Books, from my earliest memories, were valuable, perhaps the most valuable "things." But I had an idea, in my childhood, that books and literature and novels came from England. Probably then, they did. The books I read told stories of children or people in England, where I'd never been, but where the landscape was as vivid to me as my own. I felt that all important things and stories must come from England. Our language—the magic of words that could be arranged and spoken in a particular way—came from England. In Johannesburg, where we were, there was no beauty, so I thought. There were no green fields, after all, no long history of manners and morals and kings. What beauty could come out of this strange and dusty place which was my home? Later when I read Wordsworth and Keats, I felt this even more strongly. Shakespeare himself came from England—well, that was everything!
I had always felt secretly ashamed of the people around me; ashamed of my world. I had an idea that we, white people, were crude, and, in some way I couldn't articulate, deficient, and that the black people around me were bound to us in a way that was puzzling, unknowable, and...wrong. I intuited this—the tragedy of the colonial South Africa that was my home—from a young age. But I didn't understand it.
One day when I was fifteen and visiting my grandmother, she gave me one of her books, Nadine Gordimer's Selected Stories. The book must have intrigued me because the image on the cover wasn't a green English landscape. It was, instead, a photograph, sepia coloured, of a small house with a corrugated iron roof, and a mine dump behind it, an image I recognized at once. A South African image.
I started reading, and, soon, realized I was reading something I had never read before: I recognized the world, the towns, the houses, the people, in the stories. They were the towns and people and houses around me. Here was a book, a real book with a hard cover, with stories in it about things in the world of Johannesburg, and in the world of dusty small towns in South Africa I knew so well.
I read the Selected Stories of Gordimer (which were in the 1975 Jonathan Cape edition), and then, a reader possessed, I read her novels, and more of her short stories, and then all of her many works. And I re-read them, through my teenage years. They felt more real to me than the world I inhabited, because they told the story of my surroundings with such truth.
Gordimer wrote in the form of the great European realists of the past, yet she described South Africa. Her works described parallel surroundings to those around me, surroundings that were the same yet different: places, this time, where truth was revealed in all its anguish, and understanding and insight were possible. Her works gestured toward other possibilities, to the possibility of re-imagining things, to the possibility of making things right. The actual world I lived in had lies and evasions and untruths: it was the stasis of a repressive state; and the civil façade of colonial, then post-colonial, white South Africa.
Nadine Gordimer was an artist, first. I might call her work my literary mother, her short stories models of aesthetic forms that made harmony and beauty. But like all great writers her work was informed by deep moral concerns, and in this way I might say that her work was the mother of my worldview too.
Reading Gordimer enabled me to understand, even love, the strange and broken place which was my home. I probably became a writer because of her, or at least I might be the writer I am because of her.
Dawn Promislow was born and raised in South Africa and has lived in Toronto since 1987. She is the author of Jewels and Other Stories (2010, Mawenzi House), which was long-listed for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award 2011, and named one of the best fiction debuts of 2011 by the Globe and Mail.
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