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A giant of SA literature in black and white

08 September 2013 - 02:02 By THEKISO ANTHONY LEFIFI
PEDESTAL OF PROSE: Nadine Gordimer and her dog as photographed by Adrian Steirn at her home in Parktown, Johannesburg, for the 21 Icons project
PEDESTAL OF PROSE: Nadine Gordimer and her dog as photographed by Adrian Steirn at her home in Parktown, Johannesburg, for the 21 Icons project

NADINE Gordimer once smuggled her book Burger's Daughter to former president Nelson Mandela when he was jailed on Robben Island for treason.

Mandela in turn smuggled a thank-you letter to the world-renowned author, who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1991.

The letter is a "treasure" for Gordimer, 90, who was one of the first people Mandela visited after his release from jail.

The two icons formed a formidable friendship that has survived for decades.

Although Gordimer was aware of injustice in South Africa at a very young age after witnessing the harassment of her parent's domestic worker by the police, she considers herself a writer first rather than a political activist.

Writing is the only job she has ever done. Even during trying times as a single mother she did not consider trading her craft for anything - except possibly dancing, her first love.

To her, being a writer is a voyage of self-discovery. Her latest book, No Time Like the Present, is at the printers and will soon hit the shelves.

"I have no objection to people now and again reading books with an electronic device, as long as they read. I think they miss something because the body of the book in your hands is important, and turning the pages and going back. And the book doesn't make you dependent upon any electricity or a battery," said Gordimer, a founding member of the Congress of South African Writers.

The new book is available in digital format.

Gordimer is the fourth Nobel laureate to be featured in the 21 Icons project, conceptualised by filmmaker and photographer Adrian Steirn. Mandela, former president FW de Klerk and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu all won the peace prize.

Despite the prestige of the Nobel prize, Gordimer has the curious distinction of not having been officially acknowledged for her achievement at home.

"Our [then] president Mr De Klerk didn't even send any message of congratulation," she said, adding that she was not certain whether to take this as a compliment.

Steirn photographed Gordimer in the garden of her home in Parktown, Johannesburg, sitting on a pile of giant copies of her books, under a jacaranda tree.

The portrait reflects her tremendous contribution to South African and world literature and shows how, through the political and moral themes she wrote about, she placed the country's injustices, cultural complexities, conflicts and people in the consciousness of the world.

Australian-born Steirn said he wanted to create an Alice in Wonderland theme.

"Nadine is a tiny woman and the juxtaposition of her sitting on these enormous books really worked for me," Steirn said.

The signed original photograph of Gordimer will be auctioned at the end of the series and the proceeds donated to the Nelson Mandela Children's Hospital, a specialist paediatric academic and tertiary referral hospital.

Tonight at 6.57pm, SABC3 will show a short film of the photoshoot, in which Gordimer discusses the creative arts, the banning of her work by the apartheid regime and how she met Mandela.