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If you like Nadine Gordimer's story, you might also like:
Joan Didion,
Carlos Fuentes,
Athol Fugard,
Ernest Gaines,
Louise Glück,
Norman Mailer,
Joyce Carol Oates,
Albie Sachs,
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Amy Tan,
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and Elie Wiesel

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Nadine Gordimer
Nadine Gordimer
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Nadine Gordimer Interview (page: 8 / 8)

Nobel Prize in Literature

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  Nadine Gordimer

You've said that it was an important symbol that Barack Obama is of both white and black parentage. Did you say that it was "even better"?

Nadine Gordimer: Yes, I did. Because I thought, "How wonderful. In him, in his own body and in his formation of his thoughts and personality, he brings black and white together." They say this is the first black President, but he's not black, he's both. Even better, the symbol and the way it ought to be.

Where do white South Africans fit in the new post-apartheid South Africa? What do you see is the ideal role for a cohesive existence?

Nadine Gordimer: If they're allowed to, by the natural feelings of resentment of blacks that whites hogged everything for centuries, that there should indeed in time be no distinction at all. I'm not saying this necessarily has to come about, because we've got a mixed population, biologically, though I'm all for that as well. But we've got to stop looking at us as separate and not as South Africans.

Nadine Gordimer Interview Photo
As I always say to European friends and friends in America or anywhere, we have had only 15 years, after centuries. Since 1652, when van Riebeeck landed at the Cape, there has been racial prejudice and racial separation. How can it be fixed in 15 years? I'm not excusing the things that we are not doing, but I'm simply saying to these people, vis-a-vis racism and class difference, "Have you achieved, in several hundred years at least, a real democracy?" I don't think so. You still got very poor people. You still got prejudice in terms of race and religion and heaven knows what."

I mean, religion is a tremendous division between people. I always used to quote Scandinavian countries. But now it seems that the Swedes are very concerned because they've got so many refugees who are not white. So the whole business of difference comes up, and it's mixed with economic opportunities and it's a very complex thing. But unless we can have a comet, then I don't know what will happen to whites. But if there should exist no more as white, then there will come a time when blacks will feel, "What have we done?" We either are all South Africans -- and in a way I think we should drop the "South." We are Africans if you're born and brought up in Africa. And if you indeed respond to the new South Africa -- but when you get incidents like the Free State students, you just wonder. You know what I'm talking about?

Tell us, please.

The Free State students went in, in '07, they held what was called an initiation ceremony, as I think often happens among students, yes. But this consisted of inviting the cleaners -- five cleaners in their hostel, black of course, four women and a man -- to come and party with them. Now you can imagine how this must have seemed such a nice gesture from the students. But what they did was, first of all, they made them drunk, then they made them dance for their amusement. And then they fed them food, and in the stew, one of the students had peed. He pissed into it, and they were forced to eat it. I mean, they didn't know that it had happened, but when they tasted it, it tasted awful and they spat it out and they were told, "Come on." Now, this was at the University of the Free State, traditionally an old Afrikaner stronghold.

These were four young white men. Now they made an unfortunate mistake. They were so proud of what they were doing, they made a video of it and somebody got hold of the video. Now this happened in '07, but the tape was only produced some months later, and you can imagine the shock when we saw, in the papers, excerpts from it, and saw this young man standing there doing this, and then these poor people. Now, the University principal, when it was exposed like this, said, "Well, they'll come before a disciplinary committee." Well that dragged on and on, and we didn't know what happened. It seems that one of the students either voluntarily left or was expelled, and I thought, "How unfair!" If they all watched, they were all equally brutal. The others just continued, and what the disciplinary thing was going to be we didn't know at all. Human rights, they have just come into it very recently this year, and have said that, indeed, they should come to the court of law, which is true, because it was a criminal act under our constitution. So that's sort of hanging in the air. It hasn't come, and these things get put off as they do, like our corruption trials, but it was a tremendous shock. There are many ways to look at it.

When you see the pictures of these young men, the white men, they look perfectly ordinary, rather nice face, nothing brutal looking about them. So what kind of upbringing did they have? What kind of terrible racist ethos was placed into them by their parents? And I mean they're young. They've grown up since our country's supposed to have changed. So that was a bit of a shock to us all. Right? We hope it's an isolated incident, and certainly of such vulgarity and cruelty. Now another point has come up, only two weeks ago or last week. Who at all has talked to the four people, the four cleaners? What's happened to them? They must be compensated. Well, they have spoken and said, "Very well, but how can you compensate for what happened to us?" But of course, under our constitution, the lack of dignity counts. So all these things are now still to be dealt with. But it's so good that these things come up now, and then there be a lot of argument about them, but that's part of dealing with them.

Do you think the threat of violence is part of the fabric of South African culture?

Nadine Gordimer: Oh, that is a big question. I'm trying to think where it isn't. I really can't think of any country -- not in our time and perhaps in any time -- when violence hasn't been part. It's part of the human state. I mean, the animals, they're not violent. They kill. Predators kill because they've got to eat. But we kill. Only human beings kill in power positions, whether it's a personal power position among lovers, if it's ambition or if indeed it is politically motivated. So we are, I'm afraid, unique in that. But I think it is... How shall I put it? It's endemic, and it's very, very deep. It's congenital. Alas, alas, alas.

Do you think freedom is a condition of happiness?

Nadine Gordimer: No. If you think of it as a condition of happiness, that's saying, "I believe in paradise." Happiness is something that comes from many different aspects of life, but I don't think happiness is possible without freedom. I would say that.

What do you know about achievement now that you didn't know as a young person?

Nadine Gordimer: Life is one experience after another and it's a mystery. As a writer, I would say that as writers we're exploring the mystery, the mystery of existence. Not in the same sense as philosophers do, but whether you're a painter or a writer, when I think of my friends who are painters, in their way, they're doing it. In my way, I am. And of course, in the very practical sense, in the public sense, that is what people are doing in politics, when they achieve things in politics. And we've had some wonderful achievers, starting with Mandela, Albie Sachs, the extraordinary personality that has accepted all the things that have happened to him and never become bitter. So that I would call achievement, tremendous achievement. It's different in every field.

Has it taught you something specific, looking back, that you couldn't have imagined as a young person?

Nadine Gordimer: That's been happening all my life, and it's still happening. Not just in my writing but in my relations with other people.

One last question. Do you think you're writing a history of South Africa's conscience?

Nadine Gordimer: No, no, no, South Africa's conscience, of course not. That, I say, is a political task.

What do you want your legacy to be? What would you want your verbal footprint to be?

Nadine Gordimer: If I have one, it's between the pages of books I've written.

Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today.

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