SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
I am not a political person by nature, Nadine Gordimer once said. I don't suppose if I'd lived elsewhere my writing would've reflected politics. But she was born in South Africa in the early 1920s, a society divided and identified by the crime of apartheid, the official racial segregation and suppression that was wound into everyday life. Her mother mostly kept her home from school and she began to write for companionship.
She published her first short story in The Children's Sunday Express when she was 15 and essentially wrote for a living until she died this week at the age of 90. Nadine Gordimer wrote 15 novels, a few of which were banned by the South African government. One of her short stories appeared in a British-U.S. magazine that reached South Africa. Officials ripped out her pages. The suppression meant to silence her and millions more just galvanized Nadine Gordimer. She became an anti-apartheid activist when that didn't mean just liking something on Facebook. Nadine Gordimer hid wanted anti-apartheid fighters in her home. She helped Nelson Mandela with the famous speech he gave from the defendant's dock in 1964 about the ideals for which he was prepared to die.
Nadine Gordimer won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. And in her Nobel address she said human beings devise writing to explore why we're here. Since humans became self-regarding, they have sought as well explanations for the common phenomena of procreation, death, the cycle of seasons, the earth, sea, wind and stars, sun and moon, plenty and disaster, she said. Oral story-tellers began to feel out and formulate these mysteries using the elements of daily life to make stories. Writers themselves don't analyze what they do. To analyze would be to look down while crossing a canyon on a tightrope.
She noted that some of us have seen our books lie for years unread in our own countries - banned. And we have gone on writing. But she cited Flaubert, Strindberg, Chinua Achebe and Salman Rushdie more than herself. There is a paradox, she added. In retaining this integrity, the writer sometimes must risk both the state's indictment of treason and the liberation forces' complaint of lack of blind commitment. The writer is of service to humankind only insofar as the writer uses the word even against his or her own loyalties.
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