I am deeply saddened and angered – furious, I’m furious – by the world’s recent political events. I believe I filled my Twitter timeline with enough obscenities to get me through November 9th as the votes rolled in and the reactions occurred. I broke my “books only” Twitter rule that day and I will continue to break it unapologetically.
This experience has sent me directly back to Nadine Gordimer. If you’ve been reading this website for any amount of time, and especially back when I began it ten years ago, you’ll know that I’ve read and written about each of Gordimer’s fifteen novels. I did not examine then what sparked my interest in Gordimer’s work. I just loved her project – but now I think I understand why I felt such an urgency to read and re-read her work.
I grew up in the Pacific Northwest of the US, which is not known for its racial diversity – but I had the unique experience of attending elementary school in a majority black neighborhood. I was one of two white children in my 1st and 2nd grade classrooms. This was in Seattle, WA. When my family moved to Oregon, we lived in NE Portland, and I attended middle school and high school in schools which were fifty percent African-American. I’m so thankful that my parents never considered sending my sister and me to private schools. I’m so thankful for my urban, vibrant, sometimes rowdy public school education and the diversity of kids I grew up and learned alongside.
I experienced racial tensions, yes, but from the privileged white side of things, aware that there were things I did not understand and also, less consciously, that I did not need to understand. Fights in the halls. Students killed in shootings (One each year at my high school.) Racial divisions between student groups. My father is a retired Lutheran pastor, and his church when I was growing up sat at the edge of a black neighborhood and it worked with youth at-risk of joining the city’s gangs. He received death threats for performing gay marriages, and my sister and I were taught to walk outside on “condition yellow” after that. But many good things, too. He worked to develop a weekly evening jazz service with neighborhood musicians that was wildly successful and brought so many different cultures together, and it was really urban-style ministry with open doors and loads of inclusive programming. There is no perfect way to educate your children about issues of racial and social injustice and I’m sure my parents were as flawed as the next person in their approach sometimes, but I’m lucky my parents were committed to try. And although I have a lot of criticism for religion and am no longer a part of any church, I also see the good that open-minded communities of any motivation, faith or otherwise, can bring.
There is more to this story and it’s long and takes me to where I’ve ended up — living in Switzerland, and now holding Swiss nationality. What is interesting to me is thinking about the ways in which I remain connected to America. Like many emigrants, I have a complicated relationship with my country of origin (add to this the fact that I was born in Japan), but where I have remained passionately connected to the country is in the ongoing story of its racial issues. And I know this comes from growing up in the context I’ve just explained.
This is a long way of getting to why I am drawn to Gordimer’s work. She was white (I wrote “is” and am very sad to have had to correct that) and privileged, and yet her 60-year body of work is a deeply sincere engagement with what those two terms meant in the context of apartheid South Africa and its aftermath. She is an absolute inspiration to me, and not just from a technical craft perspective. There is no replacing the joy and responsibility of reading the works of writers of color as they create their art in response to their lived experiences, but alongside this, I find comfort in knowing that white writers can investigate these issues and make art from an honest position within their privileged experience. Gordimer provides a road map of sorts—and even if it isn’t the same country or the same time period, maps are endlessly fascinating in what they reveal.
I am genuinely curious if there is an equivalent white American writer – writing about race issues as honestly and as openly as Gordimer did, for such a long time and from the particular position that Gordimer takes? I can’t think of one, but there must be and maybe my brain is just mushy from all the awfulness of the last two days.
Because of recent events, I am drawn to re-read her first novel, The Lying Days, which was published in 1953. The South African National Party came to power in 1948 and first strengthened the racial segregation that already existed in the country, and then institutionalized it into apartheid. The last third of The Lying Days takes place in 1950, and I’d like to excerpt a passage, a long reflection by the novel’s narrator Helen who is grappling to understand what the new political system means. It is a little long but I find it frightfully prescient:
Nothing happened. Of course nothing happened. We wanted a quick shock, over and done with, but what we were going to get was something much slower, surer, and more terrible: an apparent sameness in the conduct of our lives, long periods when there was nothing more to hurt us than hard words in Parliament and talk of the Republic which we had laughed at for years; and, recurrently, a mounting number of weary battles—apartheid in the public transport and buildings, the ban on mixed marriages, the Suppression of Communism bill, the language ordinance separating Afrikaans and English-speaking children in schools, the removal of coloured voters from the common electoral roll and the setting aside of the Supreme Court judgment that made this act illegal—passionately debated in Parliament with the United Party and Labour Party forming the Opposition, inevitably lost to the Government before the first protest was spoken.
When the impact on individual, personal lives is not immediate and actual, political change does not affect the real happiness or unhappiness of people’s lives, though they may protest that it does. If the change of government throws you into a concentration camp, then your preoccupation with politics will equal that you might normally have had with your wife’s fidelity or your own health. But if your job is the same, your freedom of movement is the same, the outward appearance of your surroundings is the same, the heaviness lies only upon the extension of yourself which belongs to the world of abstract ideas, which, although it influences them through practical expression of moral convictions, loses, again and again, to the overwhelming tug of the warm and instinctual….
… it was only very slowly, as the months and then the years went by, that the moral climate of guilt and fear and oppression chilled through to the bone, almost as if the real climate of the elements had changed, the sun had turned away from South Africa, bringing about actual personality changes that affected even the most intimate conduct of their lives.