The Ultimate Safari
The Ultimate SafariIntroduction
Nadine Gordimer's short story "The Ultimate Safari," first published in Great Britain's literary publication Granta in 1989, and later included in her 1991 collection, Jump and Other Stories, follows the story of an unnamed narrator and her family as they leave their Mozambique village for a refugee camp across the border in South Africa. In an unrecorded talk she gave at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in 1991, Gordimer attributed the inspiration for the story to a visit she made to a camp for Mozambique refugees. The socalled "bandits" alluded to by the story's main character and narrator are, presumably, members of Renamo, the Mozambique rebel group that tried for years, with the clandestine support of South Africa, to overthrow Mozambique's Marxist government. By the time the events of this story take place, liberation movements in countries across Africa had long since swept whites from power, with South Africa being the single exception. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, in an attempt to protect itself and its white power structure, the South African government supported the destabilization efforts of rebels in its black-controlled, neighboring countries by financing armed incursions and raids, such as the ones that the narrator describes in the story.
"The Ultimate Safari," like nearly all of Gordimer's work, addresses the effects South Africa's system of apartheid had on its people and its neighbors. Published in book form the year she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the story continues Gordimer's long-standing efforts to gauge the effects of apartheid by delving into the minds of characters of all races and genders; in this case, Gordimer takes on the persona and adopts the voice of a young black Mozambique girl to narrate the family's arduous trek through Kruger Park and to the refugee camp.
Nadine Gordimer was born in Springs, South Africa on November 20, 1923 to Isidore Gordimer, an immigrant Jewish watchmaker, and Nan Myers, who had immigrated to South Africa from Great Britain as a young child. The younger of two girls, Gordimer led a solitary life growing up due to a prognosis, at the age of 10, of heart problems. As a result of her condition, Gordimer's mother put an end to her daughter's strenuous activities, including dancing lessons, pulled her out of the convent school she had been attending, and a hired a tutor for her for three hours a day. From the ages of 11 to 16, Gordimer had very little contact with children of her own age and spent most of her time either with her parents or alone.
Although Gordimer would later describe the severe loneliness she experienced during those years, she used her time to read and write voraciously, and at the age of 13, she published her first short story in the Johannesburg Sunday Express. By the time Gordimer was 16, she stopped being tutored entirely, and except for a year of general studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in 1945, Gordimer never took another class of formal education.
In 1949, the year following the election of South Africa's National Party—the political party that would formalize South Africa's system of racial segregation, or apartheid—Gordimer published her first collection of short stories, Face to Face, and a few years later, in 1953, her first novel, The Lying Days, was published.
In 1949, Gordimer married Gerald Gavron (also known as Gavronsky), and in 1950 her daughter, Oriane, was born. Gordimer and Gavron divorced in 1952. In 1954, Gordimer married the
German art dealer, Reinhold Cassirer, with whom she had a son, Hugo. Gordimer and Cassirer remained married until his death in 2001.
In the fifty years since her first book was published, Gordimer has published more than 30 novels, short story collections, and collections of essays that have won numerous awards. Her 1960 collection Friday's Footprint and Other Stories won the W. H. Smith Literary Award. Her 1970 novel A Guest of Honor was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize; The Conservationist received Great Britain's prestigious Booker–McConnell Prize in 1974, as well as South Africa's CNA Literary Prize. In 1991, Gordimer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Also in 1991, Gordimer published Jump and Other Stories, the collection which includes "The Ultimate Safari."
Long regarded as one of South Africa's leading political activists and intellectuals, Gordimer saw many of her books banned in her own country at the time of their publication due to her stance against the apartheid policies of the government. All of her books, including her collection of short stories titled Loot and Other Stories (2003)—published nearly a decade after apartheid's official demise—in some way address apartheid or its effects.
"The Ultimate Safari" opens with the narrator's cryptic and mysterious statement that tersely sets the tone of the story: "That night our mother went to the shop and she didn't come back. Ever." The narrator of the story, a young black Mozambican girl, never finds out what happened to her mother, or to her father, who had also left one day never to return. The presumption, however, is that both her parents are dead by the time her story unfolds; her people are at war, and her village has been beset by "bandits" that have left the villagers destitute and frightened, and all evidence points to those socalled "bandits" as the cause of her parents' disappearance.
The story that the girl relates is a deceptively simple one: After losing everything at the hands of the bandits who have repeatedly raided their village, and in fear of their lives, the girl's family—her grandmother, grandfather, and older and younger brothers—set out on a long and arduous trek through Kruger Park, the popular national reserve in northeast South Africa that borders Mozambique and has for years been a tourist destination for rich foreigners wanting the experience of the ultimate African safari.
