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Nadine Gordimer

Gordimer (left) with David Grossman
Born 20 November 1923 (1923-11-20) (age 86)
Springs, Gauteng, Johannesburg,
South Africa
Occupation Playwright, Novelist
Language English
Nationality South African
Notable work(s) The Conservationist, July's People
Notable award(s) Nobel Prize in Literature

Nadine Gordimer (born 20 November 1923) is a South African writer, political activist and Nobel laureate.

Her writing has long dealt with moral and racial issues, particularly apartheid in South Africa. She was active in the anti-apartheid movement, joining the African National Congress during the days when the organization was banned. She has recently been active in HIV/AIDS causes.



She was born around Springs, Gauteng, an East Rand mining town outside Johannesburg, the daughter of Isidore and Nan Gordimer. Her parents were both Jewish immigrants, her father a watchmaker from Lithuania near the Latvian border,[1] and her mother from London. Gordimer's early interest in racial and economic inequality in South Africa was shaped in part by her parents. Her father's experience as a Jewish refugee in czarist Russia helped form Gordimer's political identity, but he was neither an activist nor particularly sympathetic toward the experiences of black people under apartheid.[2] Conversely, Gordimer saw activism by her mother, whose concern about the poverty and discrimination faced by black people in South Africa led her to found a crèche for black children.[1] Gordimer also witnessed government repression firsthand, when as a teenager the police raided her family home, confiscating letters and diaries from a servant's room.[1]

Gordimer was educated at a Catholic convent school, but was largely home-bound as a child because of her mother's "strange reasons of her own" (apparently, fears that Gordimer had a weak heart).[2] Home-bound and often isolated, she began writing at an early age, and published her first stories in 1937 at the age of fifteen.[3] Her first published work was a short story for children, "The Quest for Seen Gold," which appeared in the Children's Sunday Express in 1937; "Come Again Tomorrow," another children's story, appeared in Forum around the same time. At the age of 16, she had her first adult fiction published.[4]

Gordimer studied for a year at the University of the Witwatersrand, where she mixed for the first time with fellow professionals across the color bar. She also became involved in the Sophiatown renaissance.[4] She did not complete her degree, but moved to Johannesburg in 1948, where she has lived ever since. While taking classes in Johannesburg, Gordimer continued to write, publishing mostly in local South African magazines. She collected many of these early stories in Face to Face, published in 1949.

In 1951, the New Yorker accepted Gordimer's story "A Watcher of the Dead",[5] beginning a long relationship, and bringing Gordimer's work to a much larger public. Gordimer, who has said she believes the short story is the literary form for our age,[3] has continued to publish short stories in the New Yorker and other prominent literary journals. Gordimer's first publisher, Lulu Friedman, was the wife of the Parliamentarian Bernard Friedman and it was at their house that Gordimer met other anti-apartheid writers[6]

Gordimer's first novel, The Lying Days, was published in 1953. In 1954, she married Reinhold Cassirer, a highly respected art dealer who established the South African Sotheby's and later ran his own gallery; their "wonderful marriage"[2] lasted until his death from emphysema in 2001. It was her second marriage and his third. Their son, Hugo, was born in 1955, and is today a filmmaker in New York, with whom Gordimer has collaborated on at least two documentaries. Gordimer also has a daughter, Oriane (born 1950), by her first marriage.

