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A tribute to Nadine Gordimer

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During the long years that I was unable to return to South Africa, where I was born, raised, and lived for the first 25 years of my life, I could spend time with Nadine Gordimer only when she visited Boston. She often stayed with close friends of hers in their home on a quiet, leafy street, close to the center of Harvard. She seemed to thrive during those visits, tasting the freedom that we who are privileged to live here too often take for granted. It was a response I knew well: I had endured the offensive restrictions of apartheid, and breathed deeply on my few visits to the United States before I settled here.

My husband, Anthony Lewis, and I often invited Nadine — for that is who she became to me — to dinner with friends, either hers or ours. As a young student in South Africa I had been an avid reader of her books and had admired her, always from afar. Here, in Cambridge, I discovered in a different way her demanding intellect, her incisive moral views, her generosity, and her sense of humor. A tiny, slightly frail-looking woman with a soft voice, she was made of steel. A white South African, she wrote again and again of the black experience under apartheid. That required courage. She never spoke of her political activities against apartheid at home — they were illegal in South Africa at the time. She chose to be known — she took the risk of being known only through her writing.

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After the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990, and the attendant political changes in South Africa, Tony and I would spend time with her each time we were there. We usually met at her home in Johannesburg where she loved to walk with Tony, himself an avid gardener, around the garden she loved, answering his endless questions about South African trees and flowering plants. As liberation from apartheid stretched into and beyond its first decade, neither Gordimer the writer nor Nadine the person was blind to any offensive aspects of the implementation of democracy. She could be biting in her criticism, yet she never forgot the long, bitter, tenacious history of white domination that each new, democratic South African government has confronted. I loved her for that and for so much more.

In 2005 the brilliant, energetic Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., organized a stunning event. To celebrate the 70th birthday of the great Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, the first African to win the Nobel Prize in literature, Gates invited three other Nobel Laureates in literature to an intellectual feast in honor of Soyinka: Nadine Gordimer (1991), Derek Walcott (1992), and Toni Morrison (1993). He asked me to introduce Gordimer, which I did to a packed, riveted audience at that historic gathering.

A portion of my remarks follows:

“I am an enormous, enormous admirer of Nadine Gordimer and her writing. One might be tempted to presume that my admiration stems from a shared history. We both grew up as children of privilege, white children, in the ‘rigidly racist and inhibited colonial society’ (those are her words) of small-town, provincial South Africa. Our vision of the world took shape on the hard, cruel anvil of apartheid. We both found the voice of our conscience in words: mine in the law, hers in potent works of imagination.

But it is much more than a commonality of formative experiences that draws me to Nadine Gordimer’s work. Like readers the world over, I am touched, again and again, by the gifts she has shared with us: her humanity, her fierce integrity, her deep commitment to exposing the twisted roots of racism and all forms of inequality, her transcendent quest for justice through truth-telling.

A tiny, slightly frail-looking woman with a soft voice, she was made of steel. A white South African, she wrote again and again of the black experience under apartheid.

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Others have captured these qualities better than I. Nadine Gordimer is ‘archivist and . . . lighthouse keeper,’ said Swedish writer Per Wästberg [at the time of the announcement of Gordimer as the 1991 recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature]. ‘Above her collected experience, the light sweeps, illuminating parts that would otherwise have lain in darkness, helping us navigate towards a South Africa that . . . depicts a universal landscape.’ Paul Theroux calls Gordimer ‘one of the most reliable witnesses to the seismic South African transformation’ since apartheid’s fall. And for Seamus Heaney, she is one of the ‘guerrillas of the imagination.’

Gordimer herself has said that, ‘[t]he best way a writer can serve a revolution is to write as well as he can.’ Having written as well as she can for over 50 years, Nadine Gordimer is justly celebrated as a moving force in the revolution of the human spirit.”

Today I treasure my memories of that extraordinary evening. My memories of the times I spent with her? It is hard to describe what those mean to me.

A native of South Africa, Margaret H. Marshall is a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. Until the defeat of apartheid in South Africa in 1990, the apartheid government prevented her from returning to South Africa.
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