By Anita Sethi
Nadine Gordimer appears at the Southbank Centre on Wednesday 14th March, 7:30pm as the first in a series of events in conjunction with Index on Censorship. I caught up for a chat with the author during her stay in London.
Could you explain the title of your new novel, “No Time Like the Present”?
For me, titles are terribly important. I feel that if you haven’t got the title when you begin to write the book, you haven’t really got the work inside you waiting to come out. The title of my new book is a double entendre. You would say to a child; ‘go and wash your hands, put this toy away’, and they might say, ‘oh, I’ll do it tomorrow’, and you say – ‘no time like the present’. It’s that injunction that things must be done now, you can’t put them off.
Then there’s the fuller meaning: each generation, each life, is born into something that is a unique time, with all the pressures from within and without that make one’s being.
So many elements come into shaping us, from our DNA, to the friends we have, to the school we go to, to the laws within which we live. If you are born into a situation of social and political conflict this poses certain questions about your personal life. When I look at the life of so many friends at home, the personal has had to be thrust aside because of the demands of the political life which becomes enormous, equal to the great power of falling in love. You have to devote your energy to the cause you believe in, to tackle the injustice and oppression you see.
Three of your books were banned by the apartheid government and you are a passionate advocate of free speech. Could you describe the impact this has had on your life and literature?
Three of my novels were banned and what many people don’t know is that I collected and edited a lot of poetry by my black writer comrades; they couldn’t get it published, so I put it together and published it and it was immediately banned. So many people fought and died or were exiled and never came back, for freedom; freedom was won from apartheid and then comes the building of the new life. First, I would like to remind you and everybody who reads this that we have only been free for 18 years – this year is the 18th year. 18 years isn’t even a generation. A generation is 25 years of your life. Racial oppression began in 1652 when the first member of the Dutch East Indian company landed at the Cape. The outside world must bear that in mind. Many of the countries which have working democracies have fought for that over centuries. I’m not making excuses. When you’re in a liberation struggle, you’re busy fighting the enemy and all your energy and thought goes into how to get rid of this regime. It would seem a luxury to think about what problems there would be afterwards. It was 1994 when we all voted together for the first time. You can’t imagine what an emotional experience that was. All families together; all colours and social levels. We had the same right for the first time. We then partied. But like all parties we know that after the party comes the morning after – which we are living now.
Could you describe how you discovered and developed a passion for writing and books?
The passion for books came early. There was no TV as a child. You had the bedtime story read to you. My mother read to us; from hearing these stories you connect the story with the words and become curious: this is the beginning of literacy. I could read by the time I was 6. My mother made me a member of the local library. I went to a convent school which was gender segregated. My real education came not from the restricted schooling but from my absolutely voracious, hungry reading. Of course later on I reflected and I still do that if I had been a black child I couldn’t have used the library; can you believe it? You had to be white to be a member of the public library. My mother was friends with the librarian. The librarian let me free like a little pig in clover. By the age of 10 I was reading the short stories of DH Lawrence. Whatever I could put my hands on, I was allowed to take home. When I had a birthday and at Christmas time, I would ask for a book.
I remember that there was no library at the convent school. This is the big problem that I and my friends are trying to tackle; those who were black couldn’t use a library until their teens. We are asking people to donate books; many people have got double copies, lost interest in them, or grown out of them. We have several organisations where people start libraries in deprived schools and black schools and donate books. I was told the other day by a friend who is prominent in doing this work that they discovered that the parents come along hungry and take the books too as there are no libraries in the village.
Could you explain your writing processes and what for you is the role of the writer?
You can’t explain it. People talk about novels as works of the imagination, as if fiction is something that doesn’t exist beyond and deeper; actually, it’s the absolute opposite. It’s going into what appears to exist, penetrating the experience of being human, in the world at a certain place, at a certain time. An opera singer is born with certain vocal chords – you can develop those chords but if they’re not there you can go to as many singing lessons as you like and won’t become a great singer. But I can’t say what the quality is inborn in the writer that makes it possible; indefinable parts of the writer. There is something we are born with if we are going to be creative writers.
The process of being a writer is that you are in discovery of life, you are constantly searching and changing, getting new capabilities to do so, feeling along with what is happening with your characters. We are formed from the moment of being born; you wriggle and move; learn to walk, speak, go through the great blooming crisis of adolescence. Then you go through early maturity, full maturity, then grow old and die; you only have to look at a flower, slowly changing and dying. We are, on our higher level, the same thing. This is the field of the writer, trying ambitiously to go into the whole meaning of life.
You are formed from what is within but also from the outside pressures – the society in which you live, how people relate to each other, the general trends of a society and the laws in which you live – there is this big cage right outside you and me containing all the contradictions that we have in there. And that is what the writer explores.
What advice would you offer to aspiring writers?
People say, I want to be a writer; how do I become one? I say: Read, read, read. What you learn from the work you read are the incredible powers and variety of uses of the word – and now you are trying to use the word in your way – and that’s how you become a writer.
Are there any books that you would recommend?
I would recommend the book Scatter the Ashes and Go by Mongone Wally Serote - it really shows that even if you are extremely brave and prepared to be put in a prison or be shot, you are still a human being; you might be stuck in a tent in the bush, and the person next to you is also heroic but extremely irritating. This book has gone far deeper into exploring this. It deals so eloquently and fearlessly and beautifully with private human relationships within the context of your total commitment to the struggle.