Political and literary activism

Apartheid in South Africa
Events and Projects

Sharpeville Massacre
Soweto uprising · Treason Trial
Rivonia Trial · Mahlabatini Declaration
Church Street bombing · CODESA
St James Church massacre
Cape Town peace march · Purple Rain


ANC · IFP · AWB · Black Sash · CCB
Conservative Party · ECC · PP · RP
Broederbond · National Party


P. W. Botha · Oupa Gqozo · D. F. Malan
Nelson Mandela · Desmond Tutu
F. W. de Klerk · Walter Sisulu
Helen Suzman · Harry Schwarz
Andries Treurnicht · H. F. Verwoerd
Oliver Tambo · B. J. Vorster
Kaiser Matanzima · Jimmy Kruger
Steve Biko · Mahatma Gandhi
Joe Slovo · Trevor Huddleston


Bantustan · District Six · Robben Island
Sophiatown · South-West Africa
Soweto · Sun City · Vlakplaas

Other aspects

Afrikaner nationalism
Apartheid laws · Freedom Charter
Sullivan Principles · Kairos Document
Disinvestment campaign
South African Police

The arrest of her best friend, Bettie du Toit, in 1960 and the Sharpeville massacre spurred Gordimer's entry into the anti-apartheid movement.[1] Thereafter, she quickly became active in South African politics, and was close friends with Nelson Mandela's defense attorneys (Bram Fischer and George Bizos) during his 1962 trial.[1] When Mandela was released from prison in 1990, Gordimer was one of the first people he wanted to see.[1]

During the 1960s and 1970s, she continued to live in Johannesburg, although she occasionally left for short periods of time to teach at several universities in the United States. She had begun to achieve international literary recognition, receiving her first major award in 1961.[7] Throughout this time, Gordimer continued to demand through both her writing and her activism that South Africa re-examine and replace its long held policy of apartheid.

During this time, the South African government banned several of her works, two for lengthy periods of time. The Late Bourgeois World was Gordimer's first personal experience with censorship; it was banned in 1976 for a decade by the South African government.[8][9] A World of Strangers was banned for twelve years.[9] Other works were censored for lesser amounts of time. Burger's Daughter, published in June, 1979, was banned one month later; the Publications Committee's Appeal Board reversed the censorship of Burger's Daughter six months later, determining that the book was too one-sided to be subversive.[10] Gordimer responded to this decision in Essential Gesture (1988), pointing out that the board banned two books by black authors at the same time it unbanned her own work.[11] July's People was also banned under apartheid, and faced censorship under the post-apartheid government as well:[12] In 2001, a provincial education department temporarily removed July's People from the school reading list, along with works by other anti-apartheid writers,[13] describing July's People as "deeply racist, superior and patronizing"[14]—a characterization that Gordimer took as a grave insult, and that many literary and political figures protested.[13]

In South Africa, she joined the African National Congress when it was still listed as an illegal organization by the South African government.[15][1] While never blindly loyal to any organization, Gordimer saw the ANC as the best hope for reversing South Africa's treatment of black citizens. Rather than simply criticizing the organization for its perceived flaws, she advocated joining it to address them.[1] She hid ANC leaders in her own home to aid their escape from arrest by the government, and she has said that the proudest day of her life was when she testified at the 1986 Delmas Treason Trial on behalf of 22 South African anti-apartheid activists.[15][1] (See Simon Nkoli, Mosiuoa Lekota, etc.) Throughout these years she also regularly took part in anti-apartheid demonstrations in South Africa, and traveled internationally speaking out against South African apartheid and discrimination and political repression.[1]

Her works began achieving literary recognition early in her career, with her first international recognition in 1961, followed by numerous literary awards throughout the ensuing decades. Literary recognition for her accomplishments culminated with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991, which noted that Gordimer "through her magnificent epic writing has—in the words of Alfred Nobel—been of very great benefit to humanity".[16]

Gordimer's activism has not been limited to the struggle against apartheid. She has resisted censorship and state control of information, and fostered the literary arts. She refused to let her work be aired by the South African Broadcasting Corporation because it was controlled by the apartheid government.[17] Gordimer also served on the steering committee of South Africa's Anti-Censorship Action Group. A founding member of the Congress of South African Writers, Gordimer has also been active in South African letters and international literary organizations. She has been Vice President of International PEN.

