Tag Archives: censorship

A Miracle Worker from Baghdad

Saad Eskander1It took four flights and twenty-seven hours for Dr Saad Eskander to reach Molde, a coastal town in Norway, home to the annual Bjørnson Festival. Arriving late on Friday, he is to give a lecture the next day and embark on the same, tiring journey back to Baghdad, his home, on Sunday morning. To add to the strain, the two nights he spends in Molde, he hardly sleeps. “I cannot sleep longer than half an hour at a time when staying at a hotel,” he tells me. He has come to Molde as a guest of the festival, asked to speak about his work as director general of the Iraqi National Library and Archive (INLA) in Baghdad. His lecture, entitled “Rising from the Ashes: The Destruction and Reconstruction of INLA (2003-2008)”, is one the highlights of this year’s Bjørnson Festival and is preceded by a moving poetry reading. The poet, Nada Yousif, lives in Norway in exile with her husband Thamer A.K. Al-Shahwani, a musician, and their small baby. Accompanied by her husband’s clarinet, she recites the original verses in a deep voice full of pain. English translations of her work are given to us before the lecture. She begins with the poem “The Last Flower” which ends with these telling lines: “My dwelling is now a tent at the borders / And my homeland… / A cemetery”.

Nada Yousif’s poetry reading sets the mood for Saad Eskander’s lecture. “The story I’m about to tell is a sad story, and it is always difficult to tell a sad story,” he admits and reminds his audience of John Milton’s remark that the destruction of books equals the destruction of reason. Throughout the history of humankind both have been constantly under threat. In this respect the fate of the INLA has not been unusual. During Saddam Hussein’s reign the library, like other cultural institutions in the country, served the dictator, not the nation. The regime was hostile towards any forms of creativity and did not participate in any rational planning to preserve the rich cultural treasures of Iraq. A small budget, shortages in acquisitions, ancient equipment, denial of access for scholars, unbearable working conditions, isolation from the international community, and censorship, contributed to the gradual demise of the library and archive holdings. Undesirable items were either removed from the institution or made inaccessible to the public. Constant surveillance by secret agents placed in the ranks of the library’s staff spread fear and intimidation. With salaries amounting to US$ 3 per month corruption thrived; quick and efficient access to the INLA became impossible without bribery.

The regime’s downfall in April 2003 put the INLA in an even more precarious situation. The institution became a target not only for the arsonists of the defeated regime wanting to destroy any criminal evidence, but also for professional thieves hunting for goods to sell to private collectors, and for ordinary looters who plundered the already minimal furnishings and equipment of the INLA. The cultural losses were enormous. With sixty percent of the archival materials and twenty-five percent of the institution’s publications, including rare books and periodicals, looted and destroyed, some of the remaining holdings scattered, ruined and lost, the events of the time can only be described as a national disaster. The building of the INLA itself was terribly damaged by fires, bombardments and vandalism.

The Coalition Provisional Government (CPA) of the time (2003-2004) did not prioritise cultural matters and failed to implement any goals for the INLA. The institution seemed doomed until the appointment of Saad Eskander as director of the INLA in December 2004. With a PhD in international relations and history from the London School of Economics and coming from a family known for its political integrity, Eskander was well-equipped to do the job. A former Kurdish fighter, after thirteen years of living in the UK he decided to return to his home country with a group of exiled Iraqi artists and intellectuals after the 2003 invasion to help with reconstruction. From the group, he was the only one to remain in Iraq permanently. He became well-known for the diary he wrote about the terrifying time of the civil war in Baghdad. The diary was made available worldwide through the British Library’s homepage where it was published.

Although he was told to wait with any plans and actions for the INLA when he took over the library as director at the end of 2004, he decided to open the institution without any help from the Ministry of Culture. There was literally nothing in the building to work with: no electricity, water, furniture, or security. With the help of some volunteers he organised looting parties and plundered specifically targeted buildings for some equipment and furniture. One of those targets was the club of Saddam Hussein’s son. All these actions were illegal, but they proved highly successful. The INLA opened officially after only a few weeks of preparations. The working conditions were appalling at first. The building was dark, cold and situated in a very dangerous neighbourhood. The people trying to restore the INLA had to overcome many obstacles and placed their life in danger to fulfil their task. Eight people died in the process, dozens of others were injured or displaced.

