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This interview with Nadine Gordimer was conducted in two parts—in the fall of 1979, when she was in America on a publicity tour for her most recent novel, Burger’s Daughter, and in the spring of 1980, when she was here to see her son graduate from college.

Our first meeting was in a room set aside for us by her publisher, the Viking Press—one of those conference rooms made cozy by lots of books and claustrophobic by its lack of windows. The hotel room where our second meeting took place was slightly more conducive to amiable conversation. But Gordimer does not waste words in conversation any more than she does in her prose. On both occasions she was ready to begin our interview the moment I walked in the door and ready to end it the moment the hour she had suggested for our meeting was up. Her clarity and mental focus allow her to express a great deal in a short amount of time.

A petite, birdlike, soft-spoken woman, Gordimer manages to combine a fluidity and gentleness with the seemingly restrained and highly structured workings of her mind. It was as if the forty-odd years that she had devoted to writing had trained her to distill passion—and as a South African writer she is necessarily aware of being surrounded by passion on all sides—into form, whether of the written or spoken word. At the same time, she conveyed a sense of profound caring about the subject matter of her writing; those subjects natural to any writer concerned with the human condition, but set, in her case, in the heightened context of South African life. Her manner seemed to say, “Yes, these are important subjects we’re discussing. Now let’s get through talking about them so I can get back to the business of writing about them.”

 

INTERVIEWER

Do you have seasons in South Africa, or is it hot all year round?

NADINE GORDIMER

Oh no, we have seasons. Near the equator, there’s very little difference in the seasons. But right down where we are, at the end of the continent, and also high up where I live in Johannesburg—six thousand feet up—you have very different seasons. We have a sharp, cold winter. No snow—it’s rather like your late fall or early spring—sunny, fresh, cold at night. We have a very definite rainy season. But you don’t see rain for about half the year. You forget that rain exists. So it’s a wonderful feeling when you wake up one day and you smell the rain in the air. Many of the old houses, like ours, have galvanized iron or tin roofs. It’s very noisy when there’s a heavy rain—it just gallops down on the roof. The house that I was brought up in had a tin roof, so it’s one of my earliest memories, lying in bed and listening to the rain . . . and hail, which, of course, on a tin roof is deafening.

INTERVIEWER

When was your first trip out of South Africa?

GORDIMER

My first trip out was to what was then called Rhodesia—Zimbabwe. That might seem very much the same thing as South Africa to you, but it isn’t. Zimbabwe is Central Africa, subtropical, shading into tropical. But my first real trip out was much later. I had already published two books—I was thirty years old. I went to Egypt, on my way to England, and America. Perhaps it was a good transition. In London I felt at home, but in an unreal way—I realized when I got there that my picture of London came entirely from books. Particularly Dickens and Virginia Woolf. The writers who, I’d thought, had impressed me with the features of English life, like Orwell, did not have this evocation when I was actually in the place; they were not writers with a strong sense of place. Woolf and Dickens obviously were. So that when I walked around in Chelsea I felt that this was definitively Mrs. Dalloway’s country. I remember I stayed in a hotel near Victoria Station. And at night, these dark, sooty buildings, the dampness when one leant against a wall—absolutely decayed buildings . . .

INTERVIEWER

Were you as unprepared for this first trip off the African continent, and as awed by it, as Rebecca in your novel, A Guest of Honour?

GORDIMER

No, my mother, who hadn’t been back to England for about twenty years, prepared me. She provided me with woolly underwear and whatnot, which I threw away after I arrived. But Rebecca’s trip to Switzerland . . . I think descriptions of impressions from the air are something that writers nowadays have to be careful of. Like train journeys in mid-nineteenth-century literature . . . they made such a change in people’s lives. They produced a . . . leap in consciousness, especially so far as time was concerned. I can imagine what it must have been, the thought of taking a train that was to go rushing through the countryside. There were so many descriptions of trains in the literature of the day. But I think writers must be careful now not to overdo the use of travel as a metaphor for tremendous internal changes. “The journey” now is by air, and think of how many writers use this—in my own books it appears in The Conservationist and in Guest of Honour. And indeed, in Burger’s Daughter, Rosa Burger takes her first trip out of South Africa; I had to resist the temptation to talk about the journey—I describe only the landing, because that particular piece of the landscape could be useful later on.

INTERVIEWER

Was this trip to England a sort of “back to the roots” expedition?

GORDIMER

No. But it brought an understanding of what I was, and helped me to shed the last vestiges of colonialism. I didn’t know I was a colonial, but then I had to realize that I was. Even though my mother was only six when she came to South Africa from England, she still would talk about people “going home.” But after my first trip out, I realized that “home” was certainly and exclusively—Africa. It could never be anywhere else.

INTERVIEWER

What brought your parents to South Africa?

GORDIMER

The same thing brought them both. They were part of the whole colonial expansion. My maternal grandfather came out in the 1890s with a couple of brothers. South Africa was regarded as a land of opportunity for Europeans. And indeed, he went prospecting for diamonds in Kimberley. I don’t think he found very much—maybe some small stones. After that, his entire life was the stock exchange. He was what we call a “tickey snatcher.” A tickey was a tiny coin like a dime—alas, we don’t have it anymore. It was equal to three English pence. “Tickey” is a lovely word, don’t you think? Well, my grandfather was a tickey-snatcher on the stock exchange, which meant that he sat there all day, and that he bought and sold stocks—making a quick buck.

