The Salon Interview - Nadine Gordimer

The conscience of South Africa talks about her country's new racial order.

Published March 9, 1998 6:03PM (EST)

"I shall never write an autobiography," South African novelist Nadine Gordimer has said. "I'm much too jealous of my privacy for that." Yet it is impossible to read Gordimer's 12 novels and 15 short story collections without feeling that, to some degree, her autobiography has already been composed. In all of the 75-year-old novelist's work, her strong political and moral views -- she was an ardent opponent of apartheid for nearly half a century -- are interwoven with a keen sense of how South Africans, both black and white, move through their daily lives. Her eye for small, personal, telling detail is unerring.

Gordimer's new novel, "The House Gun," is no exception. Set in contemporary, post-apartheid South African, the book is about an elite white couple whose lives are turned upside down when their son is accused of murder. While they turn to a talented black lawyer for help with their son's legal problems, their emotional problems run much deeper -- both are submerged in a genuine crisis of faith. Some reviewers, including a critic for this magazine, have found "The House Gun" dry and static; I respectfully disagree. Gordimer's gift for tense moral drama is apparent on every page, as are her remarkable observational skills, even when she's describing something as pedestrian as a man taking a sip of liquor. ("Motsamai drew at his tongue to savour the after-taste of the brandy; here is a man who enjoys his mouth, has managed to retain the avidity with which the new-born attacks the first nourishment at the breast.") "The House Gun" may rank just below her finest work, but it evidences a firm but casual brilliance that most younger novelists can only dream of emulating. The book may also become the first of Gordimer's novel to become a feature film; "The House Gun" was recently sold to Granada Productions (which made "My Left Foot") for around $200,000. The New York Post reported last week that Forrest Whitaker is interested in directing.

Nadine Gordimer was born in 1923 in the small mining town of Spring, South Africa. She attended private schools and, later, the University of the Witwatersrand. She published her first book, a collection of short stories titled "Face to Face," in 1949. Among her most notable novels are "A Sport of Nature" (1987), "My Son's Story" (1990) and "None to Accompany Me" (1994). Gordimer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991.
I spoke with her in New York at her son's apartment -- Gordimer has two children, one from each of her two marriages -- on the Upper West Side. She spoke not just about her new novel, but about the current social and political climate in South Africa. Here and there, this intensely private woman even offered up a slice or two of autobiography.

One of the main characters in "The House Gun" is a talented black lawyer, to whom a wealthy white couple turns for help when their son is accused of murder. You are clearly writing about the new South Africa.


How likely is this scenario today?

These kinds of changes are proceeding apace. When you think -- I just can't believe it, I laugh when I think about it -- that our former president, P.W. Botha, has had to appear in court before a black judge, a black magistrate. This is an unthinkable reversal.

Botha is rebelling, isn't he? He's trying to have the black judge tossed out. [The former president is accused of refusing to cooperate with South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.]

Well, but on a technicality. The issue is whether the black judge understands Afrikaans sufficiently well to follow his testimony. Which, of course, is nonsense. Because anybody who becomes a magistrate or a judge in South Africa of any color -- since Afrikaans and English were the two official languages -- is fluent in both languages. But the irony of this is just unbelievable. That P.W. Botha appeared under the judgment of a black man!

Botha said something threatening, too, something like "the tiger is awakening," meaning white rage.

But I think there were only 30 tigers, rather timid tigers, who came to support him. And there were thousands of blacks, young blacks and other blacks outside, singing and enjoying that this man was being treated now like everybody else. That he had to account for what he did.

Do you know Botha? Did you ever meet him?

No. It would be very unlikely.

He's a very complicated figure, isn't he?

The old crocodile, we call him.

He did crack open the door, at least, to change.

Yes, he did. It was a back door, as usual. That he actually sent for Mr. Mandela to come out of prison, and had tea with him. And this was before the advent of F.W. de Klerk taking over and actually beginning to negotiate the changes. It was initiated in some sort of way with Mandela. But this doesn't really weigh in the scale of justice when you think of all the things that P.W. Botha did during the time he was president.

What kind of justice do you expect for him?

Well, apparently there is a way in which he can simply pay a fine. So I imagine that if he is found guilty -- and how can he not be? -- then he has an option of a fine. He's not hard up, I assure you.

