Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2057
The art of ‘‘writing in voice,’’ or ‘‘writing in character,’’ is a common literary technique that has been used by countless writers over the years. In one of literature’s most famous examples, Herman Melville adopts the persona of Ishmael, an itinerant seaman, in Moby Dick, and in two of the more popular examples from the late twentieth century, Alice Walker, in The Color Purple, adopts the voice of Celie, an uneducated, abused southern girl, and Arthur Golden writes from the perspective of a Japanese geisha in Memoirs of a Geisha.
While it is not at all uncommon for a writer to take on the character of someone outside his or her own economic and social status, as Walker did, what is far less common is for a writer to adopt the character of a different ethnic background or race, as was the case with Golden. And least common of all—perhaps because of the highly contentious and politically charged nature of black-white relationships— is when a white writer adopts the voice of a black character, as Nadine Gordimer does in her short story ‘‘The Ultimate Safari.’’
In ‘‘The Ultimate Safari,’’ Gordimer, a white South African writer well into her sixties when the story was published, takes on the voice of a young nameless black refugee girl from Mozambique. While Gordimer had written from a black perspective several times throughout her career, what sets this particular story apart is the fact that through most of its telling, the reader is not made fully aware of the narrator’s race. While the few details of the story’s setting and the narrator’s circumstances that are offered from the outset hint strongly that she is black, it is not until the story’s final scenes that the girl’s nationality and race are confirmed. Gordimer’s conscious manipulation of these facts is one of the techniques she uses that ultimately gives this story its poignancy. By keeping the reader uncertain about the girl’s background, Gordimer effectively holds out the possibility in the reader’s mind, on some level, that the narrator could be ‘‘the girl next door’’ and not simply another distant and nameless African refugee. While this may seem insignificant to the overall meaning of the story itself, in light of the fact that the vast majority of the story’s readers at the time of its publication were not only white, but also non-South African, this technique effectively helped Gordimer to maximize the empathy the story’s readers felt for the character and effectively contributed to her agenda of enlightening the world to the dehumanizing effects of her country’s system of apartheid.
Throughout most of her fifty-year career, Gordimer has used her writing to explore, expose, and oppose South Africa’s long-standing system of racial segregation known as apartheid. With the major exception of her early autobiographical work, The Lying Days, nearly all of Gordimer’s fiction in some way addresses apartheid, so much so that fellow writer and the Vice-President of International PEN Per Wästberg, writing on the official Nobel Prize web site, calls Gordimer ‘‘the Geiger counter of apartheid.’’
Officially struck down in 1992 after nearly 50 years as the government’s official policy of racial segregation, apartheid—the Afrikaner word meaning ‘‘separateness’’—was a system of laws that effectively stripped all South African blacks of their citizenship rights and was instrumental in maintaining white control over the majority black population. However, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, as countries across Africa regained their independence from Europeans, the South African government, fearing that their recently liberated neighbors such as Zimbabwe and Mozambique would encourage liberation movements in its own country, responded by financially and militarily supporting the efforts of rebel groups to destabilize those countries. These desperate measures to protect the apartheid system, which often took the form of military raids into the rural border areas, resulted in the long-term displacement and deaths of millions of southern Africans over the years, with an estimated million deaths accounted for in the Mozambique civil war that was fueled by South Africa. Fleeing from their war-ravaged homes, many villagers who survived the war in Mozambique ended up as refugees in any number of the South African refugee camps.
A related piece of historical information that should also be kept in mind when reading ‘‘The Ultimate Safari’’ is that, because of her public opposition to the government, coupled with the overtly political themes of her work, many of Gordimer’ stories and novels were banned in her own country at the time of their publication; as a result, the first readers to most of Gordimer’s work were usually not South African but rather British and North American. ‘‘The Ultimate Safari,’’ in fact, was first published in the British literary journal, Granta before being published in book form by American publisher Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in the collection Jump and Other Stories. It is with these facts in mind that the techniques Gordimer uses in ‘‘The Ultimate Safari’’ can be best understood.