Those who persisted had to confront the rubble heaps covered by soot and dust that constituted the library. Eskander is full of praise especially for the women who got involved in the project: “Women are good leaders, they immediately took initiative and set to work.” From the beginning, democratisation of the INLA’s inner life and gender equality have been strongly encouraged under his policy. Knowing that corruption was one of the greatest challenges to be dealt with, he immediately curtailed his own power (his own people have the power to fire him anytime) and substituted the former culture of taking orders with a culture of initiatives. Women have formed their own association within the library’s governing structures and publish an independent journal. New people from all sections of the population – Kurds, Sunnis, Shias – are employed and skilled permanently.

The Czech Republic and Italy were the two nations first to offer their assistance to the INLA (funding, equipment, skill-exchange). Some of INLA’s staff members travelled to these countries to be trained in restoration and preservation of materials on the most modern equipment available. Other countries and NGOs followed suit. Eskander’s work has been recognised abroad. He was awarded the Archivist of the Year Award at Columbia University in 2007. The same year he also won the MESA Academic Freedom Award of the Middle East Studies Association of the University of Arizona. But his greatest achievement remains the look of satisfaction on the thousand of people’s faces visiting the INLA, hungry for knowledge. Access to the INLA’s holdings and to online resources is free for all.

Today, the INLA’s staff counts four hundred employees. The average salary is about US$ 300. The building of the INLA has been almost completely renovated and all working conditions tremendously improved. Self-sufficiency and resistance to all forms of censorship are high on the INLA’s agenda. When, in 2007, the INLA refused to be turned into a military base, the Iraqi army invaded the institution as punishment. They soon realised the futility of the action and retreated. However, the headquarters of the US forces remain opposite the INLA building. The coming and going of helicopters can be heard in the background at all times. Sometimes a misguided bullet or shrapnel finds its way into the library, reminding the workers and visitors of the constant threat and instability of the outside world. And even though the worst seems to be over, the INLA continues to face innumerable challenges.

In a recent interview with the Guardian’s Stuart Jeffries, Eskander explained his motivation of taking up the job, “I thought I could help Iraqis understand their past and build their future.” Not a small task, but one he seems to be the perfect person to attempt.

During his lecture at the Bjørnson Festival in Molde, with obvious pride, he tells the audience about a file recently discovered in the INLA’s archives, portraying historical events unknown until now. He knows how crucial these and other findings are for the understanding and interpretation of history. As he ends his presentation on a very uplifting note, sharing with us some recent photographs of the beautifully renovated library, full of busy employees and engrossed visitors, most of us are moved to tears by Saad Eskander’s story. I do not manage more than a simple thank you and a handshake after his lecture.

In this context, it is a disconcerting anticlimax to hear the announcement of the next speaker, Vigdis Moe Skarstein, who will be talking about Norway’s National Library and the challenges of digitalisation the institution is facing. There will be no talk about security threats, blackouts, stray bullets, corruption, people displaced or killed – the everyday hardships of all the people working with Eskander to keep the library and archive going from on a daily basis.

Saad Eskander2Before he has to leave the next day, Eskander joins a few of the festival participants for dinner, even though it is very late and he is not used to eating at this hour. While we others enjoy the local specialities, he sips some wine and patiently replies to our endless questions. We all want to know whether he believes Barack Obama can bring about change in Iraq if he is elected president of the United States. Eskander does not seem optimistic. “No matter who is elected in November, the US foreign policy will continue on its own terms,” he says.

During our conversation we discover a lot of similarities between present-day Iraq and South Africa. The challenges of diversity seem all too familiar; both societies are trying not only to come to terms with their multiethnic, multilingual and religiously diverse makeup, but also to profit from the opportunities it offers.