Along the way, the grandfather, who has been reduced to doing little more than making "little noises" while rocking "from side to side," wanders off and is lost in some high grasses and must be left behind. The young girl recounts how little her family had to eat in the park, despite the aromas of campfire grills from the park's tourists. Even the buzzards, she notices, have more to eat than the refugees. Eventually, the remaining family members, all of whom remain nameless throughout the story, are led by the grandmother to a refugee camp where they are given space in a tent in which to live. There the grandmother eventually ekes out a living carrying bricks while the girl attends school. At the story's conclusion, we learn for the first time some of the basic facts about the girl and her family when "some white people" come to the camp to film the camp and a reporter interviews the grandmother. For instance, we learn definitively that the girl and her family are black, that they are originally from Mozambique, and that the story has taken place over the course of nearly three years.
"The Ultimate Safari" is set along the Mozambique–South African border sometime during the 1980s, at a time when Mozambique was ruled by a black Marxist government and South Africa was the lone remaining African country still being run by its minority white population. The "bandits" alluded to by the narrator are members of Renamo, the rebel group supported by the white South African government whose goal it was to destabilize Mozambique by pillaging rural villages and causing civil unrest. One of the consequences of these incursions, or "raids" as the narrator calls them, was a large-scale exodus by poor villagers from Mozambique into refugee camps that lined the border between the two countries. Many of these refugees languished for years in the camp while South Africa continued its military and economic domination of the region. Some estimates suggest that the civil war that was fueled by Renamo was responsible for a million deaths in Mozambique alone. In 1992, when apartheid was officially abolished and blacks began to exert control over the South African political structure, the destabilizing efforts were halted, though the region continues to suffer the consequences of the years of instability.
So called by the government, the bandits raided the narrator's village repeatedly, forced her and her family into hiding, and ultimately forced them into the long trek that takes up most of the story. The identity of the bandits is never revealed specifically, although they are presumed to be one of the Mozambique rebel factions supported by the South African government, trying to overtake the government by wreaking havoc in the rural areas.
A young girl of nine or ten when the story opens, the daughter, who is also the story's narrator, reveals very little about herself, but it is through her eyes that the story of her and her family's arduous trek away from their village to the refugee camp is told. She understands very little about the war, or the reasons behind it, except to comment about the fear the bandits have instilled into her people and to describe the effects their raids have had on her life. An astute observer, she conveys much of the tone of the story through her descriptions of the trek: her grandfather rocking to and fro making little noises; flies buzzing on her grandmother's face; her older brother becoming silent like their grandfather. Although we ultimately learn very little about the narrator herself, it is through her descriptions that the story unfolds.
Although he never appears in the story, the father's absence, and presumed death in the war, is significant as it helps to set the tone of the story, and without him, the narrator's family must survive on their own.
Once the owner of three sheep, a cow, and a vegetable garden—all of which have been taken away by the bandits by the time the story takes place—the grandfather does little more than rock side to side and make little noises in this story. He is clearly suffering from some form of dementia or the effects of a mental breakdown, and in the course of the trek through Kruger Park, he wanders off through the high grasses, becomes lost, and must be left behind by the family.
As the matriarch of her extended family that includes her husband and her grandchildren—the narrator, and the narrator's younger and older brothers—the grandmother is the strongest adult character in the story. It is through her vision and leadership that the family is able to escape the danger wrought by the rebels and travel through Kruger Park to a refugee camp across the border. Once her family settles into the refugee camp, she finds work hauling bricks, and she oversees her grandchildren's education.
The Little Brother
Less than a year old when the family is forced to leave their village, the little brother is three when the story ends. In that time he suffers greatly from malnutrition, and as he grows older, his older sister notices that he barely speaks, a result, she believes, of having too little food during their journey.
Similar to the father, we know nothing about the mother except that she left one day for the store and never returned, forcing the narrator's grandparents to take over responsibilities for the children during the war.
- The Nobel Prize committee maintains a Gordimer web page at http://www.nobel.se/literature/laureates/1991/ with a link to her Nobel Prize speech and other related sites.
- In a separate section of the Nobel Prize web site, at http://www.nobel.se/literature/articles/wastberg/index.html, writer and vice president of International PEN Per Wästberg offers an extensive overview of Gordimer's career.
Between 1948 and 1992, the Republic of South Africa had an institutionalized system of racial segregation known as "apartheid"—the Afrikaner word meaning "separateness." Effectively stripping all South African blacks, coloreds, and Indians of their citizenship rights, apartheid was instrumental in helping whites to maintain power in the predominantly black country. As countries across Africa regained their independence from Europeans, the South African government, fearing the liberating influence of its recently liberated black neighbors on its own black population, financially and militarily supported the efforts of rebel groups to destabilize neighboring governments. This desperate measure to protect the apartheid system and the white control of the South African economic and political structures resulted in the long-term displacement and deaths of millions of southern Africans over the years. Nearly all of Gordimer's work addresses, in some way, the effects apartheid has had on whites and blacks alike.
