Nadine Gordimer Death: Author Took Apartheid On, But Didn't Want To Be Known As A Political Writer

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Nadine Gordimer
Novelist Nadine Gordimer was among about 300 white liberals who visited Alexandra, the black township near Johannesburg on May 18, 1986 to lay wreaths at the grave of victims of political unrest.

South African novelist Nadine Gordimer, who died Sunday in Johannesburg at the age of 90, is best known for tackling South African apartheid in novels such as "Burger's Daughter," "July's People" and "The Conservationist." But throughout her career, the Nobel Prize-winning author resisted being characterized as a political writer -- even though several of her novels were banned in South Africa for their open criticism of the apartheid regime.

Gordimer published her first novel, "The Lying Days," in 1953 and became well-known internationally after the publication of "Burger's Daughter" in 1979. It was around this time that Gordimer and Robert Boyers began a decadeslong working relationship and friendship, when Boyers first published Gordimer in Skidmore College's literary magazine Salmagundi, where he remains the editor-in-chief. Boyers, a well-known literary scholar who continued to publish Gordimer's fiction and essays in Salmagundi throughout her career and became an expert on her work, spoke to IBTimes on Monday about the legacy Gordimer leaves behind. 

International Business Times: How much do you think Nadine Gordimer should be given credit for bringing awareness of South African apartheid to international audiences?

Robert Boyers: An extraordinary amount of credit. I’m guessing over the course of the next several days you’re going to find hundreds of people online bearing witness to the fact that Gordimer alerted them to the reality of the apartheid system in a way that would not have been possible without her.

IBT: So was she a political writer?

Boyers: She was, but she didn’t like to think of herself that way. In one interview we did for Salmugundi, she said: ‘Don’t call me a political novelist. I’m not.’ Because a political novelist, she believed, is a person who writes novels in order to say certain things, in order to promote certain views. And she absolutely rejected that notion of herself. That’s always been a constant in Nadine’s thinking of herself and her work. She often said that had she been a writer born and raised in a different society she would probably not have written about politics at all. That wasn’t her primary instinct. But coming of age in a place like South Africa under the system of apartheid there was no possible way that she could write about lives of people without becoming invested in political questions. 

IBT: Why do you think she rejected the idea of herself as a political writer?

Boyers: I think it’s because she regarded most people who saw themselves that way as people whose writing was very tendentious and programmatic.

IBT: So it was more of a stylistic thing.

Boyers: Yes. The tenor of the writing and the prose of those who regard themselves as writing from a political motive is something that she didn’t like. And I can understand that. There’s something so sensual about Gordimer’s prose, and the psychological perspective that she develops for her characters is so searching and intimate that you really do feel that even with a narrative saturated in politics, the politics is just one aspect of what’s going on in the book.

Obviously there are some books of Gordimer’s that are more heavily political than others. But pretty much all of the memorable work I think has a political dimension, and some of the best work is highly political.

IBT: What do you consider to be among her best work?

Boyers: For me there’s no question that her greatest novel is ‘Burger’s Daughter.’ I have no ambivalence on that score whatsoever. I think it’s one of the great novels of the 20th century, and I know a lot of literary people who feel the same way. She wrote many great novels and many great short stories. … We’ve published a number of them over the years in Salmagundi. She would send us a batch of them and say, ‘You pick the best one and then I’ll have the agent send the others to the New Yorker [or Harper’s or Esquire] where they pay a lot of money because the editors there don’t know between the best ones and the other ones.’  She would often do that, give us three or four.

Even when she was already getting quite old, into her 80s, she published a number of great works. She was past 80 when she published a novel called “The Pickup,” which I think is a great novel.

IBT: It seems like a novel a much younger woman would have written.

Boyers: Don’t you think? It’s such an adventurous book and it takes on all the dimensions and implications of the new globalization and the movement of populations from one area to another and the search for roots among people who are homeless -- it’s a very contemporary and forward-looking perspective that you get in that book. It’s the sort of thing she was discovering at that moment and thinking about, now that her old subject of South African society was no longer quite as interesting to her or as compelling to her for novelistic purposes as it had been.

IBT: Having written about apartheid for so much of her career, do you think she had a sense of ‘what do I do now?’ once it was over?

Boyers: She never worried about it. She was so thrilled about the fall of apartheid, and she had imagined the fall of apartheid in many novels where she projects a post-apartheid future. So she had given it a great deal of thought and she had exercised her imagination for a very long time. And I think she always trusted her imagination to come up with new things to write about. I don’t think she had any misgivings on that score whatsoever. And her late work bears much of that out.

IBT: You knew Gordimer well personally, and know that she was a generous person. Do you think that’s something that came across in her public persona?

Boyers: I don’t know. I never saw her as harsh or severe, but she didn’t ooze charismatic warmth. That wasn’t her style. She was not expansive in that way. She wasn’t looking in her persona to seduce. That wasn’t what she was after.

There are people -- writers, politicians, so on --  who the moment they get out there they are looking to seduce and win over. That wasn’t Gordimer. She was a very thoughtful and serious person. And I think it’s very possible that people who didn’t know her well would not have understood what an extraordinarily generous human being she was. But people who knew her well all knew this.

The above interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

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