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Reading Nadine Gordimer through 'My Father Leaves Home'

By Vanshika Singh
From Lady Shri Ram College, New Delhi
Posted Sep 12th 2013 6:00AM
Nadine Gordimer
Nadine Gordimer is a white South-African writer and political activist. She is most well renowned for being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991.

Having been born and raised in South Africa, the very seat of apartheid, her works deal with the "moral and psychological tensions of her racially divided home country". Not only was her literature instrumental in speaking out against the racial discrimination and political oppression prevalent in South Africa but she also played an active role in the anti-apartheid movement and was a member of the African National Congress.

Gordimer's literary works and her political work cannot be seen separately as they are interdependent. When the Royal Swedish Academy announced Gordimer's prize, it said, "Gordimer writes with intense immediacy about the extremely complicated personal and social relationships in her environment."

These themes and issues of the times she lived in can be found in all her literary works sometimes obviously and sometimes subtly running through the story.

Gordimer knows that clarity and understanding cannot be found when it comes to race relations, African politics, family and displacement, as it does not exist. These issues are messy and that is exactly what Gordimer presents to her readers, making no attempt to clean them up. She is most credited for this pure honesty in her fiction.

'My Father Leaves Home' is a short story that centres around an impoverished Eastern European immigrant in South Africa. The story takes us through his life while switching narrators. This story can be seen as autobiographical as Gordimer's father too was a watchmaker from Lithuania in Eastern Europe and her mother was from London. In the story, a Jewish boy is packed off to another continent upon turning thirteen after learning the skills of watchmaking. We see him turn from boy to man as he expands his watchmaking shop and gets married to an English woman.

This story not only brings up the issue of inter-racial relations and discrimination but also that of family ties and displacement.

In 'My Father Leaves Home', a little boy is seen separated from the only family he had, his grandmother to join the greater Jewish immigrant community, which could be understood as a family too in a broader sense. He then goes on to form his own family by marrying an English woman and having children. The story concludes with a short scene between a little boy and his father, the boy being the narrator. This gives us an insight into the boy's thoughts where we see, that unlike the traditional patriarchal norms of looking up to your father as a role model, this boy is questioning them by noticing the faults in his father. The boy seems to disagree with his father's treatment of the blacks, which has an autobiographical undertone.

It is evident from the title itself that someone is leaving. The immigrant in the story is displaced at the young age of thirteen to a far and unknown territory to him. Feeling marginalized as an Eastern European amongst the 'whites', he discovers the power of his white skin amongst the blacks and uses it to his full advantage even though he knows what being oppressed by a racially superior person feels like.He emphasizes on his English wife proudly with racial implications of her being 'white'. However, themes of alienation and desperation continue throughout the book.

Almost all of her work is set in South Africa with a story of love and politics,that tears them to make choices and question themselves. Her stories are always between ordinary people making her an author easily readable and easy to relate to. Her powerful yet simple language and clever narrative techniques give her that edge that sets her apart in relation to other authors writing on similar subjects. A must read for those wishing to explore the ascriptive identity of race through literature.
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