Prior to the events of the story, the narrator had lost both her father and her mother to the war. Her grandmother and grandfather took over parenting responsibilities, and when the grandfather lost his only means of livelihood to the bandits, he suffered from a mental breakdown of some sort, and the grandmother took over sole responsibility of raising the family. It was through the commitment of the grandmother to keeping her family together that the narrator and her siblings were able to trek hundreds of miles across the wilds of Kruger Park to the relative safety of the refugee camp.
Topics for Further Study
- A major foreign policy concern of the South African government from the 1970s through the end of apartheid in 1992 was the burgeoning liberation and Marxist movements in its neighboring countries. Why was South Africa concerned about these movements? Which countries, in particular, was it most concerned about? What types of policies did the government pursue to contain those movements?
- For years Gordimer was a member of the outlawed African National Congress, or the ANC. Research the history of the ANC under apartheid. What was its political mission? Did its goals change once apartheid was banned? What is the ANC's role in South Africa today?
- Although Gordimer is one of South Africa's best-known writers, because of censorship laws, many of her stories were first published by British and American publications long before they were published widely in her own country. Research the role censorship played in apartheid South Africa. Were there periods of time during South Africa's history when the censorship rules were more strictly enforced than during others? If so, why?
- Look up the term "interregnum," and read Gordimer's essay entitled "Living in the Interregnum" from her collection The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics and Places. To what does Gordimer refer when she talks about the interregnum? Explain how she uses the term in relation to the context of both South Africa and of the world.
- Gordimer is one of the few women writers to have been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. Research the other women Nobel laureates. Are there any similarities in their writing styles or the subject matters they address? Do politics play a role in their writings?
- In 1968, American writer William Styron was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Confessions of Nat Turner. Like Gordimer does in "The Ultimate Safari," Styron, who is white, writes from the perspective of a black character. Despite the critical acclaim it received, Styron's book also received widespread criticism for its portrayal of Turner. Research the critical reviews of Styron's book. What were the main reasons for the criticism? Could that criticism also be applied to Gordimer?
One of the major effects of the South African policy of apartheid was the displacement of millions of blacks in the region. In South Africa itself, where apartheid dictated where blacks were legally allowed to live, many poor families were forced to live illegally in shanty towns outside of cities where they hoped to find work, living effectively as homeless people in corrugated iron shacks and temporary structures. In the larger southern African region, many poor villagers were forced by military incursions financed by South Africa to abandon their homes in favor of refugee camps where they lived for years in desperate conditions. At the end of the story, a white reporter asks the grandmother if she ever wants to return home. While the young girl dreams of a day she will be reunited with her mother and grandfather in their home village, the grandmother responds directly by saying, "There is nothing. No home."
Even though many countries around the world—particularly in Africa—have successfully liberated themselves from their European colonial rulers, most of them are still economically and militarily vulnerable to outside forces. In southern Africa, many of the border areas surrounding South Africa were effectively reduced to anarchy and lawlessness by the repeated incursions by quasi-military groups funded and supported by the South African government. While some of the military groups had legitimate political issues they were addressing, most of them were little more than groups of vigilantes whose sole aim was to destabilize the areas through brutal force that included raids, pillaging, and military attacks. It was this environment of lawlessness that finally forced the narrator and her family to make the arduous trek with other refugee families through Kruger Park and to the refugee camps in South Africa.
One of the goals of apartheid was to help whites, who made up less than 20 percent of the South African population, maintain complete economic and military control. The effect of their policies was the widespread oppression of otherwise innocent blacks in both South Africa itself as well as in the neighboring countries.
Apartheid effectively contributed to the complete economic and political control by whites of the non-white population in and around South Africa through the institutionalization of race-based classification systems and laws. Apartheid effectively fueled racist tendencies among the populace, and one of the effects was the dehumanization, in the eyes of the white populations, of blacks. Although there is no "racial conflict" per se in "The Ultimate Safari," the widespread racial conflicts that the area had been experiencing for years led to the environment that forced whole families and villages into desperate living situations. Without that racial conflict, it would have been difficult for whites to justify the widespread refugee problem, and there would have been greater pressures for more humane and peaceful solutions to the problems South Africa believed it was facing.
Rites of Passage
The family's trip through the wilds of Kruger Park can be viewed allegorically as a rite of passage for the young narrator. Through the journey, the girl must confront the loss of yet another family member—her grandfather—and she must take over the parenting responsibilities of her younger brother whom she must physically support. The narrator, though she is only 11 years old at the story's completion and although she still clings to the naïve hope that she has a home to return to where her grandfather and mother will be waiting, has begun the process of passing through the rites that will eventually lead her to womanhood.
