer: I don’t know, but I am at that stage now. It began to feel that the path of making any more discoveries is shorter. People say it is the imagination, but that’s not just it. It is about discoveries about human beings and human life and the whole order of the world. A good piece of writing takes a tremendous amount of energy. You can’t go on forever. So, for me it feels almost like a conclusion.
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