My father’s story is really not such a happy one. He was born in Lithuania, and he went through the whole Jewish pogrom syndrome, you know. He had hardly any schooling. There wasn’t any high school for Jewish kids in his village. His father was a shipping clerk and there were twelve children. I’m sure they must have been very poor. Their mother was a seamstress. As soon as my father was twelve or thirteen the idea was that he would just go—somewhere, either to America or wherever—it was the time of the great expansion, you know, the early 1900s. So his was the classic Ellis Island story—thirteen years old, not speaking a word of English, traveling in the hold of a ship, but all the way to Africa instead of America—it must have been extraordinary. He was a very unadventurous man; he didn’t have a strong personality—he was timid. He still is a mystery to me. I wonder if he didn’t burn himself out in this tremendous initial adventure, whether it wasn’t really too much for him, and once having found a niche for himself somewhere, he just didn’t have the guts to become much of a personality. There was something arrested about my father.

INTERVIEWER

What did he do once he got to Africa?

GORDIMER

Like many poor Jews—one either became a shoemaker, a tailor, or a watchmaker. He had learned watchmaking. All he had was a little bag with his watchmaking tools. He went to the Transvaal, to the goldfields. He took his little suitcase and went around the mines and asked the miners if anybody wanted a watch fixed. And he would take the watches away to a little room he had somewhere: he would just sit there and mend watches. Then he bought a bicycle and he’d go back round the mines. But by the time I came on the scene he had a little jeweler’s shop and he was no longer a watchmaker—he employed one. Indeed, he imported his brother-in-law from Russia to do it. By now my father was the tycoon of the family. He brought nine sisters out of Lithuania—the poor man—saving up to bring one after the other. I found out later that he hated them all—we didn’t ever have family gatherings. I don’t know why he hated them so much.

INTERVIEWER

Where exactly was this jeweler’s shop?

GORDIMER

In a little town called Springs, which was thirty miles from Johannesburg. I grew up in a small, gold-mining town of about twenty thousand people.

INTERVIEWER

What were the schools like there?

GORDIMER

Well, I’ve had little formal education, really. I had a very curious childhood. There were two of us—I have an elder sister—and I was the baby, the spoiled one, the darling. I was awful—brash, a show-off, a dreadful child. But maybe that had something to do with having a lot of energy that didn’t find any outlet. I wanted to be a dancer—this was my passion, from the age of about four to ten. I absolutely adored dancing. And I can still remember the pleasure, the release, of using the body in this way. There was no question but that I was to be a dancer, and I suppose maybe I would have been. But at the age of ten, I suddenly went into a dead faint one day, having been a very skinny but very healthy child. Nobody took much notice. But then it happened again. So I was taken to the family doctor, and it was discovered that I had an incredibly rapid heartbeat. Nobody had noticed this; it was, I suppose, part of my excitability and liveliness. It was discovered that I had an enlarged thyroid gland, which causes a fast heartbeat and makes one hyperactive. Well, I’ve since discovered that this isn’t a serious malady at all. It happens to hundreds of people—usually at puberty. But my mother got very alarmed. This rapid pulse should have been ignored. But my mother was quite sure that it meant that I had a “bad heart.” So she went immediately to the convent where I attended school and told the nuns, “This child mustn’t have any physical training, she mustn’t play tennis, she mustn’t even swim.” At ten, you know, you don’t argue with your mother—she tells you you’re sick, you believe her. When I would be about to climb stairs, she would say, “Now, take it slowly, remember your heart.” And then of course the tragedy was that I was told I mustn’t dance anymore. So the dancing stopped like that, which was a terrible deprivation for me.

It’s really only in the last decade of my life that I’ve been able to face all this. When I realized what my mother had done to me, I went through, at the age of twenty, such resentment—this happens to many of us, but I really had reason. When I was thirty, I began to understand why she did it, and thus to pity her. By the time she died in ’76 we were reconciled. But it was an extraordinary story.

In brief, my mother was unhappily married. It was a dreadful marriage. I suspect she was sometimes in love with other men; but my mother would never have dreamt of having an affair. Because her marriage was unhappy, she concentrated on her children. The chief person she was attracted to was our family doctor. There’s no question. I’m sure it was quite unconscious, but the fact that she had this “delicate” daughter, about whom she could be constantly calling the doctor—in those days doctors made house calls, and there would be tea and cookies and long chats—made her keep my “illness” going in this way. Probably I was being wrongly treated anyway, so that what medication should have cleared up, it didn’t, and symptoms persisted. Of course, I began to feel terribly important. By that time I was reading all sorts of books that led me to believe my affliction made me very interesting. I was growing up with this legend that I was very delicate, that I had something wrong with my heart.

When I was eleven—I don’t know how my mother did this—she took me out of school completely. For a year I had no education at all. But I read tremendously. And I retreated into myself, I became very introspective. She changed my whole character. Then she arranged for me to go to a tutor for three hours a day. She took me there at ten in the morning and picked me up at one. It was such incredible loneliness—it’s a terrible thing to do to a child. There I was, all on my own, doing my work; a glass of milk was brought to me by this woman—she was very nice, but I had no contact with other children. I spent my whole life, from eleven to sixteen, with older people, with people of my mother’s generation. She carted me around to tea parties—I simply lived her life. When she and my father went out at night to dinner she took me along . . . I got to the stage where I could really hardly talk to other children. I was a little old woman.

INTERVIEWER

What about your sister’s relationship to you during this time?

GORDIMER

My sister is four years older than I am. She went away to university; she wasn’t really a companion to me. I stopped going to the tutor when I was fifteen or sixteen. So that was the extent of my formal education.

When I was twenty-one or twenty-two, already a published writer, I wanted to go to university to get a little more formal education. But since I hadn’t matriculated, I could only do occasional courses at the University of the Witwatersrand—that’s Afrikaans for “ridge of white waters.” There was something called “general studies”—this was just after the war, and there were lots of veterans who had interrupted their education, and so it was very nice for me—there were people my own age mixed up with the others. A few years ago I gave a graduation address at that same university.