At the end of the evening, Eskander shares a personal tragedy with us. Three days before his departure for Norway, a dear friend of his who served as the Advisor to the Minister of Culture was assassinated near his home. “Kamel Shayaa’s death shocked everybody in Iraq, as he was an exceptionally nice and gifted person. He spoke four European languages and had an MA in philosophy. Like me, he returned from exile (Belgium) to Baghdad after Saddam’s downfall.” Immediately after the funeral, Eskander boarded the plane to Norway only because he had given his word to the festival organisers that he would attend. “I did my best to conceal my sadness,” he writes to me after his return to Baghdad.

As we say goodbye after the dinner, we wish him a safe journey to that place which he, in spite of all, chooses as his home. A place I knew previously only through the horrific images of war and destruction favoured by the world media. Through the stories Saad Eskander shared with us, Baghdad became a place of hope.

First published in New Era on 3 October 2008 and an edited version in the Sunday Independent on 9 November 2008.

For updates see:
Wikipedia
Interview with Saad Eskander (2013)

In 2012 during Open Book, I spoke about Saad Eskander with the amazing Anne Nivat, who was on her way to Iraq. Watch her documentary in which she meets up with Saad Eskander:

Advertisements

At Home in China

China1
Unexpectedly, it felt like a homecoming. Our Dragonair flight from Hong Kong to Beijing landed in the late afternoon. From the moment we left the arrivals hall something in the air made me want to curl up inside myself and simply return to where we came from. And it was not the chilling wind; nor the constant drizzle.

The grey architecture’s sharp and unimaginative lines, the bleak atmosphere, the poverty and hopelessness of masses, the condescending attitudes of people in any kind of authoritative position, the schemers operating below the radar of the system, and the uncanny impression of being constantly watched as if surrounded by an omnipotent, unpredictably scary, presence – almost instantly I was transported back to the time I was growing up in Eastern Europe still under the thumb of communist rule, before the political changeover of the late 1980s. Something engrained in my bones, but dormant for so many years, resurfaced in recognition.

The traffic policeman in charge of the taxi flow at the Beijing Capital International Airport shoved us aside and signalled for us to wait. It transpired that we were judged to have too much luggage to fit into an ordinary taxi, with no other kind of taxi in sight. There were three of us, each in possession of a suitcase and a piece of hand luggage. We tried to suggest that we could at least attempt to load the luggage into a car or separate and take two taxis, but both ideas were rejected. After a while of hopeless waiting, a rickety minibus arrived, clearly not an official taxi. The driver ‘generously’ offered to take us all to our hotel for about twice the usual fee. We did not have a choice but to accept.

An insignificant scene, one could say, but it was just the beginning. For the reminder of the trip I was constantly aware of this familiarity between the Poland of my childhood and the present-day China and I marvelled again at the destructive power of the ideology behind the resemblance, at how two countries of such diverse cultural backgrounds – Eastern European and Asian – could be reduced to eerie similarity under the pressures of a single system of thought.

But beside the ache in my bones, the experience of discovering a few spots of China was one of the most memorable ones of my entire travelling life. For the first time, I realised what Americans were doing when they ‘did’ Europe in two weeks. Our attempt was of a similar nature. My husband André Brink and I visited China to attend two literary festivals, in Hong Kong and Shanghai. The invitation was facilitated by a dear friend of André’s, Gary Kitching, who kindly offered to accompany us not only to the official literary events but on most of our journey through the Land of the Dragon. Apart from visiting the two festival cities, we used the opportunity to fulfil lifelong dreams of walking on the Great Wall and seeing the warriors of Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Terracotta Army.

It was our honour and pleasure to share parts of the journey with another South African writer, Mandla Langa who, like André, was a guest of both literary festivals. Mandla Langa’s latest novel, The Lost Colours of the Chameleon (2008) won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Africa Region in 2009. During the two festivals Mandla read from the novel and spoke very movingly about his work, the hardships of exile, and the tragedy of having to cope with his brother’s death at the hands of the ANC. At shared events, Mandla and André discussed the different sides of the literary and political struggle they were both involved in during apartheid. On a more positive note, they shared with their enthusiastic audiences their feelings of optimism about the explosion of creativity in the New South Africa.