‘‘The Ultimate Safari’’ is written in a deceptively simple style. The story’s first two sentences— ‘‘That night our mother went to the shop and she didn’t come back. Ever.’’—not only set the mysterious and foreboding tone of the story that is about to be told, but they effectively announce Gordimer’s style as well. The sentence structure and diction are simple, yet not so simple as to indicate that the narrator is a person of lesser intelligence or capabilities. The narrator speaks in plain, everyday English; there is nothing remarkable in terms of vocabulary, syntax, or dialect that would indicate her to be anything but an English speaker of ordinary intelligence and sensibilities. She does not speak in dialect; she could be from any number of Englishspeaking locations. And Gordimer leaves few idiosyncratic clues that give her racial, cultural, or ethnic identity away.
Aside from knowing that the story’s author is South African, there is little to indicate at the outset of the story that the narrator herself is from the region. She tells us immediately of ‘‘the war’’ and of ‘‘the bandits,’’ and she references her ‘‘village’’ and the ‘‘bush’’—both of which would hint at an African setting of some kind—but because the overall tenor of the narrative voice is anything but African, it is easy to overlook these clues at first reading. As the story progresses, the girl gives us further clues as to the setting with her description of the ‘‘dried mealies’’ her grandmother boils for her and, most importantly, her family’s journey through Kruger Park, one of South Africa’s popular game parks. Within a few pages, then, we have come to understand that she is in fact from southern Africa, but the overriding sense, as indicated by her narrative voice, is that she is a proper English-speaking girl, and the reader can’t help but wonder, on some level, what this girl is doing wandering as a homeless refugee in South Africa.
Of course, since Gordimer writes in English, and her audience mostly comprises English readers, her stories must also be written in English. It would make no sense whatsoever were ‘‘The Ultimate Safari’’ to be written in the girl’s native tongue. But when taking on the voice of a character, especially when that voice’s ‘‘true’’ voice is non-English, the writer usually provides the reader with early clues as to the narrator’s background—whether explicitly through a remark by the narrator or implicitly through his or her choice of diction.
In the case of Moby Dick, for instance, the book’s very first sentence—‘‘Call me Ishmael.’’— announces the identity of the narrator, and very shortly thereafter Ishmael describes his background and the reasons for his pending journey. In The Color Purple, Celie speaks in a southern black idiom that leaves no question as to her racial or regional identity. In Gordimer’s story, until the final scenes in the refugee camp, the narrator provides few clues as to her race or ethnicity. It is in the refugee camp that the narrator finally confirms that she is of African descent, even if the details as to which tribe she belongs are left out. ‘‘The people in the village have let us join their school,’’ the narrator says,
‘‘I was surprised to find they speak our language; our grandmother told me, That’s why they allow us to stay on their land. Long ago, in the time of our fathers, there was no fence that kills you, there was no Kruger Park between them and us, we were the same people under our own king, right from our village we left to this place we’ve come to.’’
Yet even here, when she references ‘‘our language,’’ the possibility still exists that she is referring to English, and that perhaps this narrative is taking place in a world turned upside down, in a mythical future where the (white) English-speaking families are forced to wander the continent as refugees, and where their land has been carved into artificial political boundaries that separate people of the same tribe and ethnic backgrounds from one another. This possibility is eliminated, however, in the story’s final scene when the narrator describes the ‘‘white people’’ who have come to film the refugee camp (implying, of course, that the refugees are not white), and we are told with certainty what her nationality is when a reporter asks of her grandmother, ‘‘Do you want to go back to Mozambique— to your own country?’’
While Gordimer has always been committed to her writing as a form of art, and not simply as a tool to advance her politics, she has also always been unapologetically committed to using her writing to advance her antiapartheid stance. With her readership being made up of mostly, though not exclusively, British and American whites, and by giving the narrator many of the qualities that a typical young white English or American girl would have—she is observant, articulate, intelligent, selfless, and emotionally even-keeled—Gordimer created a character with whom readers could empathize, but not necessarily pity. Ultimately it is not pity that Gordimer wants to elicit from her readers, but rather she wants her readers to come to a profound understanding of the human toll of apartheid. Holding off until the last possible moment before revealing the girl’s race has the effect of giving her white audience every possible reason to feel for the girl as ‘‘one of us,’’ rather than reasons to feel sorry for the miserable conditions of yet another poor anonymous black African. In other words, by effectively creating a character who closely resembles her readers, or who at least resembles people with whom her readers were familiar, Gordimer gave her audience the vicarious experience of what it was like to be, or know, a refugee, even if for a brief amount of time.
