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If you like Nadine Gordimer's story, you might also like:
Joan Didion,
Carlos Fuentes,
Athol Fugard,
Ernest Gaines,
Louise Glück,
Norman Mailer,
Joyce Carol Oates,
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and Elie Wiesel

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Nadine Gordimer
Nadine Gordimer
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Nadine Gordimer Interview

Nobel Prize in Literature

November 11, 2009
Johannesburg, South Africa

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  Nadine Gordimer

Your novel Burger's Daughter portrays a family deeply involved in the liberation struggle in South Africa. How did you come to write it?

Nadine Gordimer: I knew many activist families. And I began to see -- I was still fairly young myself, my children were small -- that if you were the child of such families, and I can think at once of two or three, you were brought up in an atmosphere where the struggle came first, and you as a child -- a young boy or girl -- you came second. And indeed you were groomed, so to speak, politically groomed into the struggle. And I wondered and wondered, knowing many of them, how they felt about it. So how shall I put it? I put myself into that position to see, and that's how it came about. I also waited a long time to do it, because I thought, I am not in this. I'm neither a parent nor a child. I'm waiting for somebody to write it who would know more about it than I did. Nobody did, so I did. And it's only later that some of those children who were part of that grew up and wrote it. But I did it in the way I've described.

Did you ask any of these people to read Burger's Daughter before it was published?

Nadine Gordimer Interview Photo
Nadine Gordimer: I never asked anybody. I never have and still don't. I've written all my books, the main part, in this house, and my husband was extraordinary. He never asked to see what I was writing. It was not part of our intimacy. He was the first person to read the book when I finished it, but he never saw a word and I never talked about it to anybody while it was being written. That's just the way I worked.

We've read that you were actually waiting to visit a friend in prison when you first had the idea.

Nadine Gordimer: Yes, yes, that's true. I was going to see Bettie du Toit. And there were some other people, some young and others older, with their clean clothes or whatever it was.

Was there a particular young girl you saw there?

Nadine Gordimer: Yes, there were several young girls. I really don't want to talk about it because that's my business. I don't go further.

Burger's Daughter was banned by the South African government. Could you tell us about your experience with censorship?

Nadine Gordimer: I had three books banned, and an anthology I put together of poetry by black writers.

Did you anticipate that certain books of yours were going to be banned?

I knew Burger's Daughter would be banned because I even put in it -- the movement, sometimes scattered little pamphlets in the street, you know, which were swept up. But I always picked these things up, and I think I put one almost in its entirety in the book, so that would be enough for it to be banned. What else could you do? If you are a writer you must write what you see, and what you know, and what you've come to know, and what's happening around you.

Were you ever given a reason for any of your books being banned?

Nadine Gordimer: Yes, indeed.

I did something that nobody else had done, because I figured -- which book of mine? I think it was, it might have been The Late Bourgeois World. Or was it Burger's Daughter? No. I then asked the censorship board the reasons. And of course I consulted with my lawyer friends whether I was entitled to this, and indeed it turned out that within, I don't know, two weeks or something of the banning order, you could apply. But if it was any later... So I did it very quickly and I got the opinions of these people on why the book was banned. And indeed then, I had a friend at the University of Witwatersrand, an Afrikaans lecturer there, but he and other friends were doing a little secret kind of little publishing venture of anti-apartheid literature. And to do this as an Afrikaner was not easy, believe me, even less easy than for the rest of us, and we talked about it and they agreed -- I think he may have even suggested it -- that I should write what happened in court, which I did, and there's this little booklet, which is called What Happened to Burger's Daughter. So it was Burger's Daughter, yes. And it was then printed. They did it, and it was given to book shops to give away free to people who bought books there. So it was the only way of distributing it.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

Nadine Gordimer Interview Photo
And I'm so glad that we did that and indeed, asking them for their reasons. You want to be read, and you want to be read by your own people, right? I was writing in a world language, and my books were published in England and America and all over the place, but my own people couldn't read the book, except those who smuggled it in, in the covers of fairy stories or something.

How were you notified that your book would be banned?

Nadine Gordimer: Well, you're not notified. It just gets gazetted. It was in the government gazette. And then you make an appeal to the board. I hardly knew that the appeal existed, but my lawyer friends knew about it. There was this cut-off point so I hurriedly made the appeal in a letter of course, yes.

What was the impetus for making the appeal, just frustration?

Nadine Gordimer: Oh, no.

Because we felt, "Who are these people who are banning our books?" And remember, I had got the reasons, yes, and one of the reasons was that a child is going around a church and there were pictures. You might have remembered if you read the book, there's an unusual Christ on the cross, and here he was dark, dark hair or something. And the child said, "No, that's not Jesus. Jesus has got blond hair," and so on. And so the parents who were taking her around said, "You know, this was in the Middle East, and it's very likely indeed that he was very dark. So not blue-eyed and blond at all." And this was blasphemous. For God's sake! Or in any of the gods'!

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

So Burger's Daughter was banned for blasphemy, of all things.

Nadine Gordimer: Yes. That's why the book that we put together was called What Happened to Burger's Daughter, which means that was what happened to it. It had gotten banned, and the reasons for the banning were for everybody to read, which nobody had read for anybody's book before. They just were thrown away. I think then that my friend André Brink was inspired, as you would say, to do the same with a book of his that was banned.

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