In Hong Kong at one of the literary events, together with Mandla, André was interviewed by Rachel Holmes, author of The Secret of Dr James Barry (2002) and The Hottentot Venus: The Life and Times of Saartjie Baartman (2007). She reminded them of the occasion they had met in London when Mandla was still in exile. André described the encounter in his memoir, A Fork in the Road (2008). He went to see Mandla and Essop Pahad at the time. As he took his leave, André was offered a packet of ANC coffee from Kenya and was told that they would drink it together when they were all allowed to come home “one of these days”. “The coffee will still be fresh,” André was reassured. Mandla accompanied him to the tube. André recalls in the memoir: “I walked huddled over the small packet I was carrying like precious loot under my arm. Mandla walked inclined towards me as if he, too, wanted to claim possession. Perhaps we were both imagining the flavour of that coffee: the smell of tomorrow. One of these days.”

For both of them, and for myself, the time of tasting freedom has arrived when at last we all found ourselves living in democratic countries, post-1994 South Africa and Austria respectively. But while we were travelling in China, signs of the ongoing repression and fear were everywhere: the Rio Tinto trial began in Shanghai amongst secrecy and doubt in the fairness of the process, Google was finally on its way out of the country refusing to accept the censorship imposed on the search engine, and an interview with the outspoken Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, a victim of censorship and state violence, was repeatedly shown on BBC World. Very tellingly, there were hardly any Chinese readers attending the festival events.
China3
Even before arrival in the country, while applying for our visas we were told not to mention the fact that we were writers, academics or had any associations with the media. This might have either endangered the positive outcome of the application or at least made the process much more tedious, we were warned. So, André travelled as a retired teacher, I as a housewife. Neither was a direct lie, but both statements were far removed from the truth. The application went smoothly. To our great surprise, the Chinese Consulate in Cape Town even distributed free DVDs about the Dalai Lama. We did not dare take one when applying for the visa, suspicious of the unexpected offer (a possible test of the worthiness of the applicant?), but could not resist bringing it back home once the visas had been granted. We were curious whether it was a piece of propaganda. But it turned out to be shrewder than that. We only managed to watch thirty minutes of what seemed a factually correct documentary. Then we fell asleep; it was so boring. Clever, we thought.

We also discovered that in spite of being widely publicised in the print and online media, the literary festival in Shanghai we attended was strictly speaking illegal. This kind of schism is also part of the system I remembered from growing up. You constantly live your life on the border of legality. Your actions are tolerated until you overstep a line. Where that line is precisely located you never know until you cross it, and then all which has been ignored till then will be counted against you.

As a special administrative region, reflecting the policy known as “one country, two systems”, Hong Kong still enjoys a high degree of autonomy in all areas except defence and foreign affairs. The city hosted its literary events officially. Celebrating their tenth anniversary with a bang, the festival organisers invited the likes of Alexander McCall Smith, Junot Díaz, Louis de Bernièrs, Linda Jaivin, and Mo Zhi Hong whose debut novel The Year of the Shanghai Shark (2008) won the Best First Book for South East Asia and Pacific of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2009 (the same year as Mandla won with The Lost Colours of the Chameleon).

The Hong Kong and Shanghai festivals often collaborate in bringing authors to the their audiences. So some faces were more or less familiar when we arrived in Shanghai. Contrary to expectations, literary festivals or conferences seldom offer good opportunities of getting to know other writers, especially if one is rather shy by nature, which, maybe surprisingly, many writers are. In spite of many organiser’s efforts to put them into social situations, writers often end up lonely in hotel rooms, passing the time from one event to another with TV or mini-bar content (more often than not, both), or if the gatherings take place in interesting settings, desperately trying to see as much of the area as possible. The latter happened to us, when André and I spent every free minute exploring Hong Kong and Shanghai instead of listening to other guests of the festival, no matter how alluring.

