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Nadine Gordimer’s shining literary voice

It tells us something about Nadine Gordimer that Raks Morakabe Seakhoa, the untiring champion of South African letters, used to call her ‘Comrade Nadine’. In her country, where identity is everything, that Gordimer was comfortable with a word viewed with skepticism in high literary circles is significant.

Her death brings to an end a remarkable literary career, and coming so soon after the deaths of Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, there’s a sense that this is the end of a literary era. These writers did not shy away from addressing what they believed ailed their societies, even as they held onto notions of literature as romance.

Nadine Gordimer

Gordimer relished language. Her fiction and non-fiction alike rewards the reader with passages of exquisitely written prose. She used language as a surgeon uses a scalpel, delicately opening her characters to reveal what contradictions they contained.

“To a writer no one is ordinary,” she once said – one of many gems delivered almost as asides by way of explanation.

Nadine wrote in one of her short but important essays, “Five Years Into Freedom,” “Again and again, when I’m interviewed or find myself in encounters with other people abroad, the burning question is ‘What is happening to whites?’ And again and again, my genuinely surprised response is: ‘What about blacks? Don’t you believe there are challenges to be met in their new lives?’”

Gordimer’s ability to weave lyrical, even magical, prose into her writing, as she tackled the most prosaic human shortcomings, says something about her commitment to social justice. “There are some who still have this sense, suffer it, I would say, and unnecessarily, so it becomes a form of self flagellation. I don’t posit this in any assertion of smug superiority; I should just wish to prod them into freedom from self confinement.”

“Five Years” explores very directly, and with Nadine’s typical courage, the subject of what it means to be South African, to declare oneself as such. If the topic was a complex one five years after South Africans gained their freedom, it has only increased in complexity since. When Gordimer writes, “A city in transition is always full of contradictions,” she may well have been referring to the entire country and all who live in it.

Gordimer did not yield to the nomadic impulses that claim so many of our writers. She lived here, in South Africa, a South African, defiant against apartheid and also against the titters of the so-called genteel set, the liberals who found fault with her uncompromising stance. She was a home-grown revolutionary – but it is worth remembering that Gordimer also cherished the bonds that link writers across borders.

Reflecting on fellow Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, she said “He has done something Camus despaired of seeing any activist achieve: lived the drama of his time and been equal to the writing of it.” But Gordimer’s assessment of Soyinka provides a clue to her own status as a writer. Her fiction never shied away from drawing from the freshest pages of history. Luckily for us, she was equal to the task of writing it. If Mbeki and Zuma received literal attention from the likes of the Reverend Frank Chikane and his book Eight Days in September, Gordimer’s last novel, No Time Like The Present, placed a kind of literary focus on the two leaders that seemed almost impertinent in its immediateness.

Even as she wrote alongside history that was only few years old, however, it was her ability to leave moments of silence in her fiction that spoke most eloquently, daringly and damningly. It is her unflinching focus on how individuals wrestle with personal responsibility, even as they face political, social and family pressure, that has been the source of her literary strength across the vivid decades of South Africa’s recent past.

If the notorious immorality act once forbade mention, let alone practice of sexual relations across race frontiers, the present has rendered invisible some of the contradictions of a society that was once constructed around race. Thus, in No Time Like the Present, Jabulile and Steve have come back to establish their careers, like other returnees from exile. It is fascinating to observe the delicate balance they have to strike as they attempt to communicate across the vast cultural gulfs that separate their two families.

But the complications are never simply binary, and beyond any racial and cultural minefields that they have to negotiate, Steve has also to content with the demands and expectations of his father and the deference to his Jewish mother’s claims on him.

One of my favourite sentences from No Time Like The Present is, “There was no space for meaning in personal achievement. Climb Mt Everest or get rich, all cop outs from reality, indecent signs of being on the side of no change.” Indeed.

To cut to the quick, observations like that serve as a reminder, if one were still needed, that Nadine Gordimer belongs in that very special club, the great world writer. Her voice will be missed, but lucky for us, in her writing it will never be lost.

