Last Sunday, the 13th of July, Nadine Gordimer the Nobel winning South African novelist died. This week I have been thinking about the huge impact that her writing has had in shaping the person I am. I have read again some of her novels and been reminded of her visceral, poignant style of writing.
It was in reading Nadine Gordimer as a young person 25 years ago that I came to see clearly the incredible destructive force of Apartheid. Her books are about a nation that destroys the lives of many, and yet their real genius is that they are intimate and particular. The reader is drawn into the damaging effects of Apartheid, looking at the pain it brings to individuals, how it distorts families, damages the development of the young and leaves the old in desolation.
She has an extraordinary awareness of the human body and of its fragility and she uses the experience of physical pain as the expression of the pain of Apartheid. Gordimer is not an easy read. She does not toe any party line, nor does she honour cultural taboos, her own or others. She once wrote that ‘Truth isn’t always beauty but the hunger for it is.’ This for me is at the heart of what made and continues to make her writing both dangerous and inspiring.
The Nationalist government recognised the danger of her work and its possible influence by banning her. She had the extraordinary experience of being honoured by the Nobel Prize internationally, in 1991, but not by her own government.
Post the fall of Apartheid, Gordimer continued to write about South Africa, and continued to criticise those who wielded power. She has been particularly outspoken about the importance of freedom of expression, writing that “The very aim and end of our institutions is just this, that we may think what we like and say what we think.”
With her death we lose another of the elders of our land. Those who fought with their best skills against Apartheid, and who yearned for a land free of oppression. We also lose one of our great thinkers, a writer prepared to look into the darkness of our experience and to give words to our deepest pain and fear.
In an age of sound bites and tweets, Gordimer’s death is a reminder of our Christian call to live deeply and consciously. To feed our minds and hearts by taking the time to read, and to ponder what we read. To pray reflectively looking at the situation of our country and being aware of the needs of the marginalised and oppressed. Apartheid’s political end has not healed a country still divided by wealth, race, gender, language and privilege. We have hard won freedoms, but we also have a responsibility to work using our best skills to build a more just, free and caring society. For all that Gordimer did not practice a faith, her desire for a better world for all, especially for the most oppressed, is challenge for all of us who claim to walk in Jesus’ footsteps.