We did however, even if only briefly, catch up with Linda Javin, Louis de Bernièrs, and Mo Zhi Hong in Shanghai. On the terrace of the fabulous “M on the Bund” Restaurant (venue and one of the main sponsors of the festival), over James Bond martinis and the exotic Dragon’s Pearl cocktails we listened to the wonderfully flamboyant Linda Javin, author of the best-selling A Most Immoral Woman (2009), talking about her latest project, a traditional Chinese opera based on a story from a Ming Dynasty novel for which she has been asked to write the libretto. We actually managed to attend Louis de Bernièrs’s official event during which he delighted the audience with a reading of “Obadiah Oak, Mrs Griffiths and the Carol Singers”, a story from his recent collection Notwithstanding (2009), and charmed us all with his infectious sense of humour. With Mo Zhi Hong we shared a taxi to the airport in Shanghai and after a brief conversation were very sorry not to have been able to spent more time in the company of this erudite young man. The festival over, he was on his way back home to Auckland and we were travelling to Xi’an for our appointment with the world-famous Terracotta Army.

One of Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s megalomaniac ventures, the terracotta warriors are a sight to behold. What struck me most about visiting China’s well-known places of interest was that in spite of seeing them numerous times on television programmes or in photography books, one is not prepared for their size. Constantly I had to readjust the images in my head to the real thing. The Great Wall of China (also Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s brainchild) does not impress with its height, as I expected. It is actually quite low and narrow for most of its unfathomable length. But when you stand on one of its vantage points and it stretches away from you in both directions over the mountain ranges like a ribbon carelessly discarded on the seemingly impenetrable landscape, it takes your breath away. In Beijing, the infamous Tiananmen Square is so vast that one can hardly see from one side of it to the other and walking across it in bitter cold was quite a challenge. The Forbidden City is actually a city within the capital. We began our tour of it at the northern entrance and it took us over four hours of almost continuous walking to reach the South Gate where Chairman Mao’s portrait overlooks the scene of the terrible massacre which took place in 1989.

Similarly, no matter how often one had seen them on television, the enormous excavation pits near the city of Xi’an where the Terracotta Army stands exposed after thousands of years of existing only in legends, are simply awe-inspiring. Each individually crafted and meticulously reassembled after centuries of being buried in mud, the warriors testify to the outrageous and murderous dreams of a single individual. Thousands of craftsmen and workers were tortured and killed during the execution of Qin Shi Huang’s vision of the army that was to protect him in the afterlife. Since their discovery just over thirty years ago, thousands of archaeologists, scientists and helpers have been meticulously putting the warriors’ remains together to make them, and what they stand for, known to the world. I walked around the pits and was terrified by the hunger for power and greatness which called this army into being. It was a chilling experience, but I admired the incredible reconstruction work on site and the amount of knowledge experts have gathered about ourselves and our past from the excavation pits. If only we would learn from it.

Other ‘visionaries’ ruled the land. After the so-called Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s when China’s innumerable treasures were destroyed and a whole generation of artists annihilated, the country is in the throes of another ‘cultural revolution’, this time brought about by Big Money and Big Mac. Like many other fast-growing economies, China is in constant flux, its authenticity challenged by the same forces which are at work in South Africa and other westernised parts of the world. Recently modernised for the Olympic Games, China still looks like one gigantic building site. Entire cityscapes are dominated by high-rise flat buildings which function as dormitories for the expanding population. Transport networks, shopping malls, factories, office buildings, and all kinds of institutions rise from the ground like mushrooms after the rain. The one constant is forests of cranes. Higher, bigger and faster seems to be the motto for everything. I can imagine that architects must have a field day in a country where their imaginations are required to go beyond all limits.

One of the most spectacular modern sites we saw was the architecturally mind-boggling Pudong skyline in Shanghai, the characteristic Oriental Pearl Tower dominating the scene. Over the last two decades the district has become home to China’s commercial and financial buzz. Just across the Huangpu river from Pudong is Shanghai’s best-known historical landmark, the Bund. While we were visiting, we witnessed the exciting preparations for the World Expo all along its beautiful promenade.
China2
Yet, among all the splendour and chaos, the one place in China that is truly lodged in my memory is the Old China Hand Reading Room, a small antique book-cum-tea shop located in one of the quieter streets of the French Concession, another of Shanghai’s historical districts. It was founded by photographer Deke Erh and writer Tess Johnston and strikes the perfect balance between past and present, between Chinese and Western influences. Furnished with antique furniture and stocked with hundreds of old and new publications as well as many quirky trinkets of local and international origins, the shop is a must for all tea and book lovers. They also serve excellent cappuccinos in ancient porcelain cups. Just the thing after a long Sunday morning walk through the Concession, as André and I discovered.

