Nadine Gordimer: A rich legacy for young artists

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, delivered in 1957, Albert Camus said: “The writer’s role is not free from difficult duties. By definition he cannot put himself today in the service of those who make history; he is at the service of those who suffer it.”

Nadine Gordimer, who died in her sleep in Johannesburg on July 13, was one such writer. She dedicated her life and work to the service of those who suffer history and not those who make it.

Born in the East Rand mining town of Springs in November 1923 to European Jewish immigrants, Gordimer began writing at an early age. The Children’s Sunday Express published her first short story, The Quest for Seen Gold, when she was 15 and she went on to write more than a dozen novels and hundreds of short stories and essays.

The animating impulse that runs through her remarkable literary output, from those early short stories to her major novels – The Conservationist, Burger’s Daughter and July’s People – and her last work, No Time like the Present, is a principled dedication to those who suffer history.

To reflect on Gordimer’s relevance today is to pose the question: What is the role of the writer and, more broadly, the arts in contemporary South African society? In Gordimer’s example, it is as a witness to history. In her work she walked beside South African society, observing it, and pointed out its ridiculousness with moral clarity.


In spite of this, it would be a mistake to consider Gordimer’s work purely as politics without considering its aesthetic merits. In an interview with the Paris Review, she said: “The real influence of politics on my writing is the influence of politics on people. I am dealing with people; here are people who are shaped and changed by politics. In that way my material is profoundly influenced by politics.”

Much more than politics
Yewande Omotoso, the author of Bom Boy, agrees that Gordimer’s work is much more than politics: “If young writers look to Gordimer and merely see that their art must be political then I think much of the lessons her life and work present us with would have been lost.”

In the same vein, Neelika Jayawardene, a literature professor at New York State University and one of the founding editors of the blog Africa is a Country, says that to read Gordimer is to “encounter the best of a beautiful storytelling tradition”.

Gordimer’s work is concerned with both the aesthetic and the political. If young people read Gordimer today, this will be the relevance of her work. It is relevant both for its startlingly beautiful prose and its storytelling techniques. And the influence of politics in her work can inspire young artists to address the current political landscape in which they exist without being encumbered by it.

The great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe once said: “It is clear to me that an African creative writer who tries to avoid the big social and political issues of contemporary Africa will end up being completely irrelevant – like that absurd man in the proverb who leaves his burning house to pursue a rat fleeing from the flames.”

In the early 2000s, when asked if South African fiction had been made redundant by freedom, Gordimer responded: “On the contrary. We’ve got plenty of problems.”

This then is the relevance of Gordimer to readers and writers of a younger generation: that her literary works and statements are not works that can be left behind and forgotten about, and that their role as the testament of those who suffer history is a space artists can still fill today.

Bongani Kona is a freelance writer and contributing editor at Chimurenga Chronic, a pan-African quarterly gazette. Dudumalingani Mqombothi is a fiction and non-fiction writer based in Cape Town.

Subscribe to the M&G for R2 a month

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

And for this weekend only, you can become a subscriber by paying just R2 a month for your first three months.

Related stories

On our Lists this week: Noname, Mongane Wally Serote, and Sawubona Music Jam

In between working on Friday copy, this is what the team reads, listens to and watches

​Discovering the world of Can Themba

Siphiwo Mahala talks about his fascination with the 1950s writer and journalist

The essayist who froze history’s quiet moments

David Goldblatt has left South African documentary photography incalculably richer, writes Niren Tolsi

M&G Literary Festival: Being here or being square

The M&G Literary Festival will consider Nadine Gordimer's notion 'Being here: in a particular time and place.'

Gordimer’s legacy is our honour

The past might be another country, but for more than 90 years Gordimer lived in South Africa – and wrote of it with piercing insight.

Gordimer: Allergic to nonsense, and tired of idiotic questions

Nadine Gordimer's death was a sucker punch for writer and poet Tiisetso Makube.
Advertising

Subscribers only

ANC: ‘We’re operating under conditions of anarchy’

In its latest policy documents, the ANC is self-critical and wants ‘consequence management’, yet it’s letting its members off the hook again

Q&A Sessions: ‘I think I was born way before my...

The chief executive of the Estate Agency Affairs Board and the deputy chair of the SABC board, shares her take on retrenchments at the public broadcaster and reveals why she hates horror movies

More top stories

DRC: Tshisekedi and Kabila fall out

The country’s governing coalition is under strain, which could lead to even more acrimony ahead

Editorial: Crocodile tears from the coalface

Pumping limited resources into a project that is predominantly meant to extend dirty coal energy in South Africa is not what local communities and the climate needs.

Klipgat residents left high and dry

Flushing toilets were installed in backyards in the North West, but they can’t be used because the sewage has nowhere to go

Nehawu leaders are ‘betraying us’

The accusation by a branch of the union comes after it withdrew from a parliamentary process
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…