Remembering the Nobel Prize-winning Nadine Gordimer

Nadine Gordimer, the Nobel Prize-winning author and activist who died this week in Johannesburg at the age of 90, once recalled a scene from her 1979 novel Burger's Daughter:

You might have remembered if you read the book, there's an unusual Christ on the cross, and here he was dark, dark hair or something. And [a child going around the church] said, 'No, that's not Jesus. Jesus has got blond hair,' and so on. And so the parents who were taking her around said, 'You know, this was in the Middle East, and it's very likely indeed that he was very dark. So not blue-eyed and blond at all.' And this was blasphemous.

Gordimer's parents were Jewish and sent her to a Catholic convent school (where, she said, "nobody tried to convert me to anything") for a few years before ultimately deciding to homeschool her. According to Gordimer's New York Times obituary, her mother -- a complicated and formidable woman who had opened a nursery school for black children in apartheid South Africa -- told her daughter that the school's physical education regime could prove fatal because Gordimer an enlarged thyroid. In fact, exercise posed no threat to her health; Gordimer later speculated that her mother was in love with the family physician and used her daughter's homestay as a pretext for having him around.

The rest of Gordimer's childhood was solitary. She spent a great deal of time around books. As an adult, she was an intensely guarded introvert, once admitting to The Guardian, "I don't cry. Unfortunately, I seem rather short of tears, so my sorrows have to stay inside me."

Gordimer suggested in her Nobel lecture that the writer's vocation is twofold. First, it is to discern reality: "Like the prisoners incarcerated with the jaguar in Borges' story ... trying to read, in a ray of light which fell only once a day, the meaning of being from the marking on the creature's pelt, we spend our lives attempting to interpret ... the world of which we are part." Second, the writer must act within a social context. Here, Gordimer quotes Milosz: "What is poetry which does not serve nations or people?"

By any account, Gordimer fulfilled these two tasks. The Nobel committee called her the "Geiger counter of apartheid." The South African government banned several of her most prophetic works. Moreover, though by her own admission not a "political person," she was actively involved in the anti-apartheid African National Congress when this political party, too, was banned.

Gordimer was not religious; when the interviewer for The Guardian asked her "what her super power would be," Gordimer didn't understand the cheesy question and took it to concern theology. "If this means someone up there in the name of any religious faith," she responded tersely, "no one."

In her Nobel lecture, Gordimer discusses the problem of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie; I suppose it is not hard to see how her lifetime of solidarity with the oppressed and her sensitivity to censorship would compel her to view religion, and even the idea of God, with cynicism.

Gordimer did, however, use religious imagery to structure her Nobel lecture, which opens with a reprise of the first verse of John's Gospel. The Word, she writes, is power and order, and it must be deployed responsibly. She also writes extensively about myth, which for her is a way of posing questions about the meaning of the world, even if some people, in the name of myth and religion, have controverted its purpose, proposing false assurances that "do not seek so much to enlighten ... as to distract, to provide a fantasy escape route for people who no longer want to face even the hazard of answers to the terrors of their existence."

Hence, while Gordimer did not take much more than a cursory interest in religion, a religious person might draw inspiration from her, from the way she used the power of the Word and of stories to question the injustices and complacency of the status quo.

One anecdote from late in her life is demonstrative of her bravery. When she was nearly 80, robbers broke into her home and beat and bound her and her elderly housekeeper. "Gordimer shouted at the robbers that the housekeeper was old enough to be their grandmother, and they stopped," The Telegraph reported. Reflecting on the incident, during which she'd stayed very calm, Gordimer said, "I have failed at many things, but I have never been afraid."

May we all live as gracefully, humbly, yet courageously as this.

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