THE INTERIOR of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Clayton is, well, ritzy. Its hushed, spacious corridors and ornate fixtures convey an aura of confident wealth, of long-gone gilded days, masked balls and humble, silent servants. Na-dine Gordimer moves comfortably amid the opulence.
The celebrated writer, an almost fragile form clad in red turtleneck and gray slacks, receives her visitor with practiced graciousness, as if she were a veteran of tea parties and gentleman callers.
She is, of course, no stranger to pomp and splendor. Gordimer, 70, has received numerous honorary degrees and has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. She received the honor in 1991, the first woman to do so since Nelly Sachs of Sweden shared it in 1966. Gordimer knows the rarefied air of royalty and diplomats.
Yet this same woman, who sits with straight spine and fixes her inquisitor with a warm but unwavering gaze, has moved with similar ease through rubble-strewn South African townships. She came to St. Louis recently to speak at Washington University.
Gordimer’s ability to inhabit disparate worlds, is, after all, what has brought her fame.
Her more than 20 books convey the turbulent intricacies of life at all levels of South Africa’s tortured society, from that of the wealthy landowner to the impoverished laborer.
In her largely sympathetic portrayals of black South Africans, Gordimer has taken care to portray them as fully human, not as noble savages or mystical primitives. Her literary world contains oppressors who can learn to be compas-sionate and rebels who can succumb to temptations.
Gordimer’s writing – and her activism – have also brought her attention of a less than laudatory nature. During the 1950s and ’60s she was her country’s most banned writer. “Burger’s Daughter,” published in 1979, was once de-scribed by the South African government as a “full-scale attack against the Republic.”
Although apartheid has been defeated, intense conflicts continue to rage in South Africa and elsewhere. At the time of this interview, Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz had been stabbed a week earlier by Islamic militants, three black South Africans were on trial for the murder of an American student, and an American journalist was receiv-ing widespread media attention for his attacks on the intelligence of African-Americans.
Gordimer believes obsession with perceived racial differences should be laid to rest. “It’s (race) totally unnec-essary, but it does seem to be something that’s terribly hard to kill. Look how it’s come up again in Eastern Europe, how anti-Semitism has risen, for instance, and how in your country there’s still so much racism. That’s why I think our coun-try is such an interesting experiment now.”
Nelson Mandela’s leadership sets an exemplary precedent in establishing a non-racist society, Gordimer con-tends. “There is no anti-white feeling in Mandela at all,” she asserts. “He is truly not a racist. The African National Con-gress has always been completely non-racist. It was always against the regime and against the people who practiced apartheid. Otherwise there would not be, as there are, whites and Indians in the hierarchy of the ANC. They went to prison together, they struggled together.”
Gordimer is a card-carrying member of the ANC and a co-founder of the Congress of South African Writers. She insists, though, that her political activism shouldn’t be confused with her art. “I was writing before I knew what politics was,” she says.
Her political consciousness was born during her school days in Springs, South Africa. It was then she began to notice the degrading treatment of the “mine boys,” black men who worked in the nearby gold mines. “I saw how these miners, who really couldn’t communicate with anybody, not even the local blacks because they usually spoke different languages, were really isolated. They were treated, to use the cliche, as units of labor. They were not regarded as hu-mans at all. That was my first sense of something being very wrong.”
The brutal treatment of the miners became the subject of one of Gordimer’s first stories.
Recognition came early for Gordimer; she published her first story at 15, and her first collection appeared while she was still in her ’20s. She published her first novel in 1953.
By this time Gordimer was living in Johannesburg, meeting regularly with other progressive writers, artists and political activists. In defiance of apartheid laws, Gordimer’s group held gatherings in all-black Soweto as well as the city’s white districts.
The government eventually began to crack down on such activities, charging some of Gordimer’s associates with vari-ous crimes against the state. Gordimer then concluded that liberalism had its limits. She proudly identifies herself as a radical.
“Liberalism is essentially a middle-class political position. The liberal idea was not that apartheid is wrong, but that whites know what blacks need and how to go about getting it. Liberalism, while it was useful in highlighting rac-ism, outlived its historical impetus.”
As proof of her radical stance, Gordimer refers to her testimony during a 1989 treason trial.
“When the prosecutor asked me, ‘Is Nelson Mandela your leader?’ I said yes. Then he said, ‘Is Umkhonto we Sizwe your Umkhonto we Sizwe?’ (Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation, was the armed branch of the ANC. Its members are now being integrated into the South African army.)
“I thought how disgusting it would be not to answer or to be evasive about it, so I said yes. This indeed was ac-cepting and proving that violence was necessary. These are not actions that a liberal would take.”
Radical or not, Gordimer is a Nobel laureate, and as such has seen her stature as an artist validated in her own lifetime.
Even so, Gordimer says the honor had no effect on her approach to her writing. She was already a year into her latest novel, “None To Accompany Me,” when the prize was announced. She has yet to publish a post-Nobel work.
“It doesn’t affect your writing because you have to do each new book yourself,” she says.
Copyright 1994 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Inc.