TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Nobel prize-winning writer Nadine Gordimer died yesterday at age 90. She once wrote art is on the side of the oppressed. Gordimer was a white South African, whose parents were Jewish immigrants from Lithuania and England. Much of her writing was about the apartheid system, which she staunchly opposed. She wrote more than two dozen books of fiction and nonfiction. Three of her books were banned in South Africa. She had served as vice president of PEN, the international writers' organization. I spoke with Nadine Gordimer in 1989 on one of her visits to the U.S.
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GROSS: I'm curious about when you became aware of apartheid. You grew up in South Africa, your parents were immigrants - your mother from London, your father from Lithuania. You grew up in a mining town. When did you become aware of apartheid?
NADINE GORDIMER: Well, I think I was quite a late developer, really, when I consider the awareness - political awareness of my own children a generation later. But in that small town, you know how it is, particularly in a small town where you're not open to many other mind blowing influences, you tend to adopt the attitudes and mores of your parents and your teachers and so on. And I just took it as natural as a child that I went to a segregated school. I went to convent school where all the kids were white. And that the only people - only blacks that I was in touch with were people doing the menial jobs - sweeping the streets, acting as servants, messengers and so on. I mean, they were all around and of course as it was a mining town, there were thousands of black migratory minors who lived in the compounds as we called them barracks, quite near where we lived, but were completely separate from us, not only by language but they just had no part in our lives. But when I was about - I was a great reader and I really came to think about apartheid in terms of class injustice from reading people like Upton Sinclair when I was a teenager. And then I came when I began to look around me. And I began to write very young and by the time I was 17, the first published story that I wrote was indeed about apartheid - not in a - in that direct - not in a formula form, but as it affected the lives of the people that I knew. It was about a police raid on a house for illicit liquor brewing by the black servant.
GROSS: Was opposing apartheid - did that also mean you had to oppose your parents? Did your parents support the system?
GORDIMER: Well, my father I think did. You must remember that when I was a child, the word apartheid hadn't even been coined. And the apartheid government only came into power in 1948, when I was growing up, I'm talking about the '30s. And at that time, it was a sort of colonial racism with quite a lot of paternalism mixed up in it. My mother had a social conscience and she did good works and I don't say that sneeringly. She was one of the people who helped form a Christian clinic for black children in the nearby black ghetto, which we called township then. And she was always uneasy and angry if she saw black people being treated badly. But it was always as a form of charity. She didn't connect it with the law. She didn't connect it with the fact that they didn't have rights as white people had.
GROSS: Was writing for you a response to injustice or do you think you would've become a writer one way or another?
GORDIMER: Writing was not a response to injustice. I wasn't even aware of injustice. I had began to write out of a sense of wonder at life and also out of the mystery of life, wanting to find out what it was all about. It was my way of exploring life.
GROSS: Well, let me read to you a statement that you once said about writing. You said that (reading) perhaps the best way to write is to do so as if one were already dead, afraid of no one's reactions, answerable to no one's views.
What led you to say that? And I guess I wonder if you've taken heat, you know, on both sides in South Africa?
GORDIMER: No, this was just a conviction that goes really deeper than that. I think that a writer must always maintain the independence - the artistic independence - to use his or her insights, something that a writer has beyond the insights of other people, without worrying whether you're going to offend your mother, your best friend or whether your political confreres are going to decide that you have let down the side. A writer must never let herself become a propagandist. Propagandists have a place - agitprop has a place - but I'm not that kind - I'm not that person. I'm a writer. I have a certain ability and I feel the first duty is to use that ability properly.
GROSS: Do you feel that you've ever been expected to write books that would be more effective propaganda?
GORDIMER: Oh yes. Indeed.
GROSS: Where has that pressure come from?
GORDIMER: Well, it hasn't really been pressure. And it hasn't usually come from quarters that bother me very much because I feel that if I took no part in community life, then perhaps I might listen to it. But I know that I have a certain responsibility toward my society for what's happened there - for what's happened in my name as a white woman, whether I have anything to do with it or not. And so I have another part of my life, which - where I put my life on the line for what I believe in. And I think therefore, I have the freedom to write as I feel I must as I please. I'm not retiring into an ivory tower because I am doing other things as a human being and a citizen.
GROSS: Nadine Gordimer, recorded in 1989. She died yesterday at the age of 90. The great jazz player and composer Charlie Haden died Friday at the age of 76. We're preparing a tribute show, featuring several of my interviews with him. We expect to broadcast that on Thursday. We are closing with his music.
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GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.