In the post-apartheid 1990s and 21st century, Gordimer has been active in the HIV/AIDS movement, which is a significant public health crisis in South Africa. In 2004, she organized about 20 major writers to contribute short fiction for Telling Tales, a fundraising book for South Africa's Treatment Action Campaign, which lobbies for government funding for HIV/AIDS prevention and care.[18] On this matter, she has been critical of the current South African government, noting in 2004 that she "approves" of everything President Mbeki has done except his stance on AIDS.[18][19][20]

While on lecture tours, she has spoken on matters of foreign policy and discrimination beyond South Africa. For instance, in 2005, when Fidel Castro fell ill, Gordimer joined six other Nobel prizewinners in a public letter to the United States warning it not to seek to destabilize Cuba's communist government. In 2001 she urged her friend Susan Sontag not to accept an award from the Israeli government, though she angered some (including her biographer) by refusing to equate Zionism with apartheid. Gordimer's resistance to discrimination extended to her even refusing to accept "shortlisting" in 1998 for the Orange Prize, because the award recognizes only women writers.

Gordimer self-identifies as an atheist,[21] but has not been active in atheist organizations.

Work and themes

Gordimer has achieved lasting international recognition for her works, most of which deal with political issues, as well as the "moral and psychological tensions of her racially divided home country."[22] Virtually all of Gordimer's works deal with themes of love and politics, particularly concerning race in South Africa. Always questioning power relations and truth, Gordimer tells stories of ordinary people, revealing moral ambiguities and choices. Her characterization is nuanced, revealed more through the choices her characters make than through their claimed identities and beliefs. She also weaves in subtle details within the character's names.


Overview of critical works

Her first published novel, The Lying Days (1953), takes place in Gordimer's home town of Springs, Transvaal, an East Rand mining town near Johannesburg. Arguably a semi-autobiographical work, The Lying Days is a Bildungsroman, charting the growing political awareness of a young white woman, Helen, toward small-town life and South African racial division.[23]

In her 1963 work, Occasion for Loving, Gordimer puts apartheid and love squarely together. Her protagonist, Ann Davis, is married to Boaz Davis, an ethnomusicologist, but in love with Gideon Shibalo, an artist with several failed relationships. Ann Davis is white, however, and Gideon Shibalo is black, and South Africa's government criminalised such relationships.

Gordimer collected the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for A Guest of Honour in 1971 and, in common with a number of winners of this award, she was to go on to win the Booker Prize. The Booker was awarded to Gordimer for her 1974 novel, The Conservationist,[24] and was a co-winner with Stanley Middleton's novel Holiday. The Conservationist explores Zulu culture and the world of a wealthy white industrialist through the eyes of Mehring, the antihero. Per Wästberg described The Conservationist as Gordimer's "densest and most poetical novel".[1] Thematically covering the same ground as Olive Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm (1883) and J. M. Coetzee's In the Heart of the Country (1977), the "conservationist" seeks to conserve nature to preserve the apartheid system, keeping change at bay. When an unidentified corpse is found on his farm, Mehring does the "right thing" by providing it a proper burial; but the dead person haunts the work, a reminder of the bodies on which Mehring's vision would be built.

Gordimer's 1979 novel Burger's Daughter is the story of a woman analyzing her relationship with her father, a martyr to the anti-apartheid movement. The child of two Communist and anti-apartheid revolutionaries, Rosa Burger finds herself drawn into political activism as well. Written in the aftermath of the Soweto uprising, the novel was shortly thereafter banned by the South African government. Gordimer described the novel as a "coded homage" to Bram Fischer, the lawyer who defended Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists.[25]

In July's People (1981), Gordimer imagines a bloody South African revolution, in which white people are hunted and murdered after black people begin a revolution against the apartheid government. The work follows Maureen and Bamford Smales, an educated white couple, hiding for their lives with July, their long-time former servant. The novel plays off the various groups of "July's people": his family and his village, as well as the Smales. The story examines how people cope with the terrible choices forced on them by violence, race hatred, and the state.

