Nadine Gordimer

Teaching and Learning from Nadine Gordimer

Inarguably, Nadine Gordimer, who died recently, is one of the great writers of the twentieth century. She is not an easy writer to read. I should know since I teach her books often. Most of my students, undergraduate and graduate, have to be taught to appreciate novels like Burger’s Daughter—brilliant, dense, formally and politically challenging novels that demand the reader work to comprehend (for in Gordimer comprehending cannot be separated from working).

Gordimer, to my mind, is a writer’s writer. You could do worse than read her to learn the craft of writing. No doubt, in the school of Gordimer you would not learn “workshop” prose—none of that apolitical realism written in smooth prose taught in creative writing workshops. Alongside stunning feats of technical virtuosity, you would find a certain kind of didacticism. You would learn about being didactic in all the right ways, in ways we have ceased to expect of our “literary fiction,” which we have exiled to professionalized creative writing programs.

Gordimer’s unfamiliar marriage of ethics and aesthetics, earnestness and nuance, is part of her toughness. In Gordimer, didacticism is not the enemy of art. On the contrary, unlike the bad variety, Gordimer’s didacticism is internal to her aesthetic vision. I think this is what she means when she says in interviews that her writing took her to politics rather than the other way round. If your artistic vision helps you produce richly imagined political characters or, for that matter, apolitical characters confronted by deeply political situations, politics will necessarily enter your novel. And then you as a novelist have no need to be didactic, for your characters are didactic for you. This is what I try to get my students to see with a novel like July’s People, beginning with that didactic epigraph from the great Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci.

Gordimer often said that she did not set out to be political. Rather, politics entered her work because of the nature of her preeminent subject matter—life in apartheid South Africa. She is an unusual postcolonial writer—a white writer fully deserving of the term. This too provides great opportunities in the classroom. It is instructive to teach her alongside her peers Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Ousmane Sembene—extraordinary African contemporaries who too in very different ways struggle with the tension between art and politics.

Wherever the art of the word is honored as a challenging and deeply ethical practice, Nadine Gordimer will continue to be read.

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Love is Just a Word, and Related Notions from a Life between Languages

A key moment in South African writer Nadine Gordimer’s extraordinary novel July’s People depicts the white protagonist Maureen as she is confronted by her black “houseboy” July. Maureen has been displaced from her privilege by violence accompanying the (imagined) end to apartheid. Without warning, July, so re-christened years before by his employers, uses his new found freedom to talk at her in his own language, making Maureen realize with sudden shock her utter ignorance regarding vast areas of July’s life. Instantly, Mwawate, for that is July’s true name, is transformed from transparent familiarity to opaque difference. Maureen is forced to recognize she hardly knows him, that she is only dimly aware of his fears and desires. Language becomes a powerful marker of the chasmic differences between them.

Those of us who, like Mwawate, have lived our lives between languages will recognize this scene. Our conditions may not be as dire as that of Mwawate and Maureen at the end of apartheid, but we will relate to the sense with which Gordimer leaves us at the end of the scene—that languages are freighted with emotions, histories, and ideologies that have their own autonomy, that what we feel and who we are are not separate from the language(s) in which we feel and have our being.

I am not a language relativist—a votary of the notion that languages are irrevocably different. I wouldn’t translate (as I have) if I was; however, while linguistic differences may not be insurmountable, neither will it do to pretend that such differences are inconsequential. Do we envy or pity in the same way in all the languages? Do we laugh in German the way we do in Tamil? Or love in English the way we do in Hindi? How, for example, might this unforgettable Hindi love song from Guide translate into English?

Is the “love” expressed here in Mohammed Rafi’s inimitable voice accessible to non-Hindi speakers? I know I can explain in English, translate if you will, what I feel in this song in Hindi, and that is significant indeed; at the same time explanation and feeling are quite different, aren’t they?

Enough said—love, like hate, is no more and no less than a word. And owning that fact, as Gordimer shows us, is the very opposite of dismissing the significance of love.