The first time I fell in love with a book, I was 3 years old. The book was large, with pages of cold, smooth, glossy cardboard that acted as the perfect backdrop for its story: a lonely rabbit has finally found a friend—an egg. The egg is cold, smooth, a most unsatisfactory companion, and after a while the rabbit gets annoyed with it, rolling it around, even throwing rocks at it. Eventually he falls asleep, and the egg does what eggs do: it hatches according to its own timing and plan, and out comes a fluffy duckling. In my memory, the duckling feels soft and fuzzy, but perhaps that wasn’t the book at all, just the feeling it gave me. I was already reading prodigiously at this age—driving my father crazy by loudly announcing every street sign and shop name that we passed—but what I recall so strongly about this particular book is how sensuous the act of reading was, lying on my stomach on a soft carpet, my hand reaching for tea and a Marie biscuit, the cold floor surrounding me, the cold cardboard of the book before me. Nabokov says that he read great literature with his spine, feeling its force in his backbone. I read this book with my whole body.
Somewhere nearby was the owner of the book, Hugo, my best friend in the Little Green School in Johannesburg. His mother, Nadine Gordimer, who died in July at the age of 90, was a friend of my parents, part of the same literary, liberal circle in the city’s northern suburbs. My father was the editor of The Golden City Post, the country’s first mass-circulation multiracial newspaper. Many of the black editors and writers he worked with—Nat Nakasa, Ezekiel (later Es’kia) Mphahlele, Can Themba and Todd Matshikiza—were Nadine’s friends too, and she advocated tirelessly for their writing, seeking to bring her own larger audience to their work. There’s a copy of The Classic, Nat Nakasa’s literary magazine, on my bookshelf today that includes a letter from Nadine on South African PEN stationery, asking my dad to be sure to tear out the pages containing Can Themba’s story, “The Suit,” as Can was a banned person and his work was not allowed to be read. The pages are indeed missing, carefully excised with a razor. But I am sure my father read them first, as Nadine intended him to.
Although less involved in the political activism that connected Nadine and my father, my mother knew her better—through bringing me to Hugo’s house to play (or to bury myself in his books), but also through their mutual friendship with the Afrikaner trade unionist Bettie du Toit. Bettie was a ferocious advocate for the rights of black Africans, but she was also popular for her support of young Afrikaner women factory workers. The Afrikaner police treated their own particularly harshly, and Bettie’s health was never the same after she was jailed in Old Fort Prison (today the site of South Africa’s Constitutional Court). While Bettie was in prison, Nadine gained permission to visit her by pretending to be her sister. It is clear that Nadine was indebted for her own political education—as well as a measure of her feistiness—to Bettie du Toit.
Nadine supported Bettie emotionally and financially, helping her to leave South Africa when her legal pressures mounted and it became clear that she would again wind up in prison. Although placed under a government ban for her role in the African National Congress’s Defiance Campaign, Bettie had continued her activism and founded an organization to provide food to poor Africans, traveling illegally into the townships to do so.