The House Gun (1998) was Gordimer's second post-apartheid novel. It follows the story of a couple, Claudia and Harald Lingard, dealing with their son Duncan's murder of one of his housemates. The novel treats the rising crime rate in South Africa and the guns that virtually all households have, as well as the legacy of South African apartheid and the couple's concerns about their son's lawyer, who is black. The novel was optioned for film rights to Granada Productions.[26][27][28]

Gordimer's award-winning 2002 novel, The Pickup, considers the issues of displacement, alienation, and immigration; class and economic power; religious faith; and the ability for people to see, and love, across these divides. It tells the story of a couple: Julie Summers, a white woman from a financially secure family, and Abdu, an illegal Arab immigrant in South Africa. After Abdu's visa is refused, the couple returns to his homeland, where she is the alien. Her experiences and growth as an alien in another culture form the heart of the work.[29][30][31][32]

Gordimer's recent novel, Get a Life, written in 2005 after the death of her longtime spouse, Reinhold Cassirer, is the story of a man undergoing treatment for a life-threatening disease. While clearly drawn from recent personal life experiences, the novel also continues Gordimer's exploration of political themes. The protagonist is an ecologist, battling installation of a planned nuclear plant. But he is at the same time undergoing radiation therapy for his cancer, causing him personal grief and, ironically, rendering him a nuclear health hazard in his own home. Here, Gordimer again pursues the questions of how to integrate everyday life and political activism.[15]

Biography by Roberts

Ronald Suresh Roberts published a biography of Gordimer, No Cold Kitchen, in 2006. Gordimer had granted Roberts interviews and access to her personal papers, with an understanding that she would authorize the biography in return for a right to review the manuscript before publication. However, Gordimer and Roberts failed to reach an agreement over his account of the illness and death of Gordimer's husband Reinhold Cassirer and an affair Gordimer had in the 50s, as well as criticism of her views on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Roberts published independently, not as "authorized", and Gordimer disavowed the book, accusing Roberts of breach of trust.[33]

In addition to those disagreements, Roberts critiques Gordimer's post-apartheid advocacy on behalf of black South Africans, in particular her opposition to the government's handling of the AIDS crisis, as a paternalistic and hypocritical white liberalism. The biography also revealed that Gordimer's 1954 New Yorker essay, A South African Childhood, was not wholly biographical and contained some fabricated events.[33]


  • The First Circle (1949) pub. in Six One-Act Plays
Adaptations of Gordimer's works
  • "The Gordimer Stories" (1981-82) - adaptations of seven Gordimer short stories; she wrote screenplays for four of them
Other works
  • On the Mines (1973)
  • Lifetimes Under Apartheid (1986)
  • "Choosing for Justice: Allan Boesak" (1983) (documentary with Hugo Cassirer)
  • "Berlin and Johannesburg: The Wall and the Colour Bar" (documentary with Hugo Cassirer)
Edited works
Short fiction collections
  • Face to Face (1949)
  • Town and Country Lovers
  • The Soft Voice of the Serpent (1952)
  • Six feet of the Country (1956)
  • Friday's Footprint (1960)
  • Not for Publication (1965)
  • Livingstone's Companions (1970)
  • Selected Stories (1975)
  • No Place Like: Selected Stories (1978)
  • A Soldier's Embrace (1980)
  • Something Out There (1984)
  • Correspondence Course and other Stories (1984)
  • The Moment Before the Gun Went Off (1988)
  • Once Upon a Time (1989)
  • Jump: And Other Stories (1991)
  • Why Haven't You Written: Selected Stories 1950-1972 (1992)
  • Something for the Time Being 1950-1972 (1992)
  • Loot: And Other Stories (2003)
  • Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black (2007)
Essay collections
  • The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics and Places (1988)
  • The Black Interpreters (1973)
  • Writing and Being: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures (1995)

