Nadine Gordimer Memorial Lecture (2017)

Delivered by Lorna Goodison for the 5th African Women International Writer’s Symposium,
Johannesburg – 15 September 2017

Guinea Woman

Great grandmother
was a guinea woman.
Wide eyes turning
the corners of her face
could see behind her.
Her cheeks dusted with
a fine rash of jet-bead warts
that itched when the rain set up.

Great grandmother’s waistline
the span of a headman’s hand,
slender and tall like a cane-
stalk, with a guinea woman’s
antelope-quick walk.

And when she paused
her gaze would look to sea,
her profile fine like some obverse
impression on a guinea coin
from royal memory.

It seems her fate was anchored
in that unfathomable sea,
for great grandmother caught
the eye of a sailor whose ship sailed
without him from Lucea harbor.

Great grandmother’s royal scent of
cinnamon and escallions
drew the sailor up the straits of Africa,
the evidence my blue-eyed grandmother
the first Mulatta
taken into backra’s household
and covered with his name.

They forbade great grandmother’s
guinea woman presence,
they washed away her scent of
cinnamon and scallions,
controlled the child’s antelope walk
and called her uprisings rebellions.

But great grandmother
I see your features blood dark
appearing in the children
of each new breeding.
The high yellow brown
is darkening down.
Listen, children
it’s your great grandmother’s turn.


Thank you, thank you! To the organizers of the 5th African Women International Writer’s Symposium for inviting me here to the storied city of Johannesburg. Thank you to the Arts Alive Festival, the Joburg Theatre, the city of Joburg, the National Department of Arts and Culture, and to Professor Roshnie Moonsammy for tracking me down between Ann Arbor Michigan, Vancouver Canada, and Kingston Jamaica.

It may have begun in 1965 with hearing the magnificent Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte singing the train song. Or it could have been hearing Hugh Masekela’s rendition of Coal Train, then finding out what the words meant. How these trains were taking migrant workers away from their homes and families in Southern Africa to those dread minefields, there to excavate the great wealth to which they had no access; their humanity regarded then as less than.

And something in you felt you had to keep track of that train and always follow the fortunes of those men and their women and children.

It may even have begun as far back as nineteen fifty nine when you heard your parents saying how they proud they were that our then Premier Norman Manley had made Jamaica one of the first countries to join the embargo against trading with South Africa.

You are not sure exactly when.

But one day you became convinced that your people, including your writers and scholars, artists and singers and players of instruments had a burden placed upon them to speak and write and sing without cease of the fate of our Southern African brethren and sistren––yea, until Apartheid’s end.

Her name was Daphne Abrahams; and she was white. She was my art teacher at St Hugh’s School for girls in Kingston Jamaica. And she was the first South African I’d ever seen in real life. But most evenings I’d hear her husband’s voice over the radio. His name was Peter and he was Black and he was dearly loved and respected by the people of Jamaica. Peter and Daphne Abrahams were guilty of a love deemed criminal under Apartheid, but they found a place to thrive in Jamaica where they lived up in the hills and he wrote his great novels following Mine Boy and talked to us through the radio about things particular and universal, local and foreign, spiritual and secular; always ending his broadcasts with life giving words of encouragement.

And please know that the people of Jamaica truly loved Peter Abrahams and that we too are heart broken and mortified by how his life ended.

Peter Abrahams was the first writer from South Africa I really knew; but I’d read about the consequences of a marriage like his and Daphne’s in the novels of Alan Paton, in Cry, the Beloved Country and Too Late the Phalarope.

Then in the summer of nineteen sixty eight on my first trip to the United States of America, I caught Hugh Masekela at the Village Gate. Grazing in the Grass. The manager was a Jamaican and he allowed me and my two friends to stay over and watch the second show for free because we were so obviously young-girl delighted by Mr Masekela himself in his striped bell-bottom pants and by his trumpet stylings, his exquisite artistry: exuberance and joy as fellow travellers accompanying his profound sorrow songs of unfreedom.