"The House Gun" is about a murder committed by the son of elite white parents. And to some degree it's about what happens to them when they're yanked out of their controlled lives and their controlled environment. Is this to some degree a metaphor for what's happened to many whites since apartheid ended?

Well, this is something that's got nothing to do with apartheid. It has to do with intimate human relations and how we know each other. It's about how children know their parents and how parents know their children. So that's really the core of the book. Of course, it doesn't take place in a vacuum. It takes place in a particular time, in a particular city. But I see the same thing [the tendency toward wanting to live in a controlled environment] in this country. Mostly I'm interviewed by white people, and identified with white society. Hardly anybody says to me, "How are blacks dealing with change?" They're only interested in how whites are. And after all, whites are a minority. There are huge changes in the lives of blacks as well and even though one would think this is just release and freedom, it brings its problems.

And yet your books, perhaps by necessity, are largely about the white experience in South Africa.

Perhaps the books of mine you've read, but they're not all about the white experience at all. For instance, "My Son's Story" and "None to Accompany Me" are not.

That's true. As far back as childhood, you write in your essay collection "Writing and Being," you tried to identify with non-white South Africans. You write that you were brought up to fear black men -- who, you were led to believe, wanted to rape all young white girls like yourself -- and yet you say that, of course, the blacks had the same fears. They thought young white men were out to get them.

With more reality, in the latter case. There were so many backyard relationships that grew up and were never really acknowledged. I think this happened in the South of America, too. Young men having relations with black girls and their family concealing it. What happened, the thing that you mentioned, this was something that I got from my mother and other women. We were taught to be afraid of black men. As if every toothy ugly little white girl was going to be wildly attractive to them.

In the new book you refer to whites in South Africa as "the once chosen people," which has a biblical ring to it, and I'm wondering how you mean that phrase exactly.

Well, you know, in the fundamentalist milieu of the Afrikaners, there was a sense that they were a chosen people, that they were bringing civilization to the blacks. And look at the whole race purity theory. Is that not one of a chosen people? Why would it be diminishing the race to have a mixture of blood? Why would it be that the dilution of the blood would be such a terrible thing? And yes, you believe that your blood producing a white skin marks you as privileged in some way. God has marked you up as superior. So although they may not have called themselves the chosen people, the way they behaved was as a chosen people. And if the Afrikaners backed this with religious beliefs, which they did, it was still followed by those whites who were not Afrikaner. It was not only Afrikaners who were to blame for racism in South Africa.

We were speaking of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee a moment ago, and I can't help but notice that your novel is really about truth and reconciliation. It's about getting to the truth of a shocking story, and it's about the things that hold you afloat -- religion, literature ...

Well, not literature. It's rationalism. The wife is a doctor and she's not a literary person at all. Indeed, the religious one, the husband, Harold, is the great reader. What I'm looking at there is, in a terrible crisis, when something terrible happens, what structures are there to support you? If you're religious there are certain ways of dealing with whatever happens. And with birth, with death, with disaster, you turn to God. You pray. And you believe somebody is looking after you from up there. But Claudia does not have any beliefs. She has only her work, her humanism, the idea that life itself is sacred, we mustn't cause pain. But what interested me was that neither of them could really deal with this situation from their different point of view, from the religious one or the rationalist point of view. What happened is so overwhelming that they feel inadequate to it. And they are inadequate to it. Their coming to adjust to it is what you love to call here "a learning process."

The couple's black lawyer makes the observation that these two are less resilient than a black couple might have been in the same situation. They haven't been through the same kind of hardships.

I think that reflection of his would be very true. Harold and Claudia are middle-class white professionals and typical liberals who say, "I have no race feeling at all," but who didn't do anything, who didn't risk, who didn't put their lives on the line in any way for change. All they did was probably vote against the Nationalist government. But they voted for people who really were so middle-of-the-road that you could not be depicted as overthrowing that government. How do these people find themselves in the position that they are? How do they find themselves now, as you remarked before, dependent upon a black man, their son's life is in his hands, and his reflection on how they deal with it comes from his culture? The way they are unable to deal with it is an indication of what a protected life they've lived. If you're black and you've lived during the apartheid time, you're accustomed to people going in and out of prison all the time. They didn't carry the right documents in their pockets when they went out. They couldn't move freely from one city to another without acting against the law and being subject to imprisonment. So that there's no real disgrace about going to prison, because you didn't have to be criminal to go to prison. And then, when people were in prison, then there was sorrow, there was degradation, it was a common happening. I expect people are more accustomed to it. He's reflecting on how for whites, unless you belonged to the criminal class, this couldn't happen. So that they are much more vulnerable than black people would be in the same position.

