Reading Burger's Daughter

This is the third in a series of blogposts, running from January through April 2019, that will be documenting the real-time development of a new course, CI (Cultural Identities) 250: Truth - Reconciliation - Story. For an overview of the course, go to jamesmskidmore.com/ci250. All posts in this series will marked by the tag ci250.

This week we got into the thick of things with some extensive discussions about Nadine Gordimer’s novel Burger’s Daughter.

The novel was written in the late 1970s. In it Rosa Burger, daughter of the Afrikaans doctor Lionel Burger, must come to terms with her parents’ dedication to their activism against apartheid, both of whom give their lives for the cause. The novel traces Rosa’s life with particular emphasis on the year’s since her father’s death in jail in the late 60s or early 70s (dates aren’t a strong suit of Gordimer’s narration) up to the Soweto riots of the mid-1970s.

Rosa is uncertain about what her life should be about. She appears ambivalent about the anti-apartheid cause because she appears to be ambivalent about her parents. This doesn’t mean that she doesn’t love her parents or believe in the goal of racial equality for South Africa. But as Gordimer wrote in an essay on the novel, she wanted to explore the conflict between wanting to lead a quiet life vs feeling compelled to take up activist causes.

Some students in the course were not happy with Rosa’s ambivalence. They felt that her inaction and her rumination on how to live her life were the ponderous actions of a person of privilege. The criticism extended to Gordimer herself who, as a white author in apartheid South Africa, was writing from the vantage point of white privilege. The term “white saviour complex” was used, though I’m not sure if that was referring to Rosa or to Gordimer.

I personally don’t think that we have any need to criticize Gordimer’s comportment during the apartheid era; she was a member of the African National Congress and an advocate of full rights for all South Africans. What interested me in the criticism was its currency. The students who were critical were arguing using terms (e.g. white privilege) that are very much a product of our age and the issues currently of interest in higher education . It was as if they were measuring Gordimer - and the character Rosa - according to our standards.

I think these criticisms might be unfair to Gordimer and the novel; I think they’re definitely unfair to the role and purpose of art itself. Some students felt much like the young radicals who make an appearance now and again in the novel, arguing for what was then called “black consciousness”: white people have no right to become involved in the struggle for black liberation and self-determination, they should just get out of the way.

But the strength of Gordimer’s novel is that it shows us the complexity of the situation at the time. Not complexity about the human rights issues involved; it’s quite clear that the novel is in no way an apology or rationalization for racial discrimination. Rather, the novel reports on and captures the messiness of any human society. Gordimer could have written a more “expected” novel in which Rosa takes up without question the cause of her parents. demonstrating along the way her unwavering bravery and unerring moral compass. That’s the kind of story we’re used to reading in most novels and seeing in most movies. Gordimer instead takes the time to underscore the human pain and suffering that all participants in this struggle might experience. The novel doesn’t try to set Rosa’s suffering above the suffering of those who do not share in her privilege. If anything, the novel makes real for the reader the impact of such atrocities on all those who are in some way connected to them.

This approach may not conform to our expectations about how such a story should be told. And that’s the reason to like it all the more: it surprises us, keeps us a bit off balance, and by doing so, makes us even more attentive to the larger issues animating the conflicts that so many South Africans experienced in the apartheid era.