That condition of being at home with great contradiction, joy and sorrow, hope in despair, humour in the midst of grim realities, and stubborn stubborn sometimes slenderest of hope in the midst of massive despair is one of the great gifts that the artists, writers and thinkers of the continent of Africa and of the African Diaspora have given to the world.

Something else they have given the world is a way of being entirely at home with the unempirical gifts of prophesy. That Nelson Mandela would say time and again, “South Africa Will be Free . . . pause . . . In My Lifetime”. was always a source of wonder to many, myself included. How could he have said these words repeatedly, given what he was up against?

But he spoke them and he wrote them and he said them again and again, and Alleluia they came to pass; and every one who trades in words should meditate a while upon that. Now more than ever we must believe that, as Rastafarians say, “Words Sounds Have Power.”

In 1983 I had the great good fortune to take part in the Iowa International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, where writers from all over the world are brought together for a semester and given time and resources to write, give readings and lectures, and to be part of a community of writers and scholars learning from each other. I shared living space in the big adult dormitory of the Mayflower Hotel with a writer from South Africa by the name of Gladys Thomas. Here is my poem for her:

The Woman in Gladys’s Story

Struck a match and smelled sulphur scorch the yellow
wallpaper rose. Like Dido she torches her own bed.
Introduced as my South African flatmate we are
meant to share a kitchen. I see her light skin
she reads my face and says ”I’m coloured”.

Her story is set in district six, Cape Town where she
and her husband Albert made life, making art. Black and
white Indian Chinese and coloured mixed
till the state roared in with tear gas
and attack dogs.

Gladys shows snapshots of her husband then doing ninety days
for staging Bertholt Brecht’s Mother Courage. He is standing
outside their good brick house; around his feet
a riot of yellow flowers. Uprooted
into hardscrabble township.

She considered setting fire to the house; but chose instead
to hand the woman in her story kerosene and matches.
We cook a chicken dinner; break the wishbone:
Free South Africa; Talk till we can see through
the windows of the Mayflower

the Chinese writer executing a kata along the Iowa’s jade green
banks. He spends waking hours outdoors after being ten
years locked down in a cell because of a story he wrote.
In our shared kitchen we brew strong black tea
We applaud his morning dance

Photograph credit: Marta Garrich

When I said goodbye to Gladys in 1983, we never thought that we would see each other again. Ours was one tearful parting. Unlike Nelson Mandela––the Prophet, Warrior-king, Peacemaker, Repairer of the Breach, Father of the Nation and new-human being-cultured-over-twenty-seven-years-for-the-benefit-of-all-humanity––I was not at all sure that South Africa would be free in this lifetime.

And all someone like me could do was to participate in countless Anti-Apartheid rallies, and all I could do was grieve about the conditions under which someone like Winnie Mandela lived and suffered as a banned person.

And one day I was walking along the street in the city of Kingston and a clipping from a newspaper, right there on the sidewalk, caught my eye.

The news story stated that Winnie Mandela’s home had been raided by the police, and that they had seized a number of her personal items in this raid, including a bedspread. Said bedspread had been taken into custody because it was in the colours of the flag of the African National Congress.

That had to be a poem.


Sometimes in the still
unchanging afternoons,
when the memories crowded
hot and hopeless against her brow
she would seek its cool colours
and signal him to lie down
in his cell.
It is three in the afternoon Nelson
let us rest here together
upon this bright bank draped in freedom
It was woven by women with slender
capable hands
accustomed to binding wounds.
Hands that closed the eyes of
dead children,
that fought for the right to
speak in their own tongues
in their own land
in their own schools.
They wove the bedspread
and knotted notes of hope
in each strand
and selvedged the edges with
ancient blessings
older than any white man’s coming.
So in the afternoons lying on this
bright bank of blessing,
Nelson my husband I meet you in dreams
my beloved much of the world too
is asleep, blind to the tyranny and evil
devouring our people.
But, Mandela, you are rock on this sand
harder than any metal
mined in the bowels of this land.
You are purer than any
gold tempered by fire
shall we lie here wrapped
in the colours of our free Azania?
They arrested the bedspread.
They and their friends are working
to arrest the dreams in our heads.
And the women, accustomed to closing
the eyes of the dead
are weaving cloths still brighter
to drape us in glory in a free