Everywhere else we had what one really should have while travelling through China: tea. It is served at every opportunity, its distinct flavours and the rituals to bring them forth cultivated through millennia-old traditions. I have always loved tea but never appreciated it as much as after the visit to China. The souvenir I cherish most from our visit is my collection of exquisitely embroidered, colourful silk pouches from the Laoshe Teashop in Beijing which was recommended to us by our dear friend Alex Smith, the author of the travel memoir Drinking from the Dragon’s Well (2008). Inside the pouches conceal such wonders as Dancing Fairies, Love at First Sight, Birds of Heaven, and Whispering Flowers. If you put them in a transparent teapot and pour mild boiling water over them, the little green tealeaf bundles which are known by these fantastic names open up like blossoms and release a string of flowers – jasmine or lily – from their centre. The taste is as marvellous as the spectacle.

It is good to be back in Cape Town, where I’m truly at home, and to enjoy a bit of Chinese magic. Not all can be lost for a people who can create such perfect little artworks in a teacup. They may yet survive the dreams and visions of ‘Great Men’. And in spite of everything that is going wrong in our own country, I gain strength from the unsurpassed surge of creativity we are experiencing at the moment in South Africa. I just hope that my bones won’t begin to ache here, and I wonder whether I will ever be granted a Chinese visa again. Or will this article be placed in a file with my name on it, hidden away in some obscure cabinet?

First published in WORDSETC 8 (August 2010).

Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014)

An edited Afrikaans version of this article appeared as “Die miesies hy skryf” in By on 26 November 2011.

The madam he write

At eighty-eight Nadine Gordimer is throwing some more logs in the fire. Karina Magdalena Szczurek spoke with her about “certain kinds of attention”.

‘Do you know this author?’ I ask a waitress, pointing at Nadine Gordimer’s name on the cover of a book I am reading.

She shakes her head.

I pay for my lunch and walk from the restaurant to Parktown West, Johannesburg. A jacaranda petal falls on my head as I approach the angular white house which Nadine Gordimer has called her home for the past fifty years.

The first time I arrived here in 2004, I’d felt sick with worry for a week beforehand, duly warned about Gordimer’s reputation as an interviewee who suffers no fools. And this was my first interview, ever.

With Nadine during our first interview in 2004.

With Nadine during our first interview in 2004.

But when she realised that I wasn’t there to ask about her breakfast (the type of personal question she usually refuses to answer), she let down her guard. It was an invaluable experience.

My present visit is a déjà vu in this and other respects. I’m again first met by a staff member and inspected by an eager Weimaraner before being invited into the house. I walk through the kitchen, down a passage and past the narrow, light-filled study where Gordimer’s typewriter squats proudly on a small desk. She is waiting in the lounge. As I enter she folds a newspaper and puts her reading glasses aside.

It is the same room where we first met, but the furniture is arranged differently. She settles in an elegant rocking chair. I sit on a sofa opposite with a coffee table between us.

I have seen her look her age in badly taken photographs, but never in person. Today she looks radiant in a gracefully long white kaftan dress with a soft blue pattern. Her grey hair is stylishly arranged. Delicate earrings adorn her ears.

This time I am more at ease, but I still notice my hands trembling slightly as I set up the voice recorder. I can feel Gordimer’s lively brown eyes on me. A beauty at her age – she turned eighty-eight this month.

Few literary oeuvres can match Gordimer’s. Between the publication of her first story as a child in 1937 and today, the world has seen fourteen novels, ten short-story collections, and six volumes of essays. In 2010, her stories and essays were collected in two large tomes: Life Times: Stories 1952-2007 and Telling Times: Writing and Living 1950-2008.