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South Africa Finds Its Literary Voice

 

Portrait of a Nobel Laureate

By all accounts South African literature is enjoying its finest hour. Even as the scandal of dumped and undelivered textbooks in Limpopo was raging, the Polokwane Literary Festival was a welcome respite. That writers could descend on a town whose very name now resonates with the politics of succession and connect with readers was an act of faith in the power of literature. The Bloody Book Week was a great success and it brought to SA fiction A-listers Jeffery Deaver,  John Connolly and Mark Giminez. Jefferey Deaver is known for The Bone Collector that was turned into a movie starring Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie. He has also written the James Bond thriller, Carte Blanche, part of which is set in Cape Town.

Portrait of Zakes Mda

 

There’s a renewed vibrancy in South African writing and some of the authors are finding devoted audiences both at home and abroad. It is always a great treat to be at a book shop in a foreign country and to stumble across a novel by Lewis Nkosi or Deon Meyer. It’s wonderful to see South African fiction attracting bidding from movie producers for the film rights for their books. The latest to join this list includes Deon Meyer, Margie Orford and Lauren Beukes.

 

Portrait of a Thriller writer, Margie Orford

The growth in literary events is testimony to the optimism that pervades the industry. From boutique by invitation only private events, to the larger literary festivals, SA has renewed its love affair with books. There is also a healthy presence of private book clubs that can be founded dotted across the country, from Soweto to Umlazi and across the country’s provinces.

 

Social Media has inspired and carried lively literary debates & Twitter #tags like #mustreadbooks reflect the important role this medium is playing in promoting our literature. Sharing articles and photos has never been easier across Social Media, and much of the shared material reflects growing interest in books and the ideas contained in them. If the literary purists were initially suspicious of Social Media, Twitter has certainly shown that it is a compelling way to share and reflect on literary issues.

 

The writers Tsitsi Dangarembga, Gcina Mhlophe, Nawal El Saadawi & Kadija George

 

SA’s youth have been under-served by the market and outside of textbooks, very few titles aim at them in the same way that other markets do. The youth market is an important one as has been seen abroad with titles for the teen market selling in the millions. It is heartening to see Pan Macmillan launch The Youngsters , its series  five pocket-sized books written by young South Africans: Anele Mdoda, Shaka Sisulu, Nik Rabinowitz with Gillian Breslin, Danny K and Khaya Dlanga. Other publishers should join the youth party and bring the voice of youth into fresh writing.

A vibrant literary scene: Anele Mdoda & Mimi Selemela

 

2012 has in many ways been watershed year for the country’s writers as they find new readers in increasingly large numbers. The popularity of political books has also laid to rest the myth that SA is done with politics. It is important for SA to enhance the vibrancy of the titles on offer as books have to compete for their share of the wallet. This is a time of fundamental change, but also great turmoil. Bookshops are closing down and e-books are claiming a larger share of the market. The growth in mobile digital devices and Apps presents new opportunities for both writers and publishers to reach their readers.Those that still doubt the relevance of e-books and self publishing need only look at the phenomenal success of some of the titles to realize that change is already here.

 

The writer and artist Breyten Breytenbach

One of the publishing success stories of the year has been Rev Frank Chikane’s Eight Days in September. This book on the Removal of Thabo Mbeki reflects on the unprecedented events surrounding the recall of South Africa‘s president from office in 2008. Nadine Gordimer’s No Time Like The Present has been another literary highlight. In this new novel from the grand dame of South Africa’s literary invites South African book lovers to a story that is at once familiar but also deeply surprising.

 

Portrait of a poet, Rustum Kozain

It is fair to say that the arrival of a new Gordimer novel is a very serious treat for book lovers across the world. South Africa’s literary universe is a deeply contested one and novels are dismissed or praised in line with deeply held positions. But Gordimer’s literary eye remains as sharp as ever and her storytelling focused on the contradictions that bedevil South Africa’s politics of identity.

