On Thursday 18th September, I attended the Tribute to Nadine Gordimer Open Book Festival event, which was held at the iconic Fugard Theatre from 14:00 to 15:00 pm.
It featured guest speakers, Imraan Coovadia (author of The Wedding & director of UCT’s writing programme), Billy Kahora (managing editor at Kwani and writer of the highly-commended short story, ‘Treadmill Love’), Margie Orford (award-winning journalist & internationally-aclaimed writer, as well as Rape Crisis patron), with writer, literary critic (and wife of famed South African author, Andre Brink), Karina M. Szczurek as curator.
For those unfamiliar with the late Nadine Gordimer, she was, in short, a highly famous South Africa writer, anti-Apartheid political activist and the 1991 recipient of the Nobel Prize of Literature – as well as a close friend to the late President Nelson Mandela.
First up, Mr Kahora spoke about his admiration for the balance of politics and aesthetics that Nadine Gordimer’s writing contains, saying, “I’ve admired Nadine Gordimer for a long time. I came to South Africa in 1997, I was a young man from Kenya who was aspiring to be a writer and I read a story called Amnesty... and the amazing feat that Nadine Gordimer does is like get into this political view that’s quite amazing…”
He went on to tell us that “much earlier in the 1990’s when I was still a teenager, I read My Son’s Story,” which he then read a small excerpt from. (Note: both books were published in 1990.)
He also said that he admires Amnesty – from which he read afterwards – so much that he’s been trying to write a similar story for almost two years now, which would be shaped around that idea of someone returning to the public space after years of imprisonment.
Next, Imraan Coovadia told us how the last time he saw her, “Nadine Gordimer referred to us as ‘comrade writers’; she was the last person who could use that expression self-consciously, it was one of the things I admired about her. One of the other things, she talked about writing as an ‘open’ secret when she was a kid, which was something she did that nobody noticed and they allowed her to do it because nobody noticed it.”
Growing reminiscent, he added, “I think, in a way, I realised there weren’t other writers in the country who were doing what she did and… her kind of genius was not really the genius of the sentence, of the paragraph, it’s about drawing back and being able to see people’s lives… and to grasp the concept in which those lives were (lived). It’s a very rare skill, in some ways it’s the rarest skill of a writer and maybe the most valuable one… I miss her.”
He then read the prologue from A World of Strangers (1958) to us.
Margie Orford spoke about how the fight against the Secrecy Bill and in turn, the right to freedom of expression, was, in effect, Ms Gordimer’s last political endeavour before explaining that “commitment to principle & the citation of democratic principle” were what Ms Gordimer envisioned said freedom of expression as.
Ms Orford then read two excerpts from her favourite Gordimer works, July’s People (1981) and Burger’s Daughter (1979) to us.
Finally, Karina Szczurek stood up and shared a few her own privately held views on Nadine Gordimer’s work, as well as explaining to us how those same works had shaped the course of her life, which I feel was perhaps more poignant than a video of Ms Gordimer reading from her own work at this same stage might have been. (Sadly, this was technically not feasible.)
She said, “It is no exaggeration to say that Nadine Gordimer literally changed my whole life – again and again.”
Ms Szczurek also mentioned how she, after reading the short story, ‘The Moment Before The Gun Went Off’ (1988) almost twelve or thirteen years ago, had then decided to spend the next six years reading Gordimer’s works and writing her thesis on them, before firmly stating, “And not for a second during those years did I ever regret choosing her work as the subject of my thesis.”
Touchingly, she added, “Her work really means a lot to me – and yes, like Imraan said, I do miss her a lot.”
She also read two comments (the authors of which are unknown) that were found at the front of what is a “little miracle” of a possession to her: the first edition of Gordimer’s short stories, published in 1949, which she purchased after the famous woman’s death in July of this year.
The first comment said that, whilst Gordimer’s work was clearly “of South African origin – by and large, the people who are brought to sudden, sometimes startling life, are universal.”
Szczurek concurred with this thought by saying, “I think that is a key aspect of her work that somebody like me – living in a foreign country in the middle of Europe – could read one of her stories and immediately relate to it in some subliminal way.”
The second comment, which I feel perfectly sums up Ms Gordimer’s work after having been verbally exposed to it for the first time today, ran as follows: “She (Nadine) is a rolling camera that perceives and records much that is invisible to the average naked eye and under her fearless, at times uncomfortably fearless, guidance – many aspects of the human pysche are revealed to our gaze and a little more is added to our meagre knowledge of the human heart.”
Before the final reading, Ms Szczurek put it very nicely by saying that yes, whilst Nafine Gordimer was very much a political writer, people who think that “that was all that she was, miss out on the most vital ingredient of her work and that is that wonderful perception, or insight, that she had into the human heart and into our feelings, into our pyschology on the most intimate, personal level – and that is the aspect of her work that always spoke to me most clearly.”
It was, overall, a very insightful and tasteful tribute to this unique writer and one which I am sure Nadine Gordimer herself would have found most fitting.