It should also be noted that, in order for the story to pass as a work of art, and not merely political propaganda or journalism, its narrator must remain true to her character. The fact is that most ten-year-old girls, regardless of their backgrounds, would not necessarily consider their race or ethnicity to be important in the telling of their stories. Race, nationality, and ethnicity are adult constructs that children become aware of to varying degrees over time, so Gordimer’s decision not to have her narrator discuss those issues was as much a decision to create a believable character as it was to create an empathetic one. However, the effect of that decision, regardless of its design, was to create an empathetic narrator.
In one of her more famous essays, ‘‘Living in the Interregnum,’’ Gordimer paraphrases Mongane Wally Serote, a black South African poet: ‘‘Blacks must learn to talk; whites must learn to listen.’’ By taking on the voice of a young black refugee girl, and by offering her readers the possibility that her voice was not simply ‘‘black’’ but also ‘‘universal,’’ Gordimer not only created a black voice that whites could more readily listen to, but she also opened a window for her readers into one of the ugly rooms of apartheid.
Source: Mark White, Critical Essay on ‘‘The Ultimate Safari,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Gale, 2004.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5333
[Karen Lazar:] Nadine, I have some questions to ask you about your involvements as a citizen during the 80s and early 90s, and then a few questions about your more recent work.
In the early 80s, what stirred you to become more deeply involved in political organisations? Which groups were you specifically involved in? I know about ACAG (Anti-Censorship Action Group), but wondered about your other organisational commitments at that time?
[Nadine Gordimer:] What spurred me was a new opportunity to be involved. In the 70s, we had the separatist movement, Black Consciousness, which I understood and sympathised with. There were some whites who were hurt or incensed by it. Even the writers’ organisation, PEN, at that time blackled (under the leadership of Mothobi Mutloase but with a non-racial national executive), broke up because of the BC movement. It didn’t break up acrimoniously, though it was seized upon by the popular press as having entailed a terrible row. This wasn’t so at all. We just decided that we wouldn’t carry on as an organisation. The black members had had some pressure brought to bear upon them: we felt that this was not the time for small gatherings of like-minded people of this nature, that it was rather the time for the consolidation of blacks.
Then, of course, in the 80s, the situation changed. I, like many others, had been in the position where there was no organisation with a public profile that you could belong to, unless you wanted to belong to the Progressive Party, as it was called at the time, or the Progressive Federal Party, as it became. So there were liberal organisations that you could belong to, but nothing to the left of that if you were leftinclined. So I was homeless, so to speak, as a social being. I had, of course, my attachments to the African National Congress (ANC) which I’d had all along, but it was underground. But then, with the formation of the non-racial United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983, you could openly avow yourself. So I think that was a great encouragement. Here was some sort of organisation to which I could attach myself, which I did, and I met and worked with some wonderful people.
And COSAW (The Congress of South African Writers) formed later in the 80s?
Yes, COSAW formed later. But COSAW too became possible out of the new climate, the feeling that apartheid wasn’t made of granite, that it was crumbling, that there was some kind of attrition from within. The UDF surviving without being banned was proof of that. And there was a more confident mood among blacks that it wasn’t necessary to maintain this total separatism. The time was right to start a national writers’ organisation, so we called together all cultural groups concerned with writing and aspects of writing, including theatre, and had a meeting. Out of that came the Congress of South African Writers.
So that is really how my involvement moved. Running parallel with that I was also becoming more and more involved with the ANC, especially with its cultural side. I was one of the people who went to Botswana to the Culture and Resistance festival, as many of us did. Somehow things were really beginning to move. I also had quite frequent contact with Wally Serote overseas, when he was running the cultural desk of the ANC from London.
