One cannot talk about Nadine Gordimer and omit to mention her role against apartheid. A glance at the obits paying to tribute to the South African Nobel laureate writer who died at 90 on Monday will reveal that political engagement was an intrinsic part of her writings, and certainly the perception of her as a writer.
In an interview that has been reproduced in The Telegraph, she is quoted:
“You accept or reject the influences around you, you are formed by your social enclosure and you are always growing. To be a writer is to enter into public life. I look upon our process as writers as discovery of life.”
A few years ago I had wondered whether writers need to get co-opted by ideologies. This applies to dissent as well.
Gordimer is known for her activist role. Some of her books had been banned during the time. She remains an outspoken critic of various leaders. I was, therefore, a bit distressed to hear her say, “Looking back, it would have been an insult if they hadn’t been banned. It was an honour.”
What was she trying to convey? That the protest would have been in vain had her works been accessible through legitimate channels in her country? Or was she aiming to reach only the outside world? Isn’t the role of the writer as activist to well and truly portray such angst and make it known to those who are suffering from it?
What about the millions who go through privations without either the benefit of a voice, literary or otherwise, and swallow the indignities heaped upon them? They are not banned or sent off – they become slaves of society and give writers and artistes the raw material required to portray the trauma.
This is not to suggest that writers are exploiters – although, in some ways it is true because all of us who choose the medium of expression are using people and places imbued with our understanding and biases. Can we make a blanket call for freedom of speech without fathoming its deeper undercurrents and repercussions?
T. S. Eliot dismissed the “mystical belief in herd-feeling” that he felt was apparent in extreme nationalism and communism, but he made a spirited defence of Christianity, when faith is also about a herd feeling. If he was truly a proponent of individualism why did he reject George Orwell’s 'Animal Farm', dismissing it with, “I take it to be generally Trotskyite. We have no conviction that this is the right point of view from which to criticize the political situation at the current time”?
This was during World War II, and silence would not have been an option for the sensitive thinker. Isn’t literature supposed to voice those very thoughts that rebel against prevalent beliefs? The Orwellian dystopia is even more apt today; he used his characters in a minimalist fashion to show us how debates can be dumbed down.
Nadine Gordimer, too, figured out that the ANC she supported was not the same in later years. Nothing is static. To quote her again:
"The creative act is not pure. History evidences it. Sociology extracts it. The writer loses Eden, writes to be read and comes to realize that he is answerable."
© Farzana Versey
Also: When Gordimer visited India
The headline is the title of one of her short stories.