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Gordimer: Author, But Also Activist

News Profile

By Valerie J. Macmillan

At first glance, Nadine Gordimer did not look like a powerful person.

As she sat on the stage of Sanders Theatre in a throne-like chair big enough to hold two of her, she looked delicate, almost fragile.

But as Gordimer, this year's Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard, has reminded her audiences repeatedly, contradictions are the stuff of life.

In her apartment, on a couch that's on the same scale as the South African Nobel literature laureate, the authority and energy in her words and manner dispel any illusions of weakness.

"We didn't have anyone from the United Nations, we didn't bring in the Americans-nobody," Gordimer declares, recalling the negotiations and the writing of a new constitution for South Africa.

"We did it ourselves," she says. "I think that is a great strength."

Gordimer, who won the Nobel Prize for literature 1991, has also been a crusader in her country.

In the midst of the fight over apartheid, Gordimer was asked "very nastily" in a South African courtroom if the army of the then-outlawed African National Congress was her army. She replied, "Yes."

As a Writer

Nadine Gordimer's books and short stories, each set in South Africa, form a picture of apartheid and the South African society that Gordimer calls "extremely volatile."

Professor of English Robert J. Kiely says the political aspect of Gordimer's writing is what makes it remarkable.

"She's written more than any single person about the political situation in South Africa," Kiely says. "She has been a voice for freedom and equal rights for all races."

Even without the political element of her works, Gordimer is an exceptional writer, Kiely says. "She is as good at short stories as [she is at] novels. She has great consistency and range."

When she speaks about her own writing, Gordimer says her novels The Conservationist and The Burger's Daughter have satisfied her, but she can't be sure if None to Accompany Me, her latest novel, is also on the list.

"The last one you've written, you're too close to it somehow," she says. "You can't really see. You come back later and think, 'Did I really do what I wanted to do?'"

Gordimer says the only opinion of her writing that has ever really mattered is her own. She says she never considered any career other than writing, except a brief flirtation with ballet dancing at the age of four.

"When I first began to write, [I felt] I was living at the other end of the world, and that what I had to say couldn't be of any interest to anybody, only to me," she says. "Funnily enough, I'think it was liberating. You'd think it would be frustrating, but it gave me a certain inner impetus to understand."

She first published a short story at age 16, but she says she didn't really "have [her] own voice" until her 30s.

As she has in a series of lectures and discussions at Harvard, in an interview Gordimer pokes gentle fun at the overzealous reviewers and literary analysts who construe motives or find hidden meanings where none exist.

For instance, in her latest book, one of the characters is named Vera Stark.

"I've been amused to see that some people and some reviewers have said, 'Her name is Stark and it's a stark story and she's a stark character."

She dismisses that idea quickly.

"Never entered my head!"

Harvard Experiences

Gordimer was also a guest lecturer at Harvard 25 years ago, in the turbulent year of 1969.

"1969 was traumatic," Gordimer says. "Harvard was just in complete chaos. I was so frightened by people."

Looking around at her quiet Cambridge apartment where vases of flowers adorn most tables, she remembers her 1969 Harvard room, which didn't feel as peaceful.

"I was in...a room on the ground floor [which] had a big push up and down window," she says, and continues with a half-smile of amusement on her face.

"I thought, 'Oh God, this is really not a very secure place to be."

Gordimer's actual lectures had a bit more security. "When I spoke, they said 'Well, we don't know what might happen. If there's any sort of riot breaking out, we'll slip you out this way,'" she says. "They alarmed me, in other words."

Today, things are certainly calmer on campus, and Gordimer is meeting with students for the first time.

While she wonders aloud whether Harvard students realize how privileged they are, she says she's very impressed with the students as a whole, especially their love of learning and intellectual curiosity.

"There is such a wide variety of things that people do. It's really great," she says. "There's so much of a crosscurrent between arts and sciences."

"You've got students from all over the world, who got here not because papa's rich, but because these are students who have real merit."

She thinks for a moment, and then smiles before adding, "I do think students have a pretty good time."

South Africa Today

The South Africa Gordimer will return to is a far different country than the one she came back to in 1969.

Apartheid no longer exists, a new constitution is in effect, and Nelson Mandela, the leader of the African National Congress, Gordimer's political party, is president.

While problems like illiteracy and poverty are no less serious now, there is a can-do feeling pervading the country, she says.

"The majority, and those of us who support the majority, said, 'Give us responsibility,'" Gordimer says. "And now we've got it and now we have to deal with it."

"[There is] a very sober and determined attempt to look at all the problems," she adds. "The attitude is right."

Gordimer has lived in South Africa all her life. She was born in the small mining town of Springs in 1923. Her father was a Latvian immigrant and a jeweler, her mother a British transplant.

She dropped out of college to marry her first husband, Dr. Gerald Gavron. In 1952, the couple split. Gordimer married her current husband, Reinhold Cassirer, in 1954.

