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Frye and Artis on Gordimer

Nick Frye ’16 – Remember when South Africa ended apartheid with a violent revolt with the aid of the Russians, Cubans, and other African countries?  If you said no, do not worry  – this is just the setting for Nadine Gordimer’s fictional book, July’s People.  During this revolt, that never actually occurred, a family of white liberals find themselves fleeing to the village of their African servant, July.  The Smales family, had thought themselves a progressive people in the time of apartheid in South Africa.  The family had been very kind to their servant July, at least in their eyes.  They had instructed him to call them Sir or Madame instead of master; they had paid him quite fairly; they had let him go home to his village once every two years; and, they had given him gifts to take home to his wife during this time.  This family had viewed themselves as being progressive for the way that they treated July and other African people, and they did not truly believe in apartheid.  This is where the problems begin to arise. I think that one of the main points that Gordimer makes with this book is that it does not matter how liberal whites claim to be in South Africa in the time of apartheid.  They might publicly disagree with apartheid, and they might have joined some different political parties in protest of apartheid, but when everything is said and done, most of these whites were still participating in the apartheid system. The Smales family was still contributing to it by hiring an African servant who they thought they paid well, but compared to a white servant, they were probably paying a lot less.  They thought that they were progressive when they had July call them Sir instead of master, but in reality, the changing of titles does not make any difference at all.  July would still have to complete the same tasks no matter what the title of his employer is.  The only difference that it might make is by giving the ones with the titles a false sense of being fair. Gordimer’s writing must have been heavily influenced by the works of Biko. I wrote about Biko’s opinion on how white liberals should not necessarily be involved in the movement of the Africans to free themselves from apartheid.  Biko writes about how the whites can truly never understand what the Africans are trying to achieve, and that even if the whites are trying to help get rid of apartheid, they are still using the system in their day to day lives.  Biko is basically writing about the Smales family from Gordimer’s book, and how they should not necessarily be involved in the movement.  I find this kind of funny considering that Gordimer herself was a white liberal.  This work might have been her way of showing other white liberals at the time that just because that disagreed with apartheid did not mean that they were not still taking advantage of it.

Ian Artis ’16 – Arguably the more experimental of the novels we’ve read excepting A Question of Power, Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People is a novel which narrates a world in which the Soweto Riots would have been successful – a novel in which blacks now carry the power. Overthrown by the black population, whites are now the enemy. Their neighborhoods are destroyed and they are forced to flee. Even air travel is not a safe escape, as planes are being shot out of the sky. A striking feature of the novel is the black character, July, and his relationship post civil war to Maureen Smales. Maureen and Bam, her husband, used to employ July, a black man. The white couple would sign his passbook as he traveled back and forth from his area to his own. Once the system of apartheid was toppled, July took the couple into his village. The language surrounding the power shift Maureen and July’s relationship is somewhat sexually charged: “the incredible tenderness of the evening surrounded them as if mistaking them for lovers” (Gordimer 153) and a moment in which Maureen is aware that July is watching her scantily clad form both lend to the idea that Maureen and July’s relationship may have taken a sexual turn. Is this possible? Is it necessary? Potentially – especially since the gun Bam brought with them suddenly turns up missing. With the missing gun comes symbolic castration – after it is confirmed that the gun is gone, Maureen returns to the house to find Bam feeding the children, very typically seen as “a womans’ job”. Everything is on its head. Just consider the title – who has ownership in the story? July. He now has the agency, the power. They are his people; they rely on him. At any moment, if the mood strikes him, he can turn them over to militants and have him killed. Why not, then, since her husband is now powerless, keep July sexually satisfied? The entire crumbling of traditional power structures is well detailed in the novel.