During the 80s were there any particular and decisive political events—perhaps trials, funerals, assassinations—which might have shaped your decisions as a writer? I’m thinking, for instance, of your portrayal of Whaila’s assassination in A Sport of Nature and of the graveside scenes in My Son’s Story—those kinds of scenes in your work.
Well, the graveside scenes came out of my own several experiences of funerals, one in particular when I experienced teargas for the first time. So that came out of what was going on at the time and my own personal experience of it. What had made me think of Whaila’s murder is the assassination of David Sibeko. I had known him virtually as a kid, an adolescent, when he was on the telephone exchange at Drum magazine; he first worked there. Then he became active in the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). He was extremely bright and very charming, and he rose steadily in the hierarchy of PAC. He was one of the people assassinated abroad in the 70s, so that was somehow at the back of my mind. It’s interesting how these assassinations first of all took place outside the country—it’s a mystery why during that period they were not taking place inside. Now political assassinations in the last few years have taken place inside the country.
I wondered what had been decisive for you, because for me, Eastern Cape leader Matthew Goniwe’s assassination in 1985 was a totally decisive event. Perhaps one is ripe at a certain point for a consciousness shift.
It’s true, and that event can haunt you. Other events start becoming part of a general category after that.
Moving to the censorship side of things: a Johannesburg advocate mentioned to me that you frequently took part in representations to the Publications Appeal Board on behalf of other writers during the 80s. Which literary texts did you appeal on, and on what grounds?
I can’t remember the details, but there were quite a large number of texts we appealed on. I was there as a member of the Anti-Censorship Action Group, and ACAG would naturally have chosen a writer if it were fiction in question, a journalist for a banned edition of a newspaper, and so on. So it’s quite true that I was called upon, and went, a number of times.
What were your impressions of the Appeal Board, especially coming out of your experience of the banning of Burger’s Daughter?
Well, that was really very interesting. They were unbelievably polite and positively smarmy. One of the accusations I had made again and again concerned not only the whole principle—I always started with the principle—but also the incredible lack of qualification of these members of the board to make decisions. Members of the Appeal Board would sit facing us, and there was an old retired schoolmaster from Witbank or somewhere, and a retired dentist at one point, I remember, making decisions like this.
I think one of the texts we appealed on was probably Don Mattera’s Azanian Love Song, a book of poetry, and there were many others.
In the records of the mammoth Delmas Treason Trial of 1986–9, you testify to the peaceful and legitimate nature of the UDF. Your support for the still exiled ANC and your understanding of why the organisation was forced into violence also come through in your testimony.
That was the real purpose of my testimony. It wasn’t so much the UDF because most of those on trial were really ANC people. I suppose we can talk about it now. I had been involved in that trial because Terror (Patrick) Lekota was writing a book in the form of letters to his daughter. I was smuggling out bits of it with the help of the lawyers and then going over it with a friend who did a wonderful job of typing it out. I knew the trialists well, particularly Terror and Popo (Molefe).
Did Terror’s book ever come to light?
The book did come to light. It was published by some little publisher. It’s a pity. It sank like a stone. The interesting thing about it: I would have thought that the idea that came to Terror was inspired by the letters to Indira Gandhi by her father. But he’d never heard of them. It just came to him out of his situation. There were problems because he wasn’t near a library and couldn’t research or verify the dates or names he couldn’t remember. So we did our best with that but it wasn’t strong on fact. But it was interesting because it was one of the attempts to write from the people, to see history from the personal point of view rather than from the historian’s point of view.
That was my initial access point to the trial. It is customary for the accused to give the names of people they would like to speak for them in mitigation. I was one of the people that they asked for. And I was then very nastily questioned by the prosecutor. I was not used to this. He asked . . . quite bluntly, was Nelson Mandela my leader, and then he said is Umkhonto we Sizwe your Umkhonto we Sizwe? And I said yes. So I suppose in a way that was a watershed in my political development.
Have you, yourself, written anything about the Delmas trial?
No, nothing. Actually it’s interesting. I’ve been to a lot of political trials over my lifetime but I don’t think there’s a trial in any of my books. Trials are just natural good theatre, aren’t they?
