On 13 July the world woke up to the news that Nadine Gordimer, the Nobel-prize-winning South African author, freedom fighter and anti-apartheid campaigner, had died in her Johannesburg home at the age of 90. Nadine, who penned more than 30 books, also inspired a lot of established and upcoming young South African writers, such as Zukiswa Wanner – author of Maid in South Africa:
30 Reasons to Leave Your Madam. She pays tribute.
It happened via social media, as things tend to happen these days. Twitter. That’s how I first got the news that Nadine Gordimer had died. I ignored it as one of those Twitter rumours. I knew she was 90 but I hadn’t heard that she was unwell. But a text message from my fellow writer and friend Thando Mgqolozana confirmed the sad news.
Nadine Gordimer was gone. His text read: “You lost your Lewis, now I’ve lost my Nadine.” He was making a reference to the late writer from the glorious Drum era of the 1950s, Lewis Nkosi. Lewis, who gets the most blame for encouraging me to write fiction. Nadine was Thando’s Lewis.
While she did not get him to first write fiction, she thought highly of his skills as a writer. Nadine believed, as many of us do, that Thando is perhaps South Africa’s best-kept literary secret and when the rest of the world discover his works, the rest of the world shall slap itself silly for not having known this great talent earlier. When Lewis passed on, he had been ill and hospitalised. But there was no hint that Nadine was ill and that was part of what made it so difficult to believe that she was gone.
I think despite what our logic tells us, our emotions always foolishly assume there is some sequence to death and dying. That the old will go before the young, and when that happens, the old will warn us first by being ill and going to hospital so that we can have time to say goodbye.
That isn’t what happened with Nadine. There was no warning. And so it was only when I got confirmation of her demise via Thando’s text that I started thinking of my and my generation’s relationship with this physically small yet literary tower who I shared nationality with. Nadine, as my fellow South African writer Fiona Snyckers observed, has left her footprints in the sand of South African literature and they will never be washed away.
I first “met” Nadine through her short stories when I was 12 years old or so. I loved them. I thought then, and still do think, that she is one of the best short-story writers I have ever read. As Commonwealth Best First Book winner of 2011, Cynthia Jele has stated: “Achebe believed that it is impossible to write anything in Africa without some kind of commitment, a message, some protest. Nadine understood this.”
More than any of her writing for me, Nadine’s short stories relay this. It would be more than a decade from my first meeting her, that I would physically meet Nadine Gordimer. It was in the early 2000s when I moved back to Johannesburg. I would frequently meet the diminutive literally great that was Nadine at Rosebank Mall where she often did her errands. I was always in awe at how this genius would just be walking in the mall, like an ordinary citizen.
Every time I saw her I would say, “Hello Ms. Gordimer.” And every time she would bring out her hand, shake mine and say, “Hello, how are you doing?” and we would exchange a word or two. I was not a writer then. In fact, it would be a couple of years from these early meetings before my first book came out. And yet her chats with me then always displayed some warmth and interest in what I had to say.
A Kenyan friend and academic, Garnette Oluoch-Olunya put it best when she said that Nadine leaned in and connected with people. Garnette was recounting the first time she met Nadine at a conference. How Nadine leaned in and listened to the academics and younger writers around her, unlike another older writer at the same conference who was aloof and looked like he wanted to be anywhere but there.
TJ Dema, a poet from Botswana, talked of how amazed she was when Nadine attended the Johannesburg leg of the 2011 Poetry Africa tour. “I remember feeling chuffed that she’d come out to support us,” says TJ.
As can be seen, a lot of Nadine Gordimer memories are fondly told by writers and academics of a younger generation. And in many of these, the constant long-lasting image of Nadine in South Africa and beyond, is that of an elder writer who read and engaged with the literary works of her contemporaries as well as those of a younger generation.
Nadine was a writer’s writer. She was not one of the older generation of artists who can be heard saying, “there is no real writing/music/art nowadays” because she was aware that award-winning though she was, literature did not begin or end with her. On a lighter note, another enduring memory some writers are familiar with is of Nadine at literary events holding her favourite glass of amber liquid. Perhaps my sole regret is that I never shared a drink with her. She had a sparkling spirit that made her that cool grandmother that one wants to hang out with.
Nadine, you were not going out as often as you used to but one can’t help thinking that the literary scene will not be quite the same without you. One hopes that you are smiling and enjoying a glass of your favourite whisky in Writer Heaven while chatting with the Schreiners, the Nkosis, the Achebes and all other writers that have gone before us. We miss you.