Role of Women
In a society ruled by war, the women of the villages were forced to take over all parenting responsibilities, becoming both the homemaker and wage earner. In "The Ultimate Safari," the burden of this dual responsibility falls onto the shoulders of the grandmother, who must not only lead her grandchildren to safety, but who must also take over the care of her own husband whose dementia has rendered him useless. To a lesser degree, the narrator must also take over parenting responsibilities by carrying and caring for her infant brother who begins to grow weak from malnutrition during their trek.
The warfare that the villages experience in the course of Gordimer's story is "guerilla" warfare; that is, the Renamo rebels trying to overthrow the government do so in ways that create instability in the outlying areas without ever directly confronting the government's military forces themselves. Guerilla warfare is an effective military tool for groups of limited resources, as fewer soldiers are needed to inflict serious damage, and the psychological effects on the population are far greater than they are through conventional warfare.
Throughout the telling of her story, the narrator of "The Ultimate Safari" employs a simple, colloquial diction with sentences that are sparse and stripped of all ornamentation. In fact, the diction that Gordimer has given the narrator contributes to the surprise readers may experience upon learning that the narrator is a black Mozambique refugee. While the story she tells is consistent with a refugee's experience, her diction hints at her being a young white English-speaking girl. There are no idiomatic expressions, slang phrases, or sentence constructions that hint at the narrator's being black or Mozambican. One effect the girl's diction has is to break down the barrier between the non-African white readers and the narrator: by portraying the girl as being more like her largely white American and European readers, Gordimer has succeed in creating a more sympathetic character than would have otherwise been possible.
Although the narrator summarizes conversations she overhears or is a part of, there is no dialogue to speak of in the story until the final scene when a filmmaker interviews the grandmother. This technique offers perhaps a truer representation of how a girl of the narrator's age would recall conversations, and it also has the effect of giving the story more of a dream-like or mythic atmosphere. By not engaging us directly in the conversations as they happened, the narrator effectively keeps the entire story in her head, presenting it to us entirely from memory. And even with the small amount of dialogue at the story's conclusion, Gordimer chooses not to use quotation marks to set the dialogue off, giving the story the continued dream-like effect.
Gordimer uses stark, often-violent imagery to help set the tone of the story and to help us understand the grim circumstances the girl and her family are facing. The narrator, for instance, begins her description of entering Kruger Park by telling of a man in her village who lost his legs to crocodiles, reminding the reader of the dangers lurking before them and adding to the story's menacing tone. Once in the park, she describes the animals surrounding them as being continually on the prowl for food while she and her family have nothing to eat. "We had passed [the vultures] often where they were feeding on the bones of dead animals, nothing was ever left there for us to eat," she tells readers.
By giving the story the title, "The Ultimate Safari," and by prefacing it with an epigraph from a London travel advertisement luring rich tourists to Africa for the "ultimate safari," Gordimer is employing irony to underscore the vast differences between the wealthy, foreign whites and the poor, black refugees that populate southern Africa. For many people from the narrator's village who were forced out of their homes and into Kruger Park for the arduous journey to the refugee camps, this would certainly be their "ultimate," or last, "safari." Many, such as the narrator's grandfather, would die in the park itself, and many would ultimately die in the refugee camp, never able to see their homes again. Meanwhile, as the group travels through the game reserve that rich European tourists spend thousands of dollars to visit, the roasting meats of the tourists waft by, and the refugee children grow hungrier and hungrier, with less even to eat than the buzzards.
Point of View
By employing the first person point of view, and using a young black refugee girl as the story's narrator, Gordimer is able to imagine for herself and for us what it is to be "the other." Since the story is not told from a third-person omniscient point of view, the experience of being a refugee fleeing war is personalized, and the reader is able to experience not only the facts of the journey, but also, in a limited way, the emotions and personal experiences of the girl herself.
Gordimer effectively sets the tone of the story with the first two sentences: "That night our mother went to the shop and she didn't come back. Ever." In a quiet, dispassionate, almost distant tone of voice, without a hint of sentiment or pity, the narrator has just reported the presumed death of her mother. The remainder of the story is told in a similar, matter-of-fact way: regardless of how despairing her circumstances are, there is a profound sense of acceptance and fatalism hinted at in the girl's voice. At the same time, the sentences introduce the continual sense of loss that the narrator will experience throughout the course of the story, as well as a menacing aspect. This will be a stark story, one filled with loss and foreboding, and the telling of it will offer very little in the way of analysis or description. One purpose of using this tone to tell the story is to help underscore the girl's overall sense of optimism. At the end of the story she continues to dream of a day she can be reunited, in her home, with her mother, father, and grandfather. The girl, despite her hardships and her bleak surroundings, never gives up hope, however illusory that hope may be.