If they aren’t very tedious.
They can be, yes. But they can make good theatre if you know something about them.
Nadine, when did you actually join the ANC?
Oh, the moment it was legal. You couldn’t join before. What you did meant you were with it or not with it. The moment it became possible to do so, a friend and I went down to JISWA which was the Johannesburg Indian Welfare Association (at that time run by a friend of mine, Cas Saloojee and his wife Khadija) because we were told that this was one of the first places where you could get your ANC membership card. So we went down there. He is a good friend, Cas Saloojee, and we were his first two members. That was the end of February 1990.
A few more questions about your perceptions of left politics in the 1980s. In My Son’s Story, Sonny gets marginalised by his comrades in ‘‘the movement’’ for reasons which are not made entirely clear. When did you become aware of splits in the Congress Left, and what splits were you aware of? Is Sonny’s ‘‘movement’’ to be associated unequivocally with a UDF/ANC alignment?
Oh, I think so in response to the latter. It was clear from the kind of things he was doing. The tensions, the splits are there in every political formation and it doesn’t require any great feat of imagination to concoct something with these things. And I’d already done it before on a different scale in A Guest of Honour.
At that stage in the late 80s or in the time that My Son’s Story was being written, did you ever believe that any other liberation sectors might come to centrality within South African politics?
Perhaps worker sectors, PAC, alliances of other kinds? The reason that I ask is that I’ve noticed the pervasive way in which you use the definite article in that novel: ‘‘the movement’’, suggesting that there is no other.
I used the definite article because, to me, the movement did encompass others. I specially didn’t want to make it specific. Of course there was certainly the SACP and the ANC and the rising Trade Union movement that were already allied. Although there was no official recognition of this, they were working together. A very significant development for me in the 80s was the recognition of black trade unions. I can’t imagine that we would have moved as we did without the worker power. In my youth in that mining town, Springs, the miners were even kept out of the towns. They were so completely cut off from any normal kind of concourse with people in the town (I’m talking about black townspeople too). And then in the 80s I would go down to Braamfontein to the post office or the bank, and out of the National Union of Mineworkers’ offices there would come these young men in their T-shirts striding down the pavement. It was to me such a graphic illustration of a huge change. So the Trade Union movement opening up was also important to my thinking. That was clearly encompassed under ‘‘the movement’’.
I think that somehow, the underlying conflict seemed to be between the UDF and the movement: the more direct political forces, ANC, PAC, SACP and so on. I anticipated the kind of thing that happened between the returning ANC exiles and the UDF people in my book My Son’s Story. Later, when the exiles did come back, one saw people who had done such wonderful work being somehow set aside or getting minor positions.
Did you have any direct contact with FEDSAW (Federation of South African Women), FEDTRAW (Federation of Transvaal Women) or other women’s orgnisations during the 80s, or with the documents and speeches emanating from these organisations?
I always received the documents and quite often went to various functions but I was not an active member at all.
Many feminist reviewers and interviewers, including myself, have attempted to draw you out on your opinions of feminism in recent years. Your description of feminism as ‘‘piffling’’ in the early 80s was followed by your recognition that there are some ‘‘harder, more thinking’’ kinds of feminism in the later 80s. What is your opinion, now, of the role that a political feminism may have in our current moment of governmental and constitutional change?
My views have changed, and they’ve changed because the situation has changed. It’s interesting. I can’t see any vestiges now of that trivial feminism that I was talking about so disparagingly in the early times because I think it deserved to be disparaged. A tremendous division arose in the mid-70s (about ’76) between the concerns of white women and the concerns of black women. I’ll never forget the attempts of Women for Peace, which was a good idea although it came out of a ‘‘White Lady Bountiful’’ thing. They did have some meetings and some sort of contact with black women. It was based on the idea that we all have children and what happened in ’76 was a threat to children.
