Literary Nobel laureate Gordimer at Megaron

She began with a plea for literacy, or more precisely against the semi-literacy that has students around the world graduating from college not knowing how to use the written language, or worse. It seems Nadine Gordimer – the 1991 Nobel Prize winner in literature, 1974 Booker winner, vice president of International PEN and founding member of the Congress of South African Writers, whose books were banned in her own country – is still fighting battles on many fronts. On Monday night, the Friends of Music Hall was jammed with a good mix of genders and ages – all riveted on the trim, spry, bright-eyed author whose youthful air belies her 83 years. She began bemoaning the fact that 80 million people in Africa alone cannot read, calling it a «pandemic» in Western societies as well, saying that literacy is the basis of all learning. She blamed the void on poverty and said that literacy ought to be one of the UNESCO basic human rights, saying that we are all conjoined and «all under threat of the image as replacing the written word» as the «TV aerial can be found where there is no book to be found.» After author Rhea Galanaki’s introduction of the author as part of the Megaron Plus series of events, along with Gordimer’s Greek publisher Kastaniotis, and a brief sketch of the writer’s many accomplishments, Gordimer expressed her pleasure at being in the land of Aeschylus and Plato and gave credit to the «culture that gave birth to imaginative literature and philosophy.» She then went on to read, in its entirety, the short story «Ultimate Safari,» her contribution to the story collection «Telling Tales,» a project she initiated and edited last year and whose proceeds go to the Treatment Action Campaign against HIV/AIDS, another of her current battle fronts. The story is told through an 11-year-old girl whose parents have gone missing – first the father in the war, and then the mother who doesn’t return from a trip to get cooking oil and the grandparents arrive to take the children «away.» But there’s no work and no food and what’s left of the family has to go «away» once more, through Kruger Park – «where the white people come to see the animals,» though «our country is a country of people, not animals» – to a refugee camp. It is a moving tale, told simply in the language a child would use that is all the more harrowing for its bluntness, its matter-of-fact descriptions of the consequences of war and poverty. And it is what Nadine Gordimer does best – challenge our comfortable assumptions about society. Almost from when she began writing at the age of 9, her first published short story at the age of 15, or her first novel (The Lying Days, 1953), Gordimer has tirelessly fought for human rights, specifically using her pen as a sword to challenge the «line in a statute book» under apartheid. Her short stories and novels challenged the status quo of apartheid, either through an exploration of race relations or in showing the psychological consequences of a racially divided society. The 1974 Booker Prize-winning «The Conservationist» takes as its main character a self-satisfied white industrialist and challenges the bias of racial superiority – for which the book was banned in Gordimer’s homeland. In the Friends of Music Hall, Galanaki began the question-and-answer session with one of her own, asking of the 37 authors Gordimer mentioned in her Nobel acceptance speech – including Nikos Kazantzakis, twice – whom she considered part of her orchestra of authors, her imaginary literary family. Gordimer said that all those exiled or imprisoned for their writings formed part of that pantheon for her. She added that she often tells young people who ask what training one needs to become writer to «read, read, read,» in a reference to literacy, but that for the majority of people, «my only concern is that people look rather than read.» As to why literature is important as a reflection of history, Gordimer said that «the novel can tell history in a way that history cannot, the novel takes up where history leaves off,» and that the short-story writer, novelist and poet show all the struggle, because «no accounting in fact can take the place of the novelist and what a person feels inside.» She paraphrased Goethe, who said the writer thrusts his hand into society and whatever he brings up carries an element of truth. On whether the transition from apartheid to democracy influenced her writing, she said, «Of course, as history is happening, history is always present and one also has to change with freedom.» «Don’t forget,» she continued, »that when there is oppression, the oppressor is also damaged – so with freedom the oppressor must also be joyful, not excusing what he has done, but because he gets to be human again.» Then began a discussion of what strides South Africa has made since its first free elections on April 27, 1994. Gordimer stated that much has been done but that much has still to be done… almost jokingly adding: «Now in 10 years to have found housing (for South Africa’s 46 million people), electricity, running water and reversed the educational system, that’s quite a lot, we are supposed to have reversed all that – not only under the Great Mandela but under Thabo Mbeki as well. It takes time. Other Western societies have had hundreds of years of democracy and still don’t happen to have it right,» causing a chuckle to run through the audience. A representative of the South African Embassy then asked for the microphone and, clearly moved by his esteemed guest, said: «We are so proud of you. You were a beacon of light who brought us democracy.» With some levity, Gordimer acknowledged the praise, saying, «You don’t know how that feels to me, for so long I was persona non grata in my own country; no ambassador would have ever spoken in my favor.» She said it was a terrible time to live through but that she drew inspiration from all the heroes of her country, not just the names we know, she said, but so many more – of whom we’ll never know. And that she kept going because: «When no one was around to hear, I knew there are just no two sides to the question of racism. Racism is just wrong, that and the faith I have clung to as a citizen – one has human responsibilities.» On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Gordimer said, «The only way is to just sit down and talk, not with conditions for talks, just sit at the table and hope the table doesn’t blow up and maybe there could be some solution, but at this point there has to be recognition of the right to exist on both sides.» It was an inspiring event, the small woman on a huge stage holding listeners captive with her thoughtful answers to myriad questions. She spoke again about AIDS, saying it is no respecter of class, and, as a last question, was asked what freedom means to her. She replied that many people see freedom as the right to expression, to write, create art and speak one’s mind freely without censorship, but it also means basic freedoms before the law: moving around freely and speaking the language and practicing the religion one wishes – things many take for granted.