Honours and awards

See also

Further reading

Brief biographies

Critical studies

  • Stephen Clingman, The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: History from the Inside (1986)
  • John Cooke, The Novels of Nadine Gordimer
  • Andrew Vogel Ettin, Betrayals of the Body Politic: The Literary Commitments of Nadine Gordimer (1993)
  • Dominic Head, Nadine Gordimer (1994)
  • Christopher Heywood, Nadine Gordimer (1983)
  • Rowland Smith, editor, Critical Essays on Nadine Gordimer (1990)
  • Barbara Temple-Thurston, Nadine Gordimer Revisited (1999) ISBN 0805746080
  • Kathrin Wagner, Rereading Nadine Gordimer (1994)
  • Louise Yelin, From the Margins of Empire: Christina Stead, Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer (1998)
  • Nadine Gordimer's Politics. Article by Jillian Becker in Commentary, February 1992[35]

Short reviews

Speeches and interviews


  • Ronald Suresh Roberts, No Cold Kitchen: A Biography of Nadine Gordimer (2005)
  • No Cold Kitchen: A Biography of Nadine Gordimer by Ronald Suresh Roberts (STE) [36]

Research archives


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Per Wästberg, Nadine Gordimer and the South African Experience, 26 April 2001. (Nobel Prize article.).
  2. ^ a b c "A Writer's Life: Nadine Gordimer", 3 April 2006, Telegraph.
  3. ^ a b Nadine Gordimer, Guardian Unlimited (last visited January 25, 2007).
  4. ^ a b "Nadine Gordimer: A Sport of Nature, The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards].
  5. ^ New Yorker, 9 June 1951.
  6. ^
  7. ^ The W. H. Smith Commonwealth Literary Award.
  8. ^ Gail Caldwell, "South African Writer Given Nobel", The Boston Globe, October 4, 1991.
  9. ^ a b Jonathan Steele, "White Magic", London Guardian, October 27, 2001.
  10. ^ "Radiation, Race, and Molly Bloom: Nadine Gordimer Talks with BookForum", BookForum, Feb / March 2006.
  11. ^ Gordimer wrote an account of the censorship in "What Happened to Burger's Daughter or How South African Censorship Works".
  12. ^ BBC News, "South Africa reinstates authors", 22 April 2001.
  13. ^ a b "Gordimer detractors 'insulting', says Asmal",, 19 April 2001.
  14. ^ Anuradha Kumar, "New Boundaries", The Hindu, August 1, 2004.
  15. ^ a b c Donald Morrison, "Nadine Gordimer", Time Magazine 60 Years of Heroes (2006)
  16. ^ The Nobel Prize in Literature 1991, Nobel Prize Laureate biography.
  17. ^ Christopher S. Wren, "Former Censors Bow Coldly to Apartheid Chronicler", New York Times, October 6, 1991.
  18. ^ a b Agence France-Presse, Nobel laureates join battle against AIDS, December 1, 2004.
  19. ^ Gordimer and literary giants fight AIDS,, November 29, 2004.
  20. ^ Nadine Gordimer and Anthony Sampson, Letter to The New Review of Books, November 16, 2000.
  21. ^ Paris Review, Interview with Gordimer.
  22. ^ Petri Liukkonen & Ari Pesonen, Nadine Gordimer, Books and Writers (last visited May 7, 2009).
  23. ^ Judith Norman, "Special Commissioned Essay on The Lying Days".
  24. ^ The Conservationist
  25. ^ Brief biography of Bram Fischer, Bram Fischer Human Rights Programme, Wits School of Law (2005; last visited 2007/4/4).
  26. ^ Dwight Garner and Nadine Gordimer, "The Salon Interview: Nadine Gordimer, March 1998.
  27. ^, ReadingGroup Guide, The House Gun by Nadine Gordimer.
  28. ^ David Medalie, "'The Context of the Awful Event': Nadine Gordimer's The House Gun", Journal of South African Studies, v.25, n.4 (December 1999), pp. 633-644.
  29. ^ J. M. Coetzee, "Awakening" (review of The Pickup and Loot and Other Stories), The New York Review of Books, v.50, n. 16 (October 23, 2003).
  30. ^ Sue Kossew, "Review of Nadine Gordimer, The Pickup", Quodlibet, v.1, February 2005.
  31. ^ Penguin Book Clubs/Reading Guides, Nadine Gordimer's The Pickup.
  32. ^ Anthony York, "The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer" (book review),, December 6, 2001.
  33. ^ a b Donadio, Rachel (31 December 2006), Bio Hazard, New York Times,, retrieved 2007-04-12  
  34. ^ Celean Jacobson, "Nadine Gordimer awarded Legion of Honour", Mail & Guardian Online, 1 April 2007.
  35. ^
  36. ^