Gordimer has two children, Oriane, 44, and Hugo, 39.

Today at 4:30 p.m. in Sanders Theatre, Nadine Gordimer will deliver a lecture titled, "That Other World That Was the World." The talk, which concludes her Norton lecture series "Writing and Being," will focus on her ties to South Africa

"We didn't have anyone from the United Nations, we didn't bring in the Americans-nobody," Gordimer declares, recalling the negotiations and the writing of a new constitution for South Africa.

"We did it ourselves," she says. "I think that is a great strength."

Gordimer, who won the Nobel Prize for literature 1991, has also been a crusader in her country.

In the midst of the fight over apartheid, Gordimer was asked "very nastily" in a South African courtroom if the army of the then-outlawed African National Congress was her army. She replied, "Yes."

As a Writer

Nadine Gordimer's books and short stories, each set in South Africa, form a picture of apartheid and the South African society that Gordimer calls "extremely volatile."

Professor of English Robert J. Kiely says the political aspect of Gordimer's writing is what makes it remarkable.

"She's written more than any single person about the political situation in South Africa," Kiely says. "She has been a voice for freedom and equal rights for all races."

Even without the political element of her works, Gordimer is an exceptional writer, Kiely says. "She is as good at short stories as [she is at] novels. She has great consistency and range."

When she speaks about her own writing, Gordimer says her novels The Conservationist and The Burger's Daughter have satisfied her, but she can't be sure if None to Accompany Me, her latest novel, is also on the list.

"The last one you've written, you're too close to it somehow," she says. "You can't really see. You come back later and think, 'Did I really do what I wanted to do?'"

Gordimer says the only opinion of her writing that has ever really mattered is her own. She says she never considered any career other than writing, except a brief flirtation with ballet dancing at the age of four.

"When I first began to write, [I felt] I was living at the other end of the world, and that what I had to say couldn't be of any interest to anybody, only to me," she says. "Funnily enough, I'think it was liberating. You'd think it would be frustrating, but it gave me a certain inner impetus to understand."

She first published a short story at age 16, but she says she didn't really "have [her] own voice" until her 30s.

As she has in a series of lectures and discussions at Harvard, in an interview Gordimer pokes gentle fun at the overzealous reviewers and literary analysts who construe motives or find hidden meanings where none exist.

For instance, in her latest book, one of the characters is named Vera Stark.

"I've been amused to see that some people and some reviewers have said, 'Her name is Stark and it's a stark story and she's a stark character."

She dismisses that idea quickly.

"Never entered my head!"

Harvard Experiences

Gordimer was also a guest lecturer at Harvard 25 years ago, in the turbulent year of 1969.

"1969 was traumatic," Gordimer says. "Harvard was just in complete chaos. I was so frightened by people."

Looking around at her quiet Cambridge apartment where vases of flowers adorn most tables, she remembers her 1969 Harvard room, which didn't feel as peaceful.

"I was in...a room on the ground floor [which] had a big push up and down window," she says, and continues with a half-smile of amusement on her face.

"I thought, 'Oh God, this is really not a very secure place to be."

Gordimer's actual lectures had a bit more security. "When I spoke, they said 'Well, we don't know what might happen. If there's any sort of riot breaking out, we'll slip you out this way,'" she says. "They alarmed me, in other words."

Today, things are certainly calmer on campus, and Gordimer is meeting with students for the first time.

While she wonders aloud whether Harvard students realize how privileged they are, she says she's very impressed with the students as a whole, especially their love of learning and intellectual curiosity.

"There is such a wide variety of things that people do. It's really great," she says. "There's so much of a crosscurrent between arts and sciences."

"You've got students from all over the world, who got here not because papa's rich, but because these are students who have real merit."

She thinks for a moment, and then smiles before adding, "I do think students have a pretty good time."

South Africa Today

The South Africa Gordimer will return to is a far different country than the one she came back to in 1969.

Apartheid no longer exists, a new constitution is in effect, and Nelson Mandela, the leader of the African National Congress, Gordimer's political party, is president.

While problems like illiteracy and poverty are no less serious now, there is a can-do feeling pervading the country, she says.

"The majority, and those of us who support the majority, said, 'Give us responsibility,'" Gordimer says. "And now we've got it and now we have to deal with it."

"[There is] a very sober and determined attempt to look at all the problems," she adds. "The attitude is right."

Gordimer has lived in South Africa all her life. She was born in the small mining town of Springs in 1923. Her father was a Latvian immigrant and a jeweler, her mother a British transplant.

She dropped out of college to marry her first husband, Dr. Gerald Gavron. In 1952, the couple split. Gordimer married her current husband, Reinhold Cassirer, in 1954.

Gordimer has two children, Oriane, 44, and Hugo, 39.

Today at 4:30 p.m. in Sanders Theatre, Nadine Gordimer will deliver a lecture titled, "That Other World That Was the World." The talk, which concludes her Norton lecture series "Writing and Being," will focus on her ties to South Africa

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