Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Hearing Nadine Gordimer

Nadine Gordimer, the South African novelist who died yesterday at age 90, was the honored guest at a P.E.N. gathering in New York years ago that I attended in the 1980s, long before I moved here permanently. She talked about her four-year project writing The Burger’s Daughter, apartheid and the outlook for her country’s future, which at the time looked particularly bleak given the Reagan government’s open sympathy with the white racists.

I don’t remember much of what she said except that she was charming and amusing and looked so tiny and fragile that a strong wind would blow her over. But she did express great admiration for the leadership of the South African liberation movement, and when one questioner mixed them up with those of Zimbabwe, also experiencing an anti-colonial struggle, she corrected him. I can’t speak for the quality of leadership in that country, she said presciently, only in my own.

At the time, we thought all the fighters against settler colonialism in Africa were great guys, but Gordimer was on to something as we have seen since. Today, any comparison between Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe looks laughable.

I saw her speak a second time in Durban, South Africa, at the International Conference on AIDS in 2000, which I attended as the executive director of Chile’s first AIDS prevention and advocacy group, which we founded in 1988. She was on a luncheon program at a satellite meeting about South African youth and the HIV epidemic that was ravaging their ranks. (And is--the country still has the worst epidemic on earth in absolute terms, some 5 million+ infected citizens.) She shared the platform with Danny Glover.

Glover is a pretty good actor and apparently a wonderful guy with his heart in the right place. His remarks were incoherent—a string of rhetorical bombast about HIV (bad) and young people (good). The audience, dazzled by his celluloid fame and thus ready to proclaim him a prophet of Yahweh, stood and cheered deliriously.

Gordimer spoke of the AIDS prevention campaigns then current, the messages being drummed into the heads of South African youth about condom use as a protective measure. She commented on the impact of this, for her, rather startling deconstruction of the sexual act, what it meant for the mechanics of the conjoining of human bodies to be outlined in this way as if the dangers of the act of love could be reduced to the avoidance of a deadly virus.

Her meditation was challenging and, well, novel. It also flew directly out the windows, past the heads of the lunchers who stirred their salad forks lazily and clapped a bit at the end to be polite. Gordimer’s thoughts might interest eggheads like me, but Danny Glover was in the movies. It was a sobering moment for those of us who view the Nobel Prize in Literature with a certain awestruck veneration.

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