When in the beginning of 2006 Ampie Coetzee spoke to Gordimer at a literary breakfast organised by Die Burger Book Club in Cape Town, she told him that her memory no longer allowed her to think in novel-terms.

The collection of stories Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black was published a year later.

Now she’s finished writing another novel after all. I remind her of what she’d said at the breakfast.

She smiles. ‘I don’t know what was wrong with me then.’

Since 2001, when her husband Reinhold Cassirer died, all her books carry his life dates and the dates of their relationship on their front pages. The dedication moves me every time.

Throughout her writing life Gordimer has stuck to a strict routine, devoting the first part of the day to her work only: ‘I still feel in the morning when I get up now, I’ve got to be at my desk.’

André Brink recalls how many years ago, before he knew better, he tried to phone her before lunch. A staff member informed him that Gordimer was not available.

At André's 70th birthday in Johannesburg.

At André’s 70th birthday in Johannesburg.

‘The madam he write,’ he was told firmly, and he had to try again in the afternoon.

The statement is extremely telling, even if it was not intended as such.

Gordimer grew up into a position of privilege in apartheid South Africa. And yet, while many others went with the flow, she devoted her life to fighting injustice. Even though she is most uncomfortable about the designation, for decades she was considered the ‘voice’ and ‘conscience’ of South Africa in the world.

I first encountered her work at university. The story “The Moment Before the Gun Went Off” (1991) pricked my interest in South African literature, and eventually brought me here for research, then for life.

It tells the story of an Afrikaner farmer on trial for shooting one of his farm workers. The racial and political circumstances condemn him, but the last line of the story overturns all our expectations: “The young black was not the farmer’s boy; he was his son.”

Gordimer has often been accused of portraying Afrikaners unfairly in her work. Asked about it, she reminds me that when the time to protest came there was no prejudice. ‘We did it together!’

She is also quick to point out how Uys Krige was the first person who published anything of hers: ‘He encouraged me tremendously, gave me the most helpful criticism and was a very dear friend.’

She reads Afrikaans writers in translation, and regrets that she lost the Afrikaans she learned at school, or that she never learned any of the other indigenous African languages. ‘As I say, it’s terrible; I’m a very poor linguist.’

Gordimer’s work is not everyone’s cup of tea, mostly considered too political or / and too challenging. But both judgements rest more on hearsay than an engagement with her actual work.

Occasional stylistic density prevents a more leisurely read, but allowed to sink in, her thought-provoking stories can be inspiring, revelatory, and life-changing.

Many see her 1994 novel None to Accompany Me as a purely political reflection of the transition period in South Africa’s recent history. Rereading it now, I am stunned by the accuracy with which she prophecies the dangers facing the fledgling democracy. But for me personally, the novel is one of the most profound portrayals of a woman’s journey to selfhood.

This again brings to mind the statement with which André Brink’s morning phone call was fended off, and another quality which has defined Gordimer’s career – her ambivalence towards feminism. ‘All writers are androgynous beings,’ she states repeatedly.

She caused an uproar when she withdrew The House Gun (1998) from the shortlist of the prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction, reserved for women only.

‘I have been indeed and still am sometimes tackled, because I withdrew…and then I made this rather rude, I suppose,’ she reconsiders, ‘frank remark that we don’t write with our genitals.’

One of her stories, “A Journey”, was reprinted in the South African October edition of Playboy.

‘How do you feel about being published in the magazine?’

There is no issue for her. She does however make one crucial distinction. ‘I would hate to be published anywhere which was racist,’ she says. ‘I would refuse.’

Her parents were Jewish, but she is a self-declared atheist. She recently caused, in her own words, ‘great offence in America’ with her story “Second Coming” (2011) in which the son of God walks across a desolate, post-apocalyptic landscape. The possibility of life’s or humanity’s re-creation is rendered impossible, because as the last one-sentence paragraph tells us: “The sea is dead.”

‘What was the Americans’ problem with it?’ I’m curious.