Photograph credit: Marta Garrich

Lorna Goodison was born in Jamaica. Over the past forty years her work has garnered wide international acclaim. She recently became the first non-British writer to be appointed Poet Laureate of the Durham Book Festival in England, and was appointed Poet Laureate of Jamaica on 17 May 2017 and will serve until 2020. She is Professor Emerita of English and African and Afroamerican Studies at the University of Michigan, and has an honorary doctorate from the University of the West Indies. Her work is translated into many languages, and she is a central figure at literary festivals throughout the world.

I had the honour of reading that poem to her when Mandela’s visited Jamaica right after his release from prison and just before your historic general elections of 1994.

For many of us, writers and artists, and musicians in the African Diaspora, South Africa was and is never far from our minds.

Under the British colonial school system in Jamaica, we were never taught that there was such a thing as an African writer; but for me, the living presence of Peter Abrahams in Jamaica was proof that Africans did write books and this led to my discovery of other African writers like Chinua Achebe, Ngugi Wa Thiongo and Wole Soyinka… but the women, I needed to find the women writers of Africa. The women were the scribes who had set down those stories that used to be scripted by tongues and stored in books of memory. Women writers who would look and sound more like me, whose stories would perhaps help to connect me to a place and a time and a history and to traditions lost in the great watery graveyard of the Atlantic.

So I went in search of the work of African Women writers and as time went on I actually had the privilege to meet, even on occasion to share a stage with, some of them; several of whom––like Bessie Head, dear Miriam Tlali, Olive Schreiner, Doris Lessing, Noni Jabavu, Phyllis Ntantala and Ingrid Jonker––are no longer with us.

And then of course there is the great iconic figure in whose name this talk is being given: Nadine Gordimer.

I had the enormous privilege of meeting Mrs. Gordimer––I always call her Mrs. Gordimer––at a commonwealth writers conference in Manchester England, organized by the brilliant Michael Schmidt of Carcanet Press in the year two thousand. I confess that I was star-struck. Completely star-struck. For one thing, I expected her to be much bigger in stature. And I concluded that this was because her writing, her stories are written on such a monumental scale, written with a kind of courage and power that is not usual. In real life, she was of course a petite and quite a pretty lady who wore the most gorgeous diamond earrings I have personally ever seen, and who was quite comfortable wearing my husband Ted Chamberlin’s leather jacket one day when it rained. I believe she grew fond of Ted after she found out that he was a Professor of Comparative Literature and an expert witness in Aboriginal land claims issues and that he was instrumental in putting together a land claim for a group of Bushmen or San people in the Kalahari desert. He wrote about all this in a book titled If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories? Finding Common Ground, published by Carcanet.

When he told Mrs. Gordimer that three of these people were the sisters Una Kais and Abakas, she was visibly moved as she explained how in 1936, she had been taken as a child to the Johannesburg World Exposition, where she saw on display, a family of Bushmen of the Kalahari with three young girls around her age. Those girls were the same Una, Kais, and Abakas whose singing, storytelling, and personal witness played a big part in the success of that land claim.

And Nadine Gordimer never forgot them. It is safe to say that something transcendent must have passed between those small girls––one very privileged, staring at three sets there is a dehumanizing objectifying display as the last of the bushmen— a look passed between them that said “I see you. We see you. I see you. We see you for who you really are.”

Because something of that clear seeing shines through all of Mrs. Gordimer’s work; that unflinching refusal to look away from the toughest things, a determination to name them, describe them, shame them if necessary, and to fashion bold new forms to contain them as you go along. Cutting your cloth to fit your coat as my dressmaker mother would say, in the shape of our ever-evolving, not usual, who knows how it will all end story.