South African Apartheid
It is impossible to understand Nadine Gordimer's fiction without having an understanding of the system of racial segregation, known as apartheid, under which South Africans lived between 1948 and 1992. Gordimer's work, perhaps more than the work of any other South African writer (including fellow white writers André Brink and J. M. Coetzee), is inextricably linked to her political views and lifelong resistance to apartheid. With the lone exception of an early autobiographical work, all of Gordimer's work addresses the effect of apartheid on South Africans of all classes and races, so much so that the Vice President of International PEN Per Wästberg, writing on the official Nobel Prize web site, calls Gordimer "the Geiger counter of apartheid."
Briefly, apartheid was a system of laws set up by the South African government designed to control the movements of the majority, non-white population. The laws dictated where blacks, Indians, and so-called "coloreds" could live and work and who they could marry. The purpose of apartheid was to allow the minority white population, which comprised less than 20 percent of the population, to consolidate political power and control over the majority population.
As liberation movements during the 1960s and 1970s spread through Africa, many colonial powers lost control of their power bases and were forced to cede power to blacks. South Africa remained the lone exception, and until civil unrest began to spread through the country in the late 1980s and effectively undermine the government's control over the black population, the South African government continued to exert its political hold. However, the liberation movements throughout the continent spread to the South African borders, with Mozambique and Zimbabwe being transformed into black-controlled, leftist governments. As a defensive mechanism designed to keep the ideas of liberation and equality from being spread through its own black population, South Africa financially and militarily supported rebel groups in the border areas of Mozambique and Zimbabwe; throughout the late 1970s and 1980s the rural populations of those countries suffered through the effects of guerilla warfare. Entire villages were uprooted, and refugee camps made up of civilians fleeing the war were established along the South African borders.
This is the political and military background to "The Ultimate Safari." The narrator's family are, by all accounts, nonpolitical rural peasants who are forced into the war. The father is presumably killed in combat, and though the mother's fate is less clear, it is presumed that she was kidnapped or killed by the rebel forces. After a series of rebel raids that have left the villages destitute, the narrator's family, along with other members of their village, are forced to make the long trek through Kruger Park to one of the South African refugee camps.
Censorship and the Works of Nadine Gordimer
As part of the efforts to control its black population, the South African government strictly controlled the news and dissemination of information during much of Gordimer's writing career. The press was either state-run or state-controlled, and severe measures of censorship were taken to control the information coming into and going out of the country. An outspoken critic of censorship, Gordimer saw several of her works banned upon publication, including her novel Burger's Daughter, which was banned as a result of the Soweto uprisings. Because of this publishing climate, many of Gordimer's novels and stories, including "The Ultimate Safari" and several other of the stories that make up the collection Jump and Other Stories, were published in Great Britain and the United States before being published in her native South Africa.
Ironically, for several years following the demise of apartheid in 1992, Gordimer's 1981 novel July's People was banned in a South Africa school district for being "deeply racist, superior and patronising…." The ban, which also affected sev eral other notable works, including Shakespeare's Hamlet, was eventually lifted after hundreds of writers from around the world protested, but not before Gordimer publicly compared the school board to the censors of the old apartheid regime.
Because it was released shortly before Gordimer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Jump and Other Stories, the collection in which "The Ultimate Safari" was published, is not considered to be one of Gordimer's major works. Nonetheless, the book received widespread reviews in the major media of the day, and several reviewers remarked specifically on the story itself.
John Banville, writing in the New York Review of Books, wrote that the story, one of the "three fine stories" in the collection, "fairly quivers with angry polemic, yet achieves an almost biblical force through the simplicity and specificity of the narrative voice."
Writing in America, Jerome Donnelly writes that the collection as a whole achieves a "unity" that is "remarkable" considering the multiplicity of voices Gordimer uses, and the "simple, controlled narrative of wonderment filtered through a mind too unknowing to be terrified generates powerful understatement," and that the story moves on "without indulging the temptation to sentimentalize the moment."
The Spectator critic Hilary Mantel described Gordimer's new stories as having "complexity and resonance, sometimes grandeur," and that they are all "worth reading and re-reading." She describes the new work "as trenchant and committed as her novels," and the sentences of "The Ultimate Safari" as "stripped down, simplified…."
Compare & Contrast
- 1980s: Apartheid laws are still in effect in South Africa, with the majority population unable to vote or move about freely.
Today: Apartheid has been abolished, and blacks are allowed to vote in local and national elections.
- 1980s: Many important works of literature, including works by Nadine Gordimer, are banned in South Africa.
