Dialogue with Nadine Gordimer, South African Nobel Laureate for Literature
Nadine Gordimer in Jerusalem
Excerpts from a dialogue with South African Nobel Literature Prize winner, Nadine Gordimer, at the Jerusalem International Writers Conference on May 13, 2008. The dialogue, held at Tmol Shimshom literary café, was moderated by Benjamin Pogrund, former deputy editor of the anti-apartheid Rand Daily Mail and a member of the Palestine-Israel Journal Editorial Board.

Benjamin Pogrund: Welcome to Jerusalem. I must say that Nadine was under a lot of pressure not to come. She phoned me a few weeks ago; we talked about it and I left it to her. If I may say so, I thank you for your courage, real courage because pressure came from your comrades in the struggle. It was a tough thing to do. Why did you decide to come?

Nadine Gordimer: I decided to come under a lot of pain, which I felt due to the fact that friends, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, told me not to come, but I feel that you have to make the decision for yourself.

Looking at the resolution of our incredible situation in South Africa, the beginning of finding solutions is that both sides have to talk to one another. Writers are part of the use of the word. You have to accept being insulted. You have to accept being questioned by your closest friends.

I didn't come under the invitation of the Israeli government. I came at the invitation of this writers' conference. I came to talk to my fellow writers as to what our responsibility is, as writers, about what happens inside us. In the end, you have to see for yourself. Here in Israel, I am going to try to see as many things as possible while I am here and not just stay here in luxury.

In addition to being a writer, you are also a human being, a citizen in your own country, extending from your family to your society and the world around you. When you are born, only after nine months, your head is shaped by the passage through the birth canal. Once you are an individual and growing up, you go through another shaping of your mind and spirit; it is where you live in society.

There is a huge difference between information and knowledge. The inward testimony happens inside people. TV, newspapers show the event, the crisis, the conflict. For the writer of fiction, stories, what we do is to try to find out why people confronted the police and the army, and how they found the courage and instinct to do this. How did they deal with the total situation and its aftermath?

Pogrund: Let me ask a question that is inevitable when you are sitting in Jerusalem and in Israel. To what extent did being Jewish affect and infuse your work?

Gordimer: It can only be subconsciously. I have had no Jewish upbringing. My grandparents and parents knew they were Jews, but they didn't go to synagogue. They didn't deny they were Jews, but they didn't adhere to any of the customs. I wasn't brought up with the consciousness of being brought up Jewish. There was never any sense of denial. I luckily never suffered any threats of anti-Semitism. I only saw us as Jews who were white and part of the struggle against apartheid.

Pogrund: We are obviously experiencing conflict at the moment [in Israel] and particularly have had a problem with Hamas. I believe, and you certainly believe, that we must talk to them. The problem is that Hamas doesn't want to talk to us, and they don't recognize our existence.

Gordimer: Well, I will pass on advice from friends we trust: One must pursue those who do not talk; one must keep on pressing because what will happen? You will sit down and talk soon, hopefully, with other Palestinians or representatives. You will then sign some kind of treaty of agreement and then proceed from there to discuss the existence of two states with their frontiers justly agreed upon. After this is done, all hell will break loose because someone who was not present at the negotiations will refuse to accept this-for example Hamas-because they were not included. You see this in a number of countries. So one has to keep pressing, however distasteful, for Hamas to recognize that Israel exists.

Audience: Can you explain why you hesitated at all to come here?

Gordimer: My comrades felt that my coming here, coinciding with the 60th anniversary of Israel's celebration, was giving credence to what is occurring in the occupied territories. I share their feelings about the occupied territories. The violent treatment in the occupied territories here reminds me of what occurred in South Africa.

Audience: Have you been to the occupied territories?

Gordimer: I have been to the West Bank and Al-Quds University. It is very different from what you read. I drove around and I stood before the [separation] wall. It is almost a storey high. It cuts through the people's very existence. The wall really is a monstrosity. I have also heard people say that it is a fact that the suicide bombers have been kept out due to the wall. I have been presented with two sets of facts that I have to digest. War is truly an inhuman thing.

Audience: Concerning the situation you see in the occupied territories, can you explain your thoughts about the use of the term "apartheid"?

Gordimer: To me, it is accurate in one sense. The way people are treated in the occupied territories is exactly the way the blacks were treated in South Africa.

Audience: Do you believe that international pressure will bring about change in the occupied territories? What is your outsider opinion of the situation?

Gordimer: It took a very long time, even with international pressure, in South Africa to bring about change. Other forms of support meant a great deal to us. The blacks believed they had a tremendous stake in the land, while the whites did not deny their claim at all. As for the Israeli-Palestinian situation, this is much more complicated.

Pogrund: What sort of reception are you receiving from Palestinians?

Gordimer: The Palestinians that I talked to today have been very welcoming. I have had a good reception. They didn't reproach me at all.

Audience: Do you see the conflict as similar to South Africa, which is now one state? Can it be viewed as a question of the civil rights of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel and within the West Bank and the Gaza Strip?

Gordimer: The one-state solution is not on the negotiating table. A two-state solution, hammered out with great difficulty and consternation, is the only answer.

These excerpts from the dialogue were prpared for publication by Robert Terpstra. <

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