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If you like Nadine Gordimer's story, you might also like:
Joan Didion,
Carlos Fuentes,
Ernest Gaines,
Louise Glück,
Norman Mailer,
Joyce Carol Oates,
Albie Sachs,
Carol Shields,
Wole Soyinka,
Amy Tan,
Desmond Tutu,
John Updike,
Gore Vidal
and Elie Wiesel

Nadine Gordimer can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

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The Atlantic
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Nadine Gordimer
 
Nadine Gordimer
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Nadine Gordimer Interview (page: 4 / 8)

Nobel Prize in Literature

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  Nadine Gordimer

Your family home was raided by the police when you were a teenager. Do you recall that experience? Were you home at the time?


Nadine Gordimer: That was the experience that led to one of my very first stories, yes, the second or third adult story. And not only that, it led to my understanding of how we were living as privileged whites, even though we were not rich, compared with what the real situation was in the country. Because indeed, in the middle of the night there was a row going on in our yard of our house, and my parents and I got up. My sister had already left home. I think she was married or something, or she was at university. She became a teacher. And we went out and there was the woman who worked for us, and who -- you know so very well the old American South situation, you know. Here was "White Mama" and "Black Mama." So Black Mama, they had rifled her room; they had turned her mattress over. They were looking for illegally brewed beer, and of course there was a lot of illegal brewing around. I don't know whether -- Letty her name was -- whether Letty brewed. Why should she not, on the side? But fortunately, it was nothing there that night. But everything was thrown out all over the place, even outside the room into the yard. And we stood there, my parents and I, and the police were there, black policemen under the direction of a white policeman doing all this, and my parents didn't say to the police, "Where is your warrant to come into the house and do this?" I mean, they just walked into the property because they were doing the right thing. They were trying to stop black people from brewing. So I began to think about that afterwards, and then to look at many other things in our life.


World War II began when you were in your teens. How do you recall learning about the war? How did you receive news about the war?

Nadine Gordimer: On the radio, of course. We didn't have television. Radio, newspapers, and of course, letters and telephone calls to people overseas. And all of us, we girls, had our boyfriends up in the Middle East writing to us. Of course they couldn't write about what they were experiencing, but we saw in the papers that there was this battle and that battle. And in their letters, even though they were censored, they could say, "I've just come back from blah, blah, blah..." whatever it was.

How did you become interested in writing for publication? Was there a particular moment that first piqued your interest in writing professionally?

Nadine Gordimer: No, no, no. That is a sort of decision people make when they go for a regular career, not one like writing.


How should I put it? I always compare a writer with an opera singer. If you're going to be an opera singer, you are born with certain vocal chords, which I imagine you don't have and I certainly don't have. Unless you have that, you can go to all the voice training in the world, you're not going to land up at La Scala. But if you have it, then you can develop it. Now if you're going to be a writer, we have to go back to what I said before, you are born with certain characteristics. First of all, tremendous sense of observation, as I say, and a great curiosity about life. You're not prepared to take all the answers. You know, "If you're a good girl, you'll go to heaven," and "God is looking after you," and this, that and the other, and "You must listen to your teacher," and so on and so forth. So an independent mind is like having these special chords if you're going to be an opera singer. That's really the beginning of it.


Did you already think that you would make a living by your writing, when you had that first story published at 15?

Nadine Gordimer: How could I? I had no idea how I was going to make a living. Of course it was presumed in the circles in which I lived that when you finished school you would be a typist, or indeed, if I had gone on dancing, I might have been a dancing teacher of children. And of course you got married and then you didn't work. That was the end of your working career. There were very few women doctors, and I didn't know a single woman lawyer where I lived. This all was not in our milieu.

What about university, did your parents encourage you?

Nadine Gordimer: No, not at all.


I decided much later when I was about 19, and when I was already publishing here and there, and living at home and eating food provided by my father and so on, that I wanted to go to university. So I went to the University of Witwatersrand as an occasional student for one year, no degree, and then left. And of course it was interesting because it was just after the war, and there was this big division. I was like the people who had come back from the war, the soldiers, who then were, you know, adult, and in my case I found that I had read far more than either they had -- because they hadn't had the opportunity -- and also the younger ones who'd just come from school. So what they recommended reading, I had already done for my own pleasure and my own enlightenment. But what I did learn that year there was -- indeed through one good lecturer -- was to become, as I say, very self-critical. Not just to think that whatever I had written was just what I wanted to say, but to see how it could be critical that it didn't. I then began to see where I was failing.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation


Nadine Gordimer Interview Photo
Looking back, did you ever know why your parents didn't encourage you to go to university?

Nadine Gordimer: No, no, I haven't thought about it. I don't dwell on my childhood. Too many people live on their crummy childhood. You must outgrow it.

Do you have other memories of witnessing racism, of seeing something you knew was wrong?

Nadine Gordimer: No. I've told you about that time of the raid on Letty, our house maid or whatever she was. I know what we called it at the time, I thought "servant" was the word.

Your first contacts with black South Africans were as servants. When did you form your first relationships with black South Africans as comrades, fellow writers, fellow artists?

Nadine Gordimer: I would say it began through the common ground of young writers, artists, actors.


When I was... that year I talked about at university. The University of Witwatersrand was a white university, but there were certain occasions when there was a subject that was not taught at the black university, and here and there a black student would be accepted, usually a post-graduate. Now through somebody there -- and there were people connected who came back from the war, who were very against the result of what they had fought for, freedom, and then you come back to another fascist country. You've just defeated one, now you come back to one which is your own. And one of my first friends, black friends, was the wonderful writer, Es'kia Mphahlele -- Zeke, as he was known then. Zeke and I met, I don't quite remember how, and we were both young writers, just wanting to teach ourselves how to write, and we started to exchange. He'd show me his story and I'd show him mine. Of course, his position was very different from mine, because he was black, and it was then that I began, along with others, to -- I won't say "defy," that sounds... to "ignore," which is a very strong form of defiance, the edict that black and white mustn't mix. So mixed parties, going to a shebeen together and so on, that really started for me then. And then I met many others, and especially people also in the theater. A wonderful writer called Todd Matshikiza and a number of others whose names probably wouldn't mean anything to you.


We'd like to ask about your memories of Sophiatown. Do you remember the day of the relocation?

Nadine Gordimer: Oh, you mean when they took people out of Sophiatown? Oh, I remember the day, yes. I wasn't there, but I had friends who lost their homes, my black friends. So it was something that one could never really forget. And of course then we realized, because it was right next door, so to speak, that it was happening all over, that people were having their houses bulldozed.

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This page last revised on Dec 10, 2009 15:12 EDT
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