Speaking of liberal guilt, is there a lot of that among your acquaintances on the left in South Africa? A sense among some of them that they could have done more?

Well, now you must draw a distinction between people on the left and liberals. We draw that distinction. F.W. de Klerk is a liberal, because he came to realize that things have got to change. Being on the left is something much tougher in South Africa. And those of us on the left don't suffer from this guilt thing. Because guilt is and was unproductive. It's no good saying, "I feel guilty because I'm privileged or white." You couldn't throw away your privilege, but you could do something active against that. So the left did that. As you know, there was a considerable number, an extraordinarily effective number of people on the left. And especially on the so-called extreme left. You went to prison, you went to exile. We have heroes among whites as we have among the blacks. But the liberals, the people like my couple, who said, "Of course we're not racist" and had no personal involvement, they may feel guilty that they didn't do more. But the next people on the list have got nothing to feel guilty about, because many of them risked their careers, risked their personal safety, they deprived their families of a kind of safety because they were tied up in politics. There were several generations of people who have made this sacrifice from father to son and so on. And I don't think now that many of these liberals feel guilt. They have a very pragmatic attitude. They have adapted to the situation, saying, "We always wanted it to be like this," and they're probably very useful in the transition period. Because they accept the fact that certain privileges aren't ... they haven't lost them, but they're not theirs alone, they're sharing them with other people.

How long will this transition period last, do you think?

Let's be realistic. The real extent of the transition is going to be a whole generation. If I look now at little kids at grammar school, going to school together, black and white, in what were formerly white schools -- they're now 6 or 7 years old. So it's only when they grow up that you will see whether we really have overcome completely the racial divides. Because that's the first time ever that children have been brought up together to know each other as people, rather than "I'm black, and you're white."

And it'll take a generation also in terms of realizing in material terms the differences in people's daily life. We're not going to move 3 or 4 million people out of Soweto -- everybody knows Soweto, but you've got lots of Sowetos all over. White people are not going to move in there. Why should they? They'd have to be extremely idealistic to do so, and the people living there would think they're crazy, because they just want to get out. It's a matter of conditions, living conditions, facilities that people are used to. Libraries and cinemas and shopping centers. It's still the fact that all these millions who live in the ghettos come and buy in town. Over the last few years, they are beginning to change this, to create business and proper shopping malls and things within the townships. But you can see the difference in living conditions, and that'll take a long time to change. It's virtually creating new cities. Johannesburg is no longer a white city. But even in the elite suburbs, black professionals and the new entrepreneurial class, they live there. So you're beginning to see class difference operating within the black community. It's inevitable.

You can go to the American South and see similar things. There are black neighborhoods that look like they haven't changed in 100 years.

I find that rather depressing. But of course you must remember that here you've got a black minority. Our situation is very different from the point of view of proportional values. Here, we've got a black majority. We have a black native government. There are whites and others -- people of different, black, colored races -- in the government, but it is indeed a black majority government, you've got a black majority population. The biggest difference is that blacks in South Africa all have their own languages. I think this is of tremendous importance. There's something about having your own mother tongue. Black Americans cannot turn to the ear, to the intimate shelter of another language. South African blacks have always had that. And they also had, of course, their own ground under their feet -- they no longer had the title deed to it -- but the earth under the feet and the rivers running and the forests, these were their natural home, their habitat.

Has having two languages used for public discourse been much of a problem for --

Oh, we've got many languages. We have 11 official languages, believe it or not. It's been a difficult question, and we've taken a lot of advice from India, where of course they've got even many more. You have to have a lingua franca, and that, obviously, more and more came to be accepted as English. Because, first of all, it's a route to the outside world, and secondly, it's very much the language of commerce. Where you work, you have to know the language of the boss set. But a certain section of Afrikaners are extremely heartsick because we used to have two official languages, Afrikaans and English. Everything, all government notices, public announcements, even in the South African Airways, on the planes it was all Afrikaans and English, and the others didn't exist. And it's a complicated situation. For instance in schools, what about the medium of instruction? So it depends now on where people live, the different provinces. If, in that province Setswana, the language Setswana is the predominant one of the people, then English and Setswana will be the medium of instruction in the schools. If it's in a Zulu-speaking area, it will be Zulu and English. And in some areas, where it's not English but Afrikaans that is spoken, it will be the local African language and Afrikaans. It's complex, but as long as you have got one lingua franca, like English, which is everywhere, it seems possible to solve it.