Today: With the exception of some school districts occasionally calling for the censorship of certain works, South Africans can read and write without fear of official, state-sanctioned censorship.
- 1980s: Mozambique and Zimbabwe villagers living along the South African borders are frequently displaced because of the guerilla warfare supported by the South African government.
Today: South Africa has long stopped its incursions into neighboring countries, and villagers are no longer forced away from their homes by guerilla raids.
- 1980s: The African National Congress, of which Gordimer is a long-standing member, is considered illegal by the government, and its members are considered outlaws.
Today: The African National Congress, which Gordimer continues to support, is the majority political party in South Africa.
Dan Cryer, on the other hand, in a review for Newsday, suggested that while much of Gordimer's work had made her "Nobel Prize–worthy," it was important to separate Gordimer's "superb novels" such as A Sport of Nature and The Conservationist from works such as Jump and Other Stories. "The majority of these stories," Cryer writes in reference to several of the collections stories, including "The
Ultimate Safari," "achieve the limited objective of bringing the headlines to vivid life."
Critic Jeanne Colleran, in an essay included in the collection The Later Fiction of Nadine Gordimer, discusses Gordimer's views that a short story collection, in many ways, is more able to convey the multiple truths of South Africa than a novel due to its ability to represent "the even greater multiplicity of voices, attitudes, and constituencies that comprise South African society…." While much of the collection, with the "obsessive image of recent South African history, the dead … children [that] haunt the collection," portrays the dire legacy of apartheid, "The Ultimate Safari," written through the eyes of a young black southern African girl, offers some hope for the future. The girl, despite her refugee status, fully plans to return home where she believes her missing mother and grandfather are waiting.
In a major critical review in the Journal of Southern African Studies titled "Jump and Other Stories: Gordimer's Leap into the 1990s: Gender and Politics in Her Latest Short Fiction," University of the Witwatersrand professor Karen Lazar contextualizes the collection with respect to South Africa's political climate at the time, as well as Gordimer's previous work. In particular, Lazar is interested in exploring the trajectory of Gordimer's political thought, particularly the evolution of her views of women.
While Lazar believes that the collection shows that Gordimer's political thinking has continued to evolve, Lazar finds her continued representation of women as tending more to the "uni-dimensional" relative to her treatment of men, and that "various aspects of South African womanhood [in Jump and Other Stories] are split off, dichotomised and assigned to individual figures, such that the representations of women tend to be truncated, reduced and static, giving women a marginal and decentered status relative to the more lively and layered status of men." While in many respects Gordimer "jumps" into the 1990s with this collection, according to Lazar, Gordimer's sometimes "static" and "truncated" representations of women continue to be a concern.
White is the publisher of the Seattle-based literary press, Scala House Press. In this essay,White argues that Gordimer's decision not to reveal the race of the narrator in "The Ultimate Safari" resulted in the creation of a more empathetic character with whom her white American and British readers could identify.
The art of "writing in voice," or "writing in character," is a common literary technique that has been used by countless writers over the years. In one of literature's most famous examples, Herman Melville adopts the persona of Ishmael, an itinerant seaman, in Moby Dick, and in two of the more popular examples from the late twentieth century, Alice Walker, in The Color Purple, adopts the voice of Celie, an uneducated, abused southern girl, and Arthur Golden writes from the perspective of a Japanese geisha in Memoirs of a Geisha.
While it is not at all uncommon for a writer to take on the character of someone outside his or her own economic and social status, as Walker did, what is far less common is for a writer to adopt the character of a different ethnic background or race, as was the case with Golden. And least common of all—perhaps because of the highly contentious and politically charged nature of black-white relationships—is when a white writer adopts the voice of a black character, as Nadine Gordimer does in her short story "The Ultimate Safari."
What Do I Read Next?
- Gordimer's essay collection The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics and Places (1988) includes the often-quoted essay "Living in the Interregnum," in which she discusses the role of revolution in the South African political context, and the responsibility she felt as a writer to come to terms with it.
- To fully understand Gordimer's fiction, one must understand her political convictions and how they have affected her growth as a writer. Conversations with Nadine Gordimer, published in 1990, gives a good background to Gordimer's evolution as a political thinker and as a writer just prior to her writing of "The Ultimate Safari."
- Of the many novels that Gordimer has written in her career, The Burger's Daughter is considered one of her best and was one of her most controversial at the time of its publication. Banned by the South African government, The Burger's Daughter follows the story of Rosa Burger, the daughter of a martyred revolutionary leader, as she tries to pursue an apolitical existence of her own.
- Gordimer's story collection Selected Stories (1975) offers the full range of Gordimer's style and subject matter. Although some of the stories are thirty years older than "The Ultimate Safari," the collection provides a good overview to the evolution and breadth of Gordimer's writing.