But what happened then was that, come November, all these white adolescents were preparing for the matric dance and what was happening in Soweto or Gugulethu and all over the place was that black women were running behind their kids with bowls of water and lappies to wash the teargas out of their eyes. There was really no meeting point for these women unless the white women had directly challenged the government, which they were not prepared to do. You can’t change a regime on the basis of compassion. There’s got to be something harder. I’m not saying that compassion is not necessary in our lives but you can’t change a regime that way. I think that’s one of the faults of a worthy liberal organisation like Women for Peace. At least you could say that the women had moved along that far but I couldn’t see how there could be any common feminism unless white women had truly thrown in their lot with black women, as some of the members of FEDTRAW later did.
And now? What do you make of the gender politics of the current moment?
And now, I think the proof is there. We’ve got quite a lot of women in Parliament. We have got in place of a white male Afrikaner (which we’ve had for generations) a black woman as Speaker. She’s also, significantly, a South African Indian which is for me a true demonstration of non-racism. Nobody said she isn’t black enough or if they have, I haven’t heard it. And I don’t think they have said it. I think she is recognised for what she is. And then you have other people like Baleka Kgotsisile and Cheryl Carolus who are in high positions. And there are a number of others. Barbara Masekela is now going to be our ambassador in Paris, and as you talk about it you can think of other names. So they are all evidence of a very important kind of feminism from my point of view.
Another thing I’d like to say is that in the interim Constitution, the strong emphasis on no discrimination on grounds of gender is a very important step of the right kind now. They’ve brought that up on a level with discrimination on grounds of colour or race.
And you think there’s the will to enact that?
I think so, certainly among younger black women and some white women.
Nadine, a few questions on your work. When one looks at some of your portrayals of leftwing or activist women, one can see a kind of physical type coming across. I’m thinking of Joy in ‘‘Something Out There’’ and Hannah in My Son’s Story, both of whom are depicted as sloppy dressers and sexual improbables when compared with your more conventional beauties such as Hillela and Aila. Is your depiction of this ‘‘alternative’’ female aesthetic (the Hannah/Joy kind) based on something you’ve observed in leftwing circles over the years, or could you suggest where it might come from?
Oh, of course. These are things that come from observation. I think we all fall into some kind of uniform. I remember years ago arriving in America— I was going to some meeting at Columbia—and I was put up in a sort of residential complex where we were all writers and painters and artists. And it was a year when if you were a writer or painter, you wore black trousers and a black polo-neck sweater and you wore a certain kind of earring and you would not wear another kind. And one day I looked at myself and thought, you’re wearing the uniform. So I think this observation comes from simply living among people. Just like the sweater- and-pearls aesthetic: it isn’t true of everyone, but it does define a certain kind of woman, doesn’t it?
Some critics have commented that your most recent novel, None to Accompany Me (1994),is surprisingly sombre in mood, given the largely triumphant political period from which it emerges. Could you comment on this?
Well, I think there’s a certain solemnity when, after a long, long time, extraordinary good things happen, when things open up. Sometimes in the last year, I think we’ve all had what one might call a sense of awe. And I think this probably comes out in that book.
Your portrayal of the consequences of violence, as in Oupa’s death in your latest novel, seems to me to be more sustained than in any such portrayals in earlier works.
Yes, because such events became so terrible in view of the fact that we were coming to the end of this struggle against the apartheid regime. You know it’s rather like, in war, soldiers being killed while the armistice is being signed somewhere else. It pointed to the tremendous waste that took place over years and years and years, and also to the mindless and criminal violence that has come about in this country as a result of poverty and the conditions of apartheid. So in a way, the prolonged attention to Oupa’s death, the whole process of his dying, really encompasses many deaths.
Your protagonist in this latest novel, Vera Stark, moves towards a recognition of the fundamental solitude of the ‘‘self’’ as she grows older. At the same time, she withdraws further and further away from sexuality, such that her relationship with her final male companion, Zeph, is a celibate one (even though he is still sexually active—with younger women). Could you perhaps comment on why Vera’s eventual life choices are coterminous with a sexual removal from the world? And what might that say about the ageing process for women in our society? Does it exert different stresses on women than it does on men?
There’s a different attitude to women’s sexuality than there is to men’s. It’s still not recognised in the way that men’s is.
