From Rubble to the Ritz Esteemed Writer Nadine Gordimer Has Made Apartheid Her Cause Celebre

By Jabari Asim Post-Dispatch Book Editor | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), November 13, 1994 | Go to article overview

From Rubble to the Ritz Esteemed Writer Nadine Gordimer Has Made Apartheid Her Cause Celebre


Jabari Asim Post-Dispatch Book Editor, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


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. Nadine 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 compassionate 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 described 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 receiving 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 unnecessary, 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 country is such an interesting experiment now."

Nelson Mandela's leadership sets an exemplary precedent in establishing a non-racist society, Gordimer contends. "There is no anti-white feeling in Mandela at all," she asserts. "He is truly not a racist. The African National Congress has always been completely non-racist. It was always against the regime and against the people who practiced apartheid. …

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