- Like "The Ultimate Safari," J. M. Coetzee's Booker Prize–winning novel, The Life and Time of Michael K (1983), tells the story of a black family displaced by war. Coetzee, along with André Brink and Gordimer, has long been considered to be one of South Africa's leading white intellectuals and opponents of apartheid.
In "The Ultimate Safari," Gordimer, a white South African writer well into her sixties when the story was published, takes on the voice of a young nameless black refugee girl from Mozambique. While Gordimer had written from a black perspective several times throughout her career, what sets this particular story apart is the fact that through most of its telling, the reader is not made fully aware of the narrator's race. While the few details of the story's setting and the narrator's circumstances that are offered from the outset hint strongly that she is black, it is not until the story's final scenes that the girl's nationality and race are confirmed. Gordimer's conscious manipulation of these facts is one of the techniques she uses that ultimately gives this story its poignancy. By keeping the reader uncertain about the girl's background, Gordimer effectively holds out the possibility in the reader's mind, on some level, that the narrator could be "the girl next door" and not simply another distant and nameless African refugee. While this may seem insignificant to the overall meaning of the story itself, in light of the fact that the vast majority of the story's readers at the time of its publication were not only white, but also non-South African, this technique effectively helped Gordimer to maximize the empathy the story's readers felt for the character and effectively contributed to her agenda of enlightening the world to the dehumanizing effects of her country's system of apartheid.
Throughout most of her fifty-year career, Gordimer has used her writing to explore, expose, and oppose South Africa's long-standing system of racial segregation known as apartheid. With the major exception of her early autobiographical work, The Lying Days, nearly all of Gordimer's fiction in some way addresses apartheid, so much so that fellow writer and the Vice-President of International PEN Per Wästberg, writing on the official Nobel Prize web site, calls Gordimer "the Geiger counter of apartheid."
Officially struck down in 1992 after nearly 50 years as the government's official policy of racial segregation, apartheid—the Afrikaner word meaning "separateness"—was a system of laws that effectively stripped all South African blacks of their citizenship rights and was instrumental in maintaining white control over the majority black population. However, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, as countries across Africa regained their independence from Europeans, the South African government, fearing that their recently liberated neighbors such as Zimbabwe and Mozambique would encourage liberation movements in its own country, responded by financially and militarily supporting the efforts of rebel groups to destabilize those countries. These desperate measures to protect the apartheid system, which often took the form of military raids into the rural border areas, resulted in the long-term displacement and deaths of millions of southern Africans over the years, with an estimated million deaths accounted for in the Mozambique civil war that was fueled by South Africa. Fleeing from their war-ravaged homes, many villagers who survived the war in Mozambique ended up as refugees in any number of the South African refugee camps.
A related piece of historical information that should also be kept in mind when reading "The Ultimate Safari" is that, because of her public opposition to the government, coupled with the overtly political themes of her work, many of Gordimer' stories and novels were banned in her own country at the time of their publication; as a result, the first readers to most of Gordimer's work were usually not South African but rather British and North American. "The Ultimate Safari," in fact, was first published in the British literary journal, Granta before being published in book form by American publisher Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in the collection Jump and Other Stories. It is with these facts in mind that the techniques Gordimer uses in "The Ultimate Safari" can be best understood.
"The Ultimate Safari" is written in a deceptively simple style. The story's first two sentences—"That night our mother went to the shop and she didn't come back. Ever."—not only set the mysterious and foreboding tone of the story that is about to be told, but they effectively announce Gordimer's style as well. The sentence structure and diction are simple, yet not so simple as to indicate that the narrator is a person of lesser intelligence or capabilities. The narrator speaks in plain, everyday English; there is nothing remarkable in terms of vocabulary, syntax, or dialect that would indicate her to be anything but an English speaker of ordinary intelligence and sensibilities. She does not speak in dialect; she could be from any number of English-speaking locations. And Gordimer leaves few idiosyncratic clues that give her racial, cultural, or ethnic identity away.
Aside from knowing that the story's author is South African, there is little to indicate at the outset of the story that the narrator herself is from the region. She tells us immediately of "the war" and of "the bandits," and she references her "village" and the "bush"—both of which would hint at an African setting of some kind—but because the overall tenor of the narrative voice is anything but African, it is easy to overlook these clues at first reading. As the story progresses, the girl gives us further clues as to the setting with her description of the "dried mealies" her grandmother boils for her and, most importantly, her family's journey through Kruger Park, one of South Africa's popular game parks. Within a few pages, then, we have come to understand that she is in fact from southern Africa, but the overriding sense, as indicated by her narrative voice, is that she is a proper English-speaking girl, and the reader can't help but wonder, on some level, what this girl is doing wandering as a homeless refugee in South Africa.
