Books can erase the barriers of both time and place and July’s People by Nadine Gordimer is a novel that speaks to us today just as clearly as it spoke to readers when it was first published in 1981. This story about clashing cultures in South Africa almost forty years ago seems highly relevant to life in America in 2020.
July’s People is set in a future that never happened, at least never quite in the way Gordimer describes it. A sudden, violent uprising by black Africans against the colonial rulers who dominate their country has led to the flight of Bam and Maureen Smales, a white couple from the wealthy suburb of Johannesburg where they have always lived a comfortable life. When violence breaks out and there is shooting in the streets, they finally realize they must leave. At the invitation of their servant, July, Bam and Maureen flee to the small rural village where July’s family lives. When the couple with their three young children settle into the village, they find welcome and safety. They also find an almost unbridgeable gulf between themselves and the villagers whose language they don’t understand, and whose way of life they have never experienced.
Gordimer’s exquisite language makes an unfamiliar place and culture both believable and important. Her vivid descriptions of the minute details of life in a South African village lets us feel the oppressive heat and see the unfamiliar scenes. As Maureen walks through the village, she notices things she has never seen before. Now we see them through her eyes:
Ants had raised a crust of red earth on the dead branches that once had formed a cattle-pen. With a brittle black twig she broke off the crust, grains of earth crisply welded by ants’ spit, and exposed the wood beneath bark that had been destroyed; bone-white, the wood was being eaten away, too, was smoothly scored in shallow running grooves as if by a fine chisel. She scraped crust with the aimless satisfaction of childhood, when there is nothing to do but what presents itself…
Nadine Gordimer was born in 1923 in South Africa to immigrant parents. Like other white citizens of South Africa, she lived a privileged life in a colonial society. She attended a private school as a child but was often kept home because her mother worried about Nadine’s health. Growing up isolated from other children, she read avidly and decided to become a writer. Later she attended the University of Witwatersrand, where she met many activists determined to change the injustices and racial inequalities of South Africa. She started publishing stories in South African magazines, and when one of her stories was accepted by the New Yorker in 1951, she became an internationally admired writer.
Gordimer’s life was devoted to both writing and social activism. She was a friend of Nelson Mandela and other African leaders and traveled the world giving speeches about her books and about life and injustice in South Africa. Although her books were sometimes banned in South Africa, she became world famous, winning the Orange Prize, the Booker Prize and many others. In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Some of her best-known books are Burger’s Daughter, The Conservationist, and The Pickup. Each of her books gives insight into life in Africa during the turbulent years of the late twentieth century. July’s People is a good place to start the journey through her world. I don’t think you’ll ever forget the trip.
Nadine Gordimer died in 2014.