For instance, in court, and in Parliament, we've got members of Parliament who we've never had before, and some of them, if they choose to speak in their own language, their own African language, they have a right to do so, and have an interpreter. It's complex but it can be managed.

In addition to the language issue, as a citizen living in South Africa, as you go about your typical day, what are some of the things that strike you as being different from before?

Well, a lot. First of all, Johannesburg. It used to be that blacks came in, they serviced the city, they did the work, and then they went home and the city emptied at night. And indeed, until the pass system was abolished, they weren't allowed to even be in the city at all after a certain hour, 9 or 10 o'clock, or they could be arrested. Now they have virtually moved in to make it their city. Johannesburg in the central district is totally changed. It looks now like other African cities. Full of street trading, the sidewalks are full of people, selling things, styling hair, frying sausages, everything's going on in the streets. It is, of course, hugely untidy -- but of course it was not geared to deal with this type of population. It was built for the whites, the minority. Now everybody is using it. There is no more separation of transport. The buses are open to everybody. And since the black population is so overwhelmingly greater than the white, the city looks black. You see a very small amount of white people moving around. If you go out to these small shopping centers, there you see all the better-off, the wealthy whites. But you also see the new class of elegant black women and black men who are eating in restaurants, shopping in shops and so on. So it's moving to normalcy along the lines of economic class.

Of course people say the city is filthy. The city is very dirty. But we just haven't got a cleaner system yet, trash collection that can keep up with it. But it is an African city and that is what it always should have been, not this beautiful tidy place where no black could sit down in a fast-food joint. That's gone. And I'd rather have a few dirty cottages and rubbish in the back than have what it was before.

It sounds very alive now.

It is.

Let me ask you a different question. In "Writing and Being," you write about your childhood in South Africa, and feeling like you were living in such a remote place, at the bottom of the map. Has this changed?

It changed long ago for me. You know, I was brought up in that little mining town, and you take your values from your parents, what else? They're your role models, aren't they? Then you come to the stage, where if you have any intelligence at all, you're beginning to think for yourself, and have some revelations. And you begin to question your values. If you live in a place where there are very strange things that you see going on around you, you begin to ask yourself: Do I go to this convent school, as I did, and there were only white kids there? Do I go to the cinema and we're all white? Do I use the library, and no blacks do? Is it really because they don't read or they can't read? Is it really because they wouldn't like to go to the movies? And as you begin to ask yourself these questions, you realize this isn't natural. And also I think in my case, reading was important. I read a lot. There were parallels coming up in what I read. For instance, I read Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle." And the way that people in Chicago's stockyards were living, this was like the black mineworkers at home. So I began to say, "Well, why?"

It seems like books saved you, to some degree.

Books, I think, saved me, perhaps from growing up thinking that the way that people among whom I lived, that it was the only way to live. Books open a whole world for you.

Were books ever shielded from you, because of the political environment?

Only in the sense that what was not in the library, obviously, I couldn't read. But I had to give credit to my mother, that she read to us until I was 6, when I could read myself, and she made us members of the local library. It wasn't a rich family, we didn't have a lot of books. It wasn't an intellectual family. And you must remember there was no television, there were fewer openings to the world.

I don't suppose very many books by black writers were available at that time.

There were very few, anyway. They were not being published.

You've also written, I think in "Writing and Being," that you grew up fairly near Desmond Tutu. And yet there was not a chance in the world of you ever bumping into each other.

No, not a chance. When I came back after I got the Nobel Prize, he was at the airport to meet me. Of course he had his [Nobel Peace Prize]. He's a wonderful man. He was someone who -- twice I can think of -- during a very difficult time in the early '80s when there was a problem that my black friends and confreres were being worked upon by certain elements who said, well, this is a time to withdraw from friendships and relationships, working with whites. And Tutu was someone that I could go and talk to about this.

Do you see him often?