Of course, since Gordimer writes in English, and her audience mostly comprises English readers, her stories must also be written in English. It would make no sense whatsoever were "The Ultimate Safari" to be written in the girl's native tongue. But when taking on the voice of a character, especially when that voice's "true" voice is non-English, the writer usually provides the reader with early clues as to the narrator's background—whether explicitly through a remark by the narrator or implicitly through his or her choice of diction.
In the case of Moby Dick, for instance, the book's very first sentence—"Call me Ishmael."—announces the identity of the narrator, and very shortly thereafter Ishmael describes his background and the reasons for his pending journey. In The Color Purple, Celie speaks in a southern black idiom that leaves no question as to her racial or regional identity. In Gordimer's story, until the final scenes in the refugee camp, the narrator provides few clues as to her race or ethnicity. It is in the refugee camp that the narrator finally confirms that she is of African descent, even if the details as to which tribe she belongs are left out. "The people in the village have let us join their school," the narrator says,
"I was surprised to find they speak our language; our grandmother told me, That's why they allow us to stay on their land. Long ago, in the time of our fathers, there was no fence that kills you, there was no Kruger Park between them and us, we were the same people under our own king, right from our village we left to this place we've come to."
Yet even here, when she references "our language," the possibility still exists that she is referring to English, and that perhaps this narrative is taking place in a world turned upside down, in a mythical future where the (white) English-speaking families are forced to wander the continent as refugees, and where their land has been carved into artificial political boundaries that separate people of the same tribe and ethnic backgrounds from one another. This possibility is eliminated, however, in the story's final scene when the narrator describes the "white people" who have come to film the refugee camp (implying, of course, that the refugees are not white), and we are told with certainty what her nationality is when a reporter asks of her grandmother, "Do you want to go back to Mozambique—to your own country?"
While Gordimer has always been committed to her writing as a form of art, and not simply as a tool to advance her politics, she has also always been unapologetically committed to using her writing to advance her antiapartheid stance. With her readership being made up of mostly, though not exclusively, British and American whites, and by giving the narrator many of the qualities that a typical young white English or American girl would have—she is observant, articulate, intelligent, selfless, and emotionally even-keeled—Gordimer created a character with whom readers could empathize, but not necessarily pity. Ultimately it is not pity that Gordimer wants to elicit from her readers, but rather she wants her readers to come to a profound understanding of the human toll of apartheid. Holding off until the last possible moment before revealing the girl's race has the effect of giving her white audience every possible reason to feel for the girl as "one of us," rather than reasons to feel sorry for the miserable conditions of yet another poor anonymous black African. In other words, by effectively creating a character who closely resembles her readers, or who at least resembles people with whom her readers were familiar, Gordimer gave her audience the vicarious experience of what it was like to be, or know, a refugee, even if for a brief amount of time.
It should also be noted that, in order for the story to pass as a work of art, and not merely political propaganda or journalism, its narrator must remain true to her character. The fact is that most ten-year-old girls, regardless of their backgrounds, would not necessarily consider their race or ethnicity to be important in the telling of their stories. Race, nationality, and ethnicity are adult constructs that children become aware of to varying degrees over time, so Gordimer's decision not to have her narrator discuss those issues was as much a decision to create a believable character as it was to create an empathetic one. However, the effect of that decision, regardless of its design, was to create an empathetic narrator.
In one of her more famous essays, "Living in the Interregnum," Gordimer paraphrases Mongane Wally Serote, a black South African poet: "Blacks must learn to talk; whites must learn to listen." By taking on the voice of a young black refugee girl, and by offering her readers the possibility that her voice was not simply "black" but also "universal," Gordimer not only created a black voice that whites could more readily listen to, but she also opened a window for her readers into one of the ugly rooms of apartheid.
Source: Mark White, Critical Essay on "The Ultimate Safari," in Short Stories for Students, Gale, 2004.
"Anti-Apartheid Author Branded Racist," BBC News Online at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/education/1283378.stm
Banville, John, "Winners," Review of Jump and Other Stories, in the New York Review of Books, Vol. 38, No. 19, November 21, 1991, pp. 27–29.
Colleran, Jeanne, "Archive of Apartheid: Nadine Gordimer's Short Fiction at the End of the Interregnum," in The Later Fiction of Nadine Gordimer, edited by Bruce King, St. Martin's Press, 1993, pp. 237–45.
Cryer, Dan, "Tales of Racial Turmoil and Other Tempests," Review of Jump and Other Stories, in Newsday, September 23, 1991, p. 50.
Donnelly, Jerome, "Summer Fiction—Jump and Other Stories by Nadine Gordimer," in