By everybody. By other women too, by conventional women. Vera is a strange woman because in some ways she is conventional. She attacks her daily work. Even though it is unconventional work, she goes about it in this rather strict, direct, authoritarian way. She doesn’t seem to belong to any women’s movement. She’s a women’s movement in herself, I think. And she bluntly asserts her sexuality. She even quotes Renoir at one point—‘‘I paint with my prick’’. But she has her fill of sexuality, and she works her way through it. She’s had a very active kind of sensual life and hasn’t cared too much about the morality of it.
So you don’t see any loss when she moves away from sexuality?
No, it’s a conscious decision. You’ve said something that many other people miss: they say how lonely she is, but you’ve said she recognises the ultimate solitude of self. If you’re going to make a journey towards that, towards accepting that, then you are shedding some things along the way. She sees the baggage of her life as something which she took on and wanted and wouldn’t have been without, but she doesn’t want it dragging around with her forever.
And sexuality might have been part of that baggage?
Yes. And of course, who can say? People’s sexuality dies down at different ages. Some people seem to be finished with sex in their mid-forties, or fifties. Terrible! Others take on lovers, both male and female, at seventy. It’s a matter of the glands, I suppose. Vera genuinely doesn’t want another sexual relationship and doesn’t resent the fact that Zeph has his little pleasures on the side.
I notice some of your work (stories and sections from novels) have been published over the years in the glossy women’s press, such as in Cosmopolitan, Femina and Fair Lady. What is your impression of these magazines?
Well, I’ve always had very mixed feelings. Quite frankly I don’t read them, though I see them around. But I notice, through the kind of contents they splash on the covers, that they have changed quite a lot. Also you see black faces on the local covers these days. Admittedly, they’re usually beauty queens. I haven’t seen any of our black women writers or actresses on these covers. But, you know, that is the women’s magazine culture: to be a beauty queen is the ultimate ambition. It’s rather interesting that women have to be very consciously feminist in order to reject the whole beauty queen thing. I suppose quite a lot of young women do get quite financially independent through modelling.
Incidentally, what do you make of the ANC coming out in support of something like the ‘‘Miss South Africa’’ contest?
I suppose this is the kind of thing that political parties do, and the ANC is now a political party. If people say ‘‘This is part of the emancipation of blacks’’, I have no objection to it. It’s a little thing. I’m much more worried about us becoming nice big arms dealers.
Nadine, are you a television watcher, and were you watching South African TV and its represention of local politics during the 80s?
No, I never watch it. I’m a newspaper reader.
What newspapers and journals did you subscribe to or read during the 80s, and are you still reading those papers?
During the 80s, the usual local English-language ones (I’m afraid my Afrikaans isn’t up to much), and of course the alternative press: Weekly Mail, New Nation, etc. And then, literary journals such as New York Review of Books and so on. For a long time I used to get The Observer and then The Independent, and then it just got too much. In recent years, once The Weekly Mail started printing pages from The Guardian, I thought that will do.
As for local cultural journals, Contrast comes to me and Staffrider of course (I was involved in that journal in COSAW) and now and then, The Southern African Review.
Finally, the mandatory question. Now that we are past South Africa’s first democratic election, what are your impressions: of the pace of change, of the receptiveness of South Africans to this change?
I’ve been pleased, I should say surprised by the receptiveness of South Africans. I think the crisis of expectation which absolutely obsesses people overseas—I can’t tell you how many times in America I got questioned about this—is not called for. In my experience, my small experience of talking to grassroots people, and from what I gather from those who do have a big experience of it, what people want is truly basic. I think this has been recognised now in the ANC. It’s not recognised by the press, it’s not recognised by people who saw April 27, 1994 as the beginning of the millennium. People are not asking for Mercedes Benzes and big houses. You know what they’re asking for: a roof over their heads, electricity, education, jobs.
That is nonetheless a tall order for a new government.
It is a very tall order, of course. As for how much has been done, of course it seems too little but one can’t say a start hasn’t been made. I think the question of how much can be done how quickly should be explained to the black majority in a different way from the way that it is being explained. When dissatisfaction comes up along the lines that the ANC has bent over backwards to placate whites and done nothing for blacks, I think Mandela answers that very well but he doesn’t go into it enough, from my point of view, when he says the placating of whites has cost nothing, that no money has been spent on it. What money there was has been spent on providing electricity, water where it’s been possible. . . . This is great. To me it’s progress. It’s not spectacular but it’s progress.