Not often, because my goodness, as you know, the Truth Commission is [keeping him very busy] and before that he moved from Johannesburg. He moved to Cape Town when he became archbishop. So in that way I saw less of him. But he is really wonderful.

You've said you will never write your autobiography.

No, never.


No. Two things. First of all, although some people's lives are remarkable, from my point of view very often this means the writer has run out of creativity. No new ideas come, so you tell your own story. That's one reason. The other reason is that I'm much too secretive. My private life belongs to me. I want to keep that to myself.

Does it surprise you how much readers seem to care about the private lives of the writers they admire?

It doesn't surprise, but I'm finding it, shall we say, regrettable.

Getting back to Johannesburg, was it important for you as a young person, a person who wanted to be a writer, to go to the city? You described it as a kind of an alluring Bohemian environment.

Yes, I think that was very important. Also, that was the first time that I began to live in a small way in the real South Africa. In other words, to live among black people and to discover there were young blacks who -- heaven knows, they had a much more difficult life than I had -- were interested in the same things. We were experimenting with writing or with painting or with something. I had much more in common with them than I had with conventional white South African life in my own mining town where I came from.

Did you go there shortly after university, when you were still young?

No, I didn't go and live there. I was going back and forth because from the time I was a little child my grandparents lived in Johannesburg. It was a great treat to go to grandmother's and grandfather's flat, going by tram into the city, having tea and cakes in some smart restaurants, going to the zoo, going to the pantomime there. It was the day of big cinemas. We had the organ coming up from the floor and they would play. So it was a big treat. And then as I grew older, in the mining town, the world of ideas didn't seem to exist there. There were just people who gossiped about one another. The world of ideas was only explored through books. I couldn't talk to anybody about them. That happened in Johannesburg. But I didn't go to live there. Even when I went for my brief time at university, it was only one year. And I only went to live there when I was 25 years old and married, because I married someone [who lived there] and then I moved to the big city.

Some observers -- and I don't know if this is true or not -- have noted that you, unlike some writers of your generation, never left South Africa. You didn't move to London, or to Europe in general, to continue your writing.

No. There was a brief period when things looked so grim in South Africa, from the point of view of any change coming ... We did think for a time of going to live in another African country. We thought of going to live in Zambia, we had certain friends there, we would go quite often. But in the end we did not go. But I didn't consider going to Europe. I belong in Africa.

Was it hard for you to sit down and write after winning the Nobel Prize?

No. People keep talking about that, and they ask it about others like Derek Wolcott. "How do you survive?" I don't understand this. The Nobel Prize is not going to help you to write the next book and it's not going to heal you. I was fortunate, perhaps. I was halfway into a new novel when I received the prize. So once the initial hoo-hah was over, I went on and wrote my book. People seem to think that the writer has in his mind, "Now I have won the Nobel Prize, I must be very careful, I must produce something marvelous." But I don't know of any writer who thinks like that. This is a public relations view, really.
I guess people wonder about being able to bear up under the suddenly great expectations.

No, I think this is a judgment from outside. It's something that certainly isn't true for me, and I'd be interested to know how others feel about it. What is a problem vis-à-vis your writing is that you then have so much attention, you're asked to do so many things. Everything from opening conferences on how to save the whale to you name it, anything under the sun. It's really quite a problem, how to deal with this, because writing is a solitary occupation. You cannot be constantly going around speaking on platforms even if it's a cause that you believe in. So you have to learn to say, "Thanks, but no thanks." On the other hand, it does give you a voice and a little push to promote things that you do believe in. Now you feel you can do something about it, that your voice might help.

Speaking of awards in general, I think it was Woody Allen who said that he pays no attention to the praise he gets because if he did that, then he'd have to pay attention to the criticism. Is there a strong critical community in South Africa?

Not really. It's generally accepted there is only one, it's a Sunday paper, that has any serious criticism. The so-called book pages in local papers, it's incredible what they review, what they think is a book. You know, "How to Build Your Own Sailing Vessel," things like this. "Chicken Farming for the Beginner." Gardening books, instead of being on the gardening page. Anything between covers is a piece of literature. Well, how do I think about criticism? There are perhaps one or two people in different parts of the world whose opinion I really value. So I would care very much what they say. But for the rest, it doesn't really matter. I know what I was trying to do. I know where I've succeeded, and I know where I've failed. I think every writer must be his or her own most stringent and absolutely unforgiving critic.

By Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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