‘Well, it’s not for me, sitting here in South Africa, this little unbeliever in any religion to say that Jesus is coming…using this as the ultimate example it should be, for people who revere Jesus and the idea of a second coming, that he should find the world destroyed. It’s a story about the environment.’

Gordimer’s Get a Life (2005) was probably the first green novel in South Africa. She is one of a handful of local writers who now consistently champion the environment in their work.

* * *

While she gets some tea, I glance around me. On three sides of the room shelves brim with books and CDs. A vase of strelitzias and a few sculptures of different origins catch my eye. A walking stick rests against the other side of the sofa. The room opens on a large patio and a magnificent garden in full bloom. The cushioned bay window looks like an ideal place for reading. It makes me think of something she’s just said:

‘I have recently reread Anna Karenina and War and Peace, and I have reread the whole of Marcel Proust and now I can read French sufficiently to read it in French. And there are so many others. When I look at my bookshelf, I say, my God I must read that again before I die.’

Bodo, the dog, appears at the same time as the tea tray. Marie biscuits are on offer.

‘How do you like your tea, weakish?’ she asks.

‘Strongish’

‘Oh good!’

Bodo is allowed one cookie while she pours the tea. As she lifts the heavy pot her fragile hands betray her age for the first time.

I cannot help but think of the three thieves who forced their way into her home in 2006 and brutally removed her wedding ring from her finger.

‘Did the attack have any lasting effects on you?’

‘You know, I hesitate to answer this because it sounds as if I’m saying that I am brave. I’m not… The only thing of consequence, practical consequence, is that I now have these wires around the house… But I’m not brave…I choose to go on living here…my reality is here.’

With Sontag at Wits in 2004.

With Sontag at Wits in 2004.

She has been accused of lacking courage to criticise the ANC. But following her late friend, the American intellectual Susan Sontag, Gordimer believes that ‘to be a moral human being, is to be obliged to pay certain kinds of attention.’

Very often she is the first to pay attention and fight with any means available to her for the causes she believes in.

Recently, together with André Brink, she drew up a petition against the planned legislation curtailing freedom of speech in South Africa and introducing ‘apartheid-type censorship all over again.’ The petition was not only signed by just about every writer in the country, but also many international writers whom Gordimer approached at the time during a visit in Sweden.

‘Let’s keep [the protest] going. Throw another log in the fire!’ she says.

The presidency was not impressed.

‘President Zuma didn’t have the courtesy to send us, representing so many others, an acknowledgement.’

In a recent HARDtalk interview she told Stephen Sackur that real loyalty to the ANC means the right to criticize the party, of which she is a member. She spoke of the disappointment she felt about the values that were being betrayed by the ANC. I prod her for more particulars.

‘First of all the fact that power is used in a very personal way.’

She is also deeply disappointed about the government’s handling of education.

‘The schooling is so bad.’ She is shocked at the discrepancy in entry requirements for university students from different backgrounds.

‘We can’t keep our black comrades out of universities. My God, who would want to? But what is the point of them coming in if they can’t cope. It’s humiliating for them…’

With Carlos Fuentes and André at home in 2006.

With Carlos Fuentes and André at home in 2006.

On the way to O.R. Tambo I ask the shuttle driver whether he knows the author Nadine Gordimer. I also ask a few SAA attendants. No recognition.

While awaiting my flight, I pose the same question to the middle-aged gentleman next to me. He is the only person to respond positively to my question. Does it matter that he is white and at least two decades older than the other people I’ve approached?

I am confident most Poles would at least have heard the name of the Polish Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska at school.

* * *

Still in Gordimer’s lounge, I dare ask a personal question.

‘What makes you really happy?’

A short silence; my heart stops.

‘André would say chocolate,’ I volunteer out of desperation.

‘Well, that’s an evasive answer… I’m also very fond of black chocolate, but of course that’s a taste happiness.’

Another pause.

‘I have been unbelievably lucky by having forty-eight years with the love of my life, and I have that to treasure. Sometimes it is painful to do so, but other times…it’s there, I had it.’