 

Each year, Durban kicks off South Africa’s literary festival with The Time Of The Writer and after that it’s off to the idyllic setting of Franschhoek for the book festival named after this beautiful Winelands village. This festival reflects many of the most telling contradictions that define South Africa. It is set in a tiny village of extreme affluence and the audience has remained a largely white one. It is not a cheap festival to attend as the hotels and restaurants cater to a predominantly well heeled clientele. The village has truly gorgeous venues and the Green Room remains one of the best places to run into a writers for a quiet conversation.

 

Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka

But the festival has grown quickly and in its sixth year, the Franschhoek Literary Festival once again stuck to its eclectic formula that brings in a mix of the best in South African writing to political debate, environmental issues, genre fiction, poetry, press freedom, publishing and even social media.

 

The names on this year’s programme included literary big hitters like Imraan Coovadia, Ivan Vladislavic, Michiel Heyns, as well as new writers like McIntosh Polela and Yewande Omotoso. In keeping with the festival’s tradition of drawing speakers from a wide range of genres, satire will feature prominently, with the likes of Gareth Cliff, Ndumiso Ngcobo and Azad Essa likely to heat things up with their irreverent take on things.

Portrait of a novelist, Yewande Omotoso

Lovers of crime fiction were spoilt for choice as top drawer writers Deon Meyer, Marge Orford, Andrew Brown, Joan Hichens brought their voices to the event. In the past the Franschhoek  festival has attracted big hitters like Richard Ford, Andre Brink, Antjie Krog, Mandla Langa and Muriel Barbery. Poetry has featured strongly at the festival, and poets like Gabeba Baderoon, Rustum Kozain and James Matthews have walked the streets of this quaint village.

 

Novelist Richard Ford

 

This year saw the return of The Cape Town Book Fair after it was unexpectedly cancelled in 2011. The
relaunch of the festival will coincided with the hosting of the International Publishers Association AGM in the Mother City. But there is no doubt that this once powerful event has lost its way and its return largely confirmed how quickly things can go wrong.  I still remember the excitement when the Cape Town Book Fair was first established. It has faltered as quickly as it had established itself as probably the most important literary and book event in
the country.

 

Poet Gabeba Baderoon

The Cape Town Book Fair is now planned for every two years. In a historic first for Cape Town, The International Publishers Association held its 29th IPA Congress, the first time it was held in Africa. Other literary events that spring to mind include the Jozi Book Fair, the Mail & Guardian Literary Festival and Poetry Africa, which all  add to the country’s burgeoning literary calendar. The book may be threatened in print form but writers and readers are finding each other in this brave new world where the storytelling remains the supreme arbiter even as the medium changes.

 

Portrait of a Novelist. Ngugi wa Thiong'o

 

International writers visit SA on a regular basis and in the past year we’ve hosted the likes of Nawal El Saadawi, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka, Kwame Dawes, Chris Abani, Kadija George, richard de Nooy, Tsitsi Dangarembga and many others. This shows that SA is a viable destination for the world’s major literary voices and it reflects our interest in literature.

 

Potrait of a novelist & activist, Nawal El Saadawi

 

One of the stand-alone events of the year was the visit to South Africa by Zakes Mda, the novelist, dramatist, traveler, teacher, painter and bee-keeper who visited Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Bloemfontein, Johannesburg & Pretoria. Mda may have been here to launch his latest play, Our Lady Of Benoni, but his presence in South Africa is always cause for celebration amongst book lovers. His is one of the most authentic voices in SA fiction and his prolific output an important barometer of the health of our fiction.

 

The writer Bongani Madondo

 

The passion of people like Phakama Mbonambi, Jenny Crwys Williams, Darryl Accone, Elinor Sisulu, Sandile Ngidi, Jenny Hobbs, Ben Williams, Mmabatho Selemela, Georges Lory, Karabo Kgoleng, Raks Seakhoa, Gcina Mhlophe, Chris Thurman, Bongani Madondo, Peter Rorvik, Vusi Mchunu and others acts as a catalyst for literature’s growth. Sponsors remain a crucial catalyst for realizing these literary events and they should be thanked for playing such a vital role in encouraging reading and making it possible for writers to be seen and not merely read.

 

Portrait of a writer & walker, the one & only Richard de Nooy

 

Lewis Nkosi
The writer and his hat: Lewis Nkosi