She is a writer other writers learn from

2017-09-24 06:26
Nadine Gordimer

Nadine Gordimer

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For many of us writers, artists and musicians in the African diaspora, South Africa was and is not far from our minds.

Under the British colonial school system in Jamaica, we were not taught that there was such a thing as an African writer, but, for me, the living presence of Peter Abrahams was proof that Africans did write books and this led to my discovery of other African writers such as Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Wole Soyinka … but the women – I needed to find the women writers of Africa.

They who were the scribes who had set down those stories that used to be scripted by tongues and stored in books of memory.

Women writers who would look and sound more like me, whose stories would perhaps help connect me to a place, time, history and traditions lost in the Atlantic.

So I went in search of the work of African women writers and I had the privilege to meet, even on occasion to share a stage with, some of them.

Several of them – Bessie Head, dear Miriam Tlali, Olive Schreiner, Doris Lessing, Noni Jabavu, Phyllis Ntantala and Ingrid Jonker – are no longer with us.

And then, of course, there is the iconic figure in whose name this talk is being given: Nadine Gordimer.

I had the enormous privilege of meeting Mrs Gordimer – as I always call her – at a writers conference in Manchester, England, in 2000.

I confess that I was completely star-struck. For one thing, I expected her to be much bigger in stature.

And I concluded that this was because of her writing – her stories are written on such a monumental scale, written with a kind of courage and power that is not usual.

In real life, she was a petite and quite pretty lady who wore gorgeous diamond earrings, and who was quite comfortable wearing my husband Ted Chamberlin’s leather jacket one day when it rained.

I believe she grew fond of Ted after she found out that he was a professor of comparative literature, and an expert witness in Aboriginal land claims issues and that he was instrumental in putting together a land claim for a group of Bushmen or San people in the Kalahari Desert.

When he told Mrs Gordimer that three of these people were the sisters Una, Kais and Abakas, she was visibly moved, as she explained how, in 1936, she had been taken as a child to the Johannesburg World Exposition, where she saw on display a family of Bushmen of the Kalahari with three young girls around her age.

Those girls were the same Una, Kais and Abakas, whose singing, storytelling and personal witness played a big part in the success of that land claim.

And Nadine Gordimer never forgot them.

It is safe to say that something transcendent must have passed between those small girls – one very privileged, staring at three set there in a dehumanising, objectifying display as the last of the Bushmen – a look passed between them that said: “I see you. We see you. We see you for who you really are.”

Something of that clear seeing shines through all of Mrs Gordimer’s work; that unflinching refusal to look away from the toughest things, a determination to name them, describe them, shame them if necessary and to fashion bold new forms to contain them.

Cutting your cloth to fit your coat, as my dressmaker mother would say, in the shape of our evolving, not usual, who knows how it will all end story.

I want to reference here the ending to Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People.

Cinematic, apocalyptic, prophetic – these days. I keep reading and rereading that ending.

I also find myself reading and rereading her novel The Pickup. I read her short stories that defy categorising. She is a writer who other writers learn from.

And I learnt quite a few things about what women writers can bring to the writing enterprise from watching Mrs Gordimer for those few days in Manchester.

For one, she had no problems with being placed on a programme with other writers who were nowhere near as accomplished and acclaimed as she was.

She had the same 15 minutes as the other three writers – the line-up went in alphabetical order – and she had cut and pasted and timed her presentation so that it ran to exactly 15 minutes.

During the question and answer period, she was agreeable and amiable enough, but she also made it clear that she did not consider herself to be an acknowledged or unacknowledged legislator of the world; that she saw herself first and foremost as a writer, and that she would rather talk about matters that pertained to writing.

Coming from a writer who had been as actively politically engaged as Nadine Gordimer, that was a stunning thing to hear, but it was also a freeing thing to hear for those of us who sometimes feel that there are occasions when we can best represent ourselves in the world by writing our poems and stories in such a way that they function like the look that passed between Nadine and Una, Kais and Abakas.

A look that says: “I see you and I see that these are not the last days for your or for my people.

"In fact, we are part of a brave newfuture in a country that will be a shining example to the rest of the world.

"I see you: we see you and we will work and suffer and struggle and rejoice together as we write this future into being.”

This is an edited extract Goodison presented at the Nadine Gordimer Memorial Lecture

Read more on:    wole soyinka  |  nadine gordimer  |  literature

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