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Art defies defeat by its very existence, representing the celebration of life, in spite of all attempts to degrade and destroy it.

Nadine Gordimer (born 20 November 1923) is a South African Jewish novelist and writer, winner of the 1991 Nobel Prize in literature and 1974 Booker Prize.



  • The truth isn't always beauty, but the hunger for it is.
    • "A Bolter and the Invincible Summer" ~ London Magazine (May 1963)
  • The gap between the committed and the indifferent is a Sahara whose faint trails, followed by the mind's eye only, fade out in sand.
    • "Great Problems in the Street," in I Will Still Be Moved (1963) ed. by Marion Friedmann
  • I opened the telegram and said, "He's dead —" and as I looked up into Graham Mill's gaze I saw that he knew who, before I could say.
    • The Late Bourgeois World (1966) First lines
  • Among the group of people waiting at the fortress was a schoolgirl in a brown and yellow uniform holding a green eiderdown quilt and, by the loop at its neck, a red hot-water bottle.
    • Burger's Daughter (1979) First lines
  • Writing is making sense of life. You work your whole life and perhaps you've made sense of one small area.
    • Interview with Jannika Hurwitt, The Paris Review Interviews: Writers at Work, Sixth Series (fall 1979/spring 1980)
  • Responsibility is what awaits outside the Eden of Creativity.
    • "The Essential Gesture" (12 October 1984)
  • The creative act is not pure. History evidences it. Sociology extracts it. The writer loses Eden, writes to be read and comes to realize that he is answerable.
    • The Tanner Lectures on Human Values (1985) ed. Sterling McMurrin
  • Censorship is never over for those who have experienced it. It is a brand on the imagination that affects the individual who has suffered it, forever.
    • "Censorship and its Aftermath" ( June 1990)
  • You can't change a regime on the basis of compassion. There's got to be something harder.
    • "'A feeling of realistic optimism': An interview with Nadine Gordimer" by Karen Lazar, Salmagundi 113 (Winter 1997)
  • Mostly I'm interviewed by white people, and identified with white society.
    • "The conscience of South Africa talks about her country's new racial order" (1998) by Dwight Garner
  • Well, you know, in the fundamentalist milieu of the Afrikaners, there was a sense that they were a chosen people, that they were bringing civilization to the blacks.
    • "The conscience of South Africa talks about her country's new racial order" (1998) by Dwight Garner
  • Art defies defeat by its very existence, representing the celebration of life, in spite of all attempts to degrade and destroy it.
  • Learning to write sent me falling, falling through the surface of the South African way of life.

