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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: 6 / 8)

Nobel Prize in Literature

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  Nadine Gordimer

Have you ever had a real disappointment in your career? Has there been an event or a milestone that you found disappointing?


Nadine Gordimer: Frankly, no, because first of all I would never think of milestones. I have been surprised that this book got more attention and has lived longer than that. And I haven't always agreed with it. I thought, "Now why is that one favored?" For instance, a book of mine called July's People never dies and is taught in schools and so on. But I suppose it has certain reasons, because it was the only novel I've written which had something frankly prophetic in it. It was written at a time when we were like the swine, waiting to throw ourselves over the precipice (Luke, 8:33) into a terrible civil war. And it could so easily have happened. So what is told in a personal way, in a family, in microcosm, what happens in that book seems to catch people so that they would think, I'm now presuming, "Oh my God, this so very nearly happened to us." So it's taught in schools all the time, which amazes me too. Or perhaps it's good, because it reminds them what they've come from, what their parents lived in.


Why did it surprise you that July's People seems to have legs, as it does?

Nadine Gordimer Interview Photo
Nadine Gordimer: Well, I would have thought Burger's Daughter or The Conservationist. But you see The Conservationist, I haven't got a crystal ball, but the question of land has come up. So that now-old book was about land. Six feet, the grave, was all that a black man had. But that goes way back to my second book of stories, which was called Six Feet of the Country, and also was the matter of a burial of a black man.

Was there a time in your career when you felt you could say you were a success as a writer?

Nadine Gordimer: I can't understand why anyone should look at themselves in this way. Then I suppose I should have said the climax of it would be the Nobel Prize. When I think of the Nobel Prize, it was very wonderful indeed. But when I think of what we talked about before, that first story in an adult paper, arising out of the raid on the house. I was 15 years old, I pick up the paper... That was a tremendous thrill. When you grow older and you're fortunate enough to have good experiences with your work, it wouldn't have quite the impact that had, when I was 15.

Can you tell us about the day you heard you had won the Nobel Prize for 1991?


Nadine Gordimer: It happened to be that my husband and I were visiting our son in New York, and I got up early and tiptoed through the house to the kitchen, because of the time change and so on, to phone somebody that I wanted to speak to urgently in England. But when I got there, to my amazement the phone rang. And I picked it up and it was to tell me that I -- because what happens, as you know, when you get on the list, it goes on for years. And the last two or three years before that, at least two years before that, journalists would phone me and say, "You know, you're on the top list. You're one of two people up there," and "How do you feel about getting a Nobel Prize?" And I would say, "If I ever get it, I will tell you. Goodbye," and put down the phone, which is the only way to deal with it. Of course one of the nice things about getting a Nobel Prize, first of all it gives you a voice with certain causes that you may be not keen on, but that you are attached to and enthusiastic about. People will listen to you now. And also, of course, you have to learn to say, "Thanks, but no thanks," because people don't quite remember what you got the prize for. They think you've got it for physics or peace or something and so you get invited to come and speak somewhere, it's not in your field at all. But okay, that doesn't really matter. But one of the perks, I would say, is that after that, you have the privilege every year of -- this time of year now, just about to do it again next month -- of sending very secretly your nominations, who you think should get it next time. I think that's a very good idea. They ask those of us who have it. Now, as I got it in '91, that's a long time ago, isn't it? And I have done this faithfully every year. I've only had two successes when I coincided with obviously others. The one was a Japanese writer, Kenzaburo Oe -- wonderful writer -- and Günter Grass. I could never understand why they hadn't gotten it before but they hadn't. So I was absolutely delighted. But other times, for the rest of the time, I have not had success, but I keep on.


That morning in New York, was it a reporter who was on the other end of the phone?

Nadine Gordimer: I can't remember who it was who had called from England. Yes, it must have been a reporter. Yes, from England.

Did you wake your family up?


Nadine Gordimer: I went back to my bedroom and shook my husband and said, "You wake up." He said, "What is it?" I said, "I've got the Nobel Prize." Of course we then had a celebratory breakfast. But when I came back here, that was wonderful, because my friends in the ANC -- of course I was a member of the ANC for a long time then already -- and my writer friends, especially my writer friends, came to the airport and someone blew the ceremonial horn. You know, the one that has now become a sort of trumpet for sports things, but blew that, and then they gave me a wonderful party afterwards. And the speech at the party was made by no less a person than Walter Sisulu. So that was absolutely marvelous.


Do you think that was the best time of your life professionally? Winning the Nobel Prize?

Nadine Gordimer: I suppose so. Of course, I was fortunate you see. People always said, the Nobel Prize is death to you as a writer because you feel afterwards, "Oh, I must write a book good enough." But fortunately for me, I was in the middle of writing My Son's Story. So I just went back to my book and forgot about that. It didn't inhibit me. The Nobel Prize isn't going to make your writing any better or any worse. If you let literature prizes stifle you because you're afraid that the next book won't be so good, so what.

It was 1991 when you won the Nobel Prize. It was also a historic time in South African history. Can you tell us what was it like to vote for the first time in a democratic South Africa?

Nadine Gordimer Interview Photo
Nadine Gordimer: In '94, oh yes. It was down here in the church. That was unforgettable, because there are all the apartments, and the workers there, who were called "flat boys" at the time, and all wore little pants with the red stripe and so on, white shorts, that was the outfit. They still wore that then. And there they were among everybody else. The residents of Park Down, of Hill Brown, the whole area around which we lived, and it was simply wonderful. I couldn't believe it.

But you had already been a voter.

Nadine Gordimer: Yes, but I hadn't voted the last time around because there was nobody for me to vote for. I was in the Party, I was in the ANC, and I didn't feel that I wanted to put anybody into Parliament who was offered. I'm not talking about as individuals, I'm talking about the parties that they represented.

Have your political views impeded your personal goals in life in any way?

Nadine Gordimer: Oh no, not at all. On the contrary. I think they've released me from the little white enclave background that I came from, and I've had wonderful friends and some are wonderful friends still. And of course I could never have lived with anybody, been married to anybody, who had different political views.

During apartheid, the South African government tried to prevent its critics from traveling by revoking their passports. Did that ever happen to you?

Nadine Gordimer: No. Fortunately for me, you see, the things I did wrong were as Gordimer. And my passport of course says Cassirer, my husband's name. So that helped a great deal.

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