I want to reference here the ending to Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People. Cinematic, apocalyptic, prophetic––these days I keep reading and re-reading that ending. These days I also find myself reading and rereading her novel The Pickup. I read too, her short stories which defy categorizing. She is a writer that other writers learn from.

And I learned quite a few things about what women writers can bring to the writing enterprise from watching Mrs. Gordimer for those few days in Manchester.

For one, she had no problems with being placed on a program with other writers who were nowhere near as accomplished and acclaimed as she was. She had the same fifteen minutes as the other three writers, the lineup went in alphabetical order, so she read second, and she had cut and pasted and timed her presentation so that I ran to exactly fifteen minutes, not a millisecond over. Done and dusted. During the question and answer period, she was agreeable and amiable enough, but she also made it clear, that she did not consider herself to be an acknowledged or unacknowledged legislator of the world. That she saw herself first and foremost as a writer, and that she would rather talk about matters that pertained to writing.

Coming from a writer who had been as actively politically engaged as Nadine Gordimer that was a stunning thing to hear; but it was also a freeing thing to hear for those of us who sometimes feel that there are occasions when we can best represent ourselves in the world by writing our poems and stories in such a way that they function like the look that passed between Nadine and Una, Kais and Abakas.

A look that says: I see you and I see that these are not the last days for you or for my people. In fact, we are part of a brave new future in a country that will be a shining example to the rest of the world. I see you: we see you and we will work and suffer and struggle and rejoice together as we write this future into being.

And I would like to close with an elegy for my mother Doris and dedicate it to all the African women writers who shape and inspire us.

After the Green Gown of My Mother Gone Down

August, her large heart slows down then stops.
Fall now, and trees flame, catch a fire, and riot

last leaves in scarlet and gold fever burning.
Remember when you heard Bob Marley hymn

‘Redemption Song,’ and from his tone and timbre
you sensed him traveling? He had sent the band home

and was just keeping himself company, cooling star,
sad rudeboy fretting on cowboy box guitar

in a studio with stray echo and wailing sound
lost singing scatting through the door of no return.

When the green goes, beloved, the secret is opened.
The breath falls still, the life covenant is broken.

Dress my mother’s cold body in a deep green gown.
Catch a fire and let fall and flame time come,

after the green gown of my mother gone down.

We laid her down, full of days,
chant griot from the book of life,

summon her kin from the long-
lived line of David and Margaret.
Come Cleodine, Albertha,
Flavius, Edmund, Howard and Rose,
Marcus her husband gone before
come and walk Dear Doris home.

And the Blue Mountains will open to her
to seal her corporeal self in.
From the ancient vault
that is their lapis lazuli heart
the headwaters of all our rivers spring.
Headwaters, wash away the embalmer’s myrrh resin
The dredging of white powder caking her cold limbs.

Return her ripe body clean
to fallow the earth.
Her eyes to become brown agate stones.
From her forehead let there dawn
bright mornings.
May her white hair contribute
to the massing of clouds

cause the blood settled in her palms
to sink into fish-filled lagoons.
Earth, she was a mother like you
who birthed and nursed her children.
Look cherubims and angels, see her name
written down in the index of the faithful
in the mother-of-pearl book of saints.

Mama, Aunt Ann says
that she saw Aunt Rose
come out of an orchard
red with ripe fruit

and called out laughing to you.
And that you scaled the wall
like two young girls
scampering barefoot among
the lush fruit groves.

My Mother’s Sea Chanty

I dream that I am washing
my mother’s body in the night sea
and that she sings slow
and that she still breathes.

I see my sweet mother
a plump mermaid in my dreams
and I wash her white hair
with ambergris and foaming seaweed.

I watch my mother under water
gather the loose pearls she finds,
scrub them free from nacre
and string them on a lost fishing line.

I hear my dark mother
speaking sea-speak with pilot fish,
showing them how to direct barks
that bear away our grief.

I pray my mother breaks free
from the fish pots and marine chores
of her residence beneath the sea,
and that she rides a wild white horse.