Writing and Being (1991)

Nobel Lecture (7 December 1991)

  • In the beginning was the Word. The Word was with God, signified God's Word, the word that was Creation. But over the centuries of human culture the word has taken on other meanings, secular as well as religious. To have the word has come to be synonymous with ultimate authority, with prestige, with awesome, sometimes dangerous persuation, to have Prime Time, a TV talk show, to have the gift of the gab as well as that of speaking in tongues. The word flies through space, it is bounced from satellites, now nearer than it has ever been to the heaven from which it was believed to have come.
  • Like the prisoners incarcerated with the jaguar in Borges' story, 'The God's Script', who was trying to read, in a ray of light which fell only once a day, the meaning of being from the marking on the creature's pelt, we spend our lives attempting to interpret through the word the readings we take in the societies, the world of which we are part. It is in this sense, this inextricable, ineffable participation, that writing is always and at once an exploration of self and of the world; of individual and collective being.
  • Humans, the only self-regarding animals, blessed or cursed with this torturing higher faculty, have always wanted to know why.
  • Since humans became self-regarding they have sought, as well, explanations for the common phenomena of procreation, death, the cycle of seasons, the earth, sea, wind and stars, sun and moon, plenty and disaster. With myth, the writer's ancestors, the oral story-tellers, began to feel out and formulate these mysteries, using the elements of daily life — observable reality — and the faculty of the imagination — the power of projection into the hidden — to make stories.
  • Myth was the mystery plus the fantasy — gods, anthropomorphized animals and birds, chimera, phantasmagorical creatures — that posits out of the imagination some sort of explanation for the mystery. Humans and their fellow creatures were the materiality of the story, but as Nikos Kazantzakis once wrote, 'Art is the representation not of the body but of the forces which created the body.'
  • There are many proven explanations for natural phenomena now; and there are new questions of being arising out of some of the answers. For this reason, the genre of myth has never been entirely abandoned, although we are inclined to think of it as archaic. If it dwindled to the children's bedtime tale in some societies, in parts of the world protected by forests or deserts from international megaculture it has continued, alive, to offer art as a system of mediation between the individual and being. And it has made a whirling comeback out of Space, an Icarus in the avatar of Batman and his kind, who never fall into the ocean of failure to deal with the gravity forces of life.
  • Perhaps it is the positive knowledge that humans now possess the means to destroy their whole planet, the fear that they have in this way themselves become the gods, dreadfully charged with their own continued existence, that has made comic-book and movie myth escapist.
  • The forces of being remain. They are what the writer, as distinct from the contemporary popular mythmaker, still engage today, as myth in its ancient form attempted to do.
  • The writer in relation to the nature of perceivable reality and what is beyond — imperceivable reality — is the basis for all these studies, no matter what resulting concepts are labelled, and no matter in what categorized microfiles writers are stowed away for the annals of literary historiography. Reality is constructed out of many elements and entities, seen and unseen, expressed, and left unexpressed for breathing-space in the mind.
  • Literary scholars end up being some kind of storyteller, too.
  • Perhaps there is no other way of reaching some understanding of being than through art? Writers themselves don't analyze what they do; to analyze would be to look down while crossing a canyon on a tightrope.
  • Any writer of any worth at all hopes to play only a pocket-torch of light — and rarely, through genius, a sudden flambeau — into the bloody yet beautiful labyrinth of human experience, of being.
  • I have said that nothing factual that I write or say will be as truthful as my fiction. The life, the opinions, are not the work, for it is in the tension between standing apart and being involved that the imagination transforms both. Let me give some minimal account of myself. I am what I suppose would be called a natural writer. I did not make any decision to become one. I did not, at the beginning, expect to earn a living by being read. I wrote as a child out of the joy of apprehending life through my senses — the look and scent and feel of things; and soon out of the emotions that puzzled me or raged within me and which took form, found some enlightenment, solace and delight, shaped in the written word.
  • I was evidence of the theory that books are made out of other books . . . But I did not remain so for long, nor do I believe any potential writer could.
  • With adolescence comes the first reaching out to otherness through the drive of sexuality. For most children, from then on the faculty of the imagination, manifest in play, is lost in the focus on day dreams of desire and love, but for those who are going to be artists of one kind or another the first life-crisis after that of birth does something else in addition: the imagination gains range and extends by the subjective flex of new and turbulent emotions. There are new perceptions. The writer begins to be able to enter into other lives. The process of standing apart and being involved has come.
  • Both Borges and Sartre, from their totally different extremes of denying literature a social purpose, were certainly perfectly aware that it has its implicit and unalterable social role in exploring the state of being, from which all other roles, personal among friends, public at the protest demonstration, derive. Borges was not writing for his friends, for he published and we all have received the bounty of his work. Sartre did not stop writing, although he stood at the barricades in 1968.
  • Camus dealt with the question best. He said that he liked individuals who take sides more than literatures that do. 'One either serves the whole of man or does not serve him at all. And if man needs bread and justice, and if what has to be done must be done to serve this need, he also needs pure beauty which is the bread of his heart.' So Camus called for 'Courage in and talent in one's work.' And Márquez redefined tender fiction thus: The best way a writer can serve a revolution is to write as well as he can.
    I believe that these two statements might be the credo for all of us who write. They do not resolve the conflicts that have come, and will continue to come, to contemporary writers. But they state plainly an honest possibility of doing so, they turn the face of the writer squarely to her and his existence, the reason to be, as a writer, and the reason to be, as a responsible human, acting, like any other, within a social context.
  • Being here: in a particular time and place. That is the existential position with particular implications for literature.
  • Most imprisoned writers have been shut away for their activities as citizens striving for liberation against the oppression of the general society to which they belong. Others have been condemned by repressive regimes for serving society by writing as well as they can; for this aesthetic venture of ours becomes subversive when the shameful secrets of our times are explored deeply, with the artist's rebellious integrity to the state of being manifest in life around her or him; then the writer's themes and characters inevitably are formed by the pressures and distortions of that society as the life of the fisherman is determined by the power of the sea.
  • There is a paradox. In retaining this integrity, the writer sometimes must risk both the state's indictment of treason, and the liberation forces' complaint of lack of blind commitment.
  • The writer must take the right to explore, warts and all, both the enemy and the beloved comrade in arms, since only a try for the truth makes sense of being, only a try for the truth edges towards justice just ahead of Yeats's beast slouching to be born.
  • The writer is of service to humankind only insofar as the writer uses the word even against his or her own loyalties, trusts the state of being, as it is revealed, to hold somewhere in its complexity filaments of the cord of truth, able to be bound together, here and there, in art: trusts the state of being to yield somewhere fragmentary phrases of truth, which is the final word of words, never changed by our stumbling efforts to spell it out and write it down, never changed by lies, by semantic sophistry, by the dirtying of the word for the purposes of racism, sexism, prejudice, domination, the glorification of destruction, the curses and the praise-songs.