What should be explained much more fully, and is not, to the black majority is the reason why whites have to be soothed and kept in place: because the government, ANC-led, does not want any abandonment of our very complicated economic infrastructure here, such as you saw in other parts of Africa, while there is still insufficient black skill to take over such things. So if there are too many concessions to whites, in terms of tax or keeping them in a certain measure of control of various boards, it could be explained that this is only because you cannot move towards greater prosperity and development without using them. In other words, whites are being used, and they should accept it; we should all accept it. Whites have got things that blacks never had, and they are now being used to help provide these things for others. Of course there’s also the question of investment from overseas. And this is not put clearly enough to blacks. If you look at material concessions to whites, what have they been? Nothing, except that white life has been left intact. Also people tend to ignore the quiet, slow (too slow) integration of schools. As far as I know from white and black friends, the kids are now going to school together and there’s no problem.
So my feeling is of realistic optimism. Of course, new hitches arise all the time. I turned on the radio at lunchtime, and now the farmers on the borders of Lesotho whose cattle are being rustled have made counterattacks and burned down cattle kraals in Lesotho where they say their stolen cattle have been housed. I heard one of the farmers say that, unless this rustling over the border is stopped, there’s going to be bloodshed. Also, a year ago, who would have thought that we would have the problem of illegal immigration which we now have—that we’d have Koreans selling watches in the streets, Zaireans talking French in the streets. Who would have thought this? It’s something we couldn’t possibly have imagined.
Why do you think this has happened to the extent that it has? Is it that we are seen as a place of bounty or safety relative to these other countries?
Oh absolutely, but we can’t afford this. We must think of our own people first, and somehow this has got to be stopped. Of course, this ill becomes somebody like myself who comes from immigrant stock. All of us who are whites here originally do. So who are we to say that the Koreans must be kicked out?
Most whites come from immigrant stock a very long way back.
Precisely, but do you think that really makes such a difference?
I notice that some critics writing for Jewish journals and papers claim that you have denied or suppressed your Jewish origins and your family’s immigrant history.
Well I think it’s truly based on nothing. I have never denied that I’m Jewish and I’ve no desire to deny it. For me, being Jewish is like being black: you simply are. To want to deny it is disgusting. It’s a denial of humanity. There’s no shame in being black and there’s no shame in being Jewish. But I’m not religious, I haven’t had a religious upbringing, and whether I’m an unbeliever in terms of Jehovah or Jesus Christ to me is the same thing.
Being black in our society surely amounts to a more politically disadvantaged state than being Jewish, for most people anyway?
Yes, of course, much more. I wonder how these Jewish critics feel about Joe Slovo and others, who’ve put something else first. I’ve never seen any criticism of them. I’m not sure why it’s happened to me! Perhaps writers are always easy targets. In America I’m asked, do you think your Jewish background has influenced you politically? I’ve thought about it a lot, and I think not. I would hate to think that you have to be Jewish in order to understand racism, just as I would hate to think you have to be black to understand it. It should be something absolutely repugnant and quite impossible for anybody who is a real human being. So, to say I’m not Jewish so I don’t care about the Holocaust or I’m not black so I don’t care about Sharpeville or all the other Sharpevilles that followed . . . that’s appalling.
There are strange little ethnic loyalties, I suppose, that come up. I can’t help being pleased, and have been pleased over the years, to think that in South Africa’s liberation movements and progressive circles there have been a really disproportionate number of Jews, given the smallness of the Jewish population. I’m rather proud of this. Though of course, you may then get the accusation, as you do in America, that Jews dominate progressive thinking and the press, and so on. So it can be used as a stick to beat you with as well.
Source: Nadine Gordimer with Karen Lazar, ‘‘A Feeling of Realistic Optimism: An Interview with Nadine Gordimer,’’ in Salmagundi, Winter 1997, pp. 150–65