Writers belong to all humankind, and so the world has joined South Africa to mourn the passing of Nadine Gordimer. Yet there has been something muted, grudging even, about the way that her life and achievements have been marked in this country. It seems that the ancient adage that a prophet is without honour in her own country remains true.
It is lamentable that a life well lived, a life devoted to the truth, a life spent opposing apartheid and censorship, and a life serving humankind should be given short shrift in the land of Gordimer’s birth. The past might be another country, but for more than 90 years Gordimer lived in South Africa, loved it, cajoled it, critiqued it – and wrote of it with piercing insight and in some of the most beautiful prose ever fashioned.
Our debt to her is immense and repayable only by committing ourselves to this place (as she did) – both at this time and for the very long haul.
We cannot dodge this because, as Gordimer noted in her Nobel prize for literature lecture: “Being here: in a particular time and place. That is the existential position with particular implications for literature.”
For her, that led to a position in which “the writer must take the right to explore, warts and all, both the enemy and the beloved comrade in arms”. It was not a popular stance, either with the apartheid regime or the ANC governments that followed.
But what neither of those – and many others – failed to appreciate was what Gordimer was demanding of herself, noting: “The writer is of service to humankind only insofar as the writer uses words even against his or her own loyalties …” Writers live on in their words, their works. Not for them the morbid fate of most mortals, so pithily captured by William Shakespeare: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”
The good that Gordimer wrought in her words and deeds lives on. It shall not die. So it is that we can and must proclaim, with joy: Viva Nadine, viva!