Speech at the Nobel Banquet (1991)

Full text (10 December 1991)

  • When the six-year-old daughter of a friend of mine overheard her father telling someone that I had been awarded the Nobel Prize, she asked whether I had ever received it before. He replied that the Prize was something you could get only once. Whereupon the small girl thought a moment: 'Oh' she said, 'so it's like chicken-pox.'
  • I certainly find being the recipient at this celebratory dinner more pleasurable and rewarding than chicken-pox, having now in my life experienced both. But the small girl was not entirely wrong. Writing is indeed, some kind of affliction in its demands as the most solitary and introspective of occupations.
  • We must live fully in order to secrete the substance of our work, but we have to work alone.
  • When I began to write as a very young person in a rigidly racist and inhibited colonial society, I felt, as many others did, that I existed marginally on the edge of the world of ideas, of imagination and beauty. These, taking shape in poetry and fiction, drama, painting and sculpture, were exclusive to that distant realm known as 'overseas'.
  • What we had to do to find the world was to enter our own world fully, first. We had to enter through the tragedy of our own particular place. If the Nobel awards have a special meaning, it is that they carry this concept further. In their global eclecticism they recognize that no single society, no country or continent can presume to create a truly human culture for the world. To be among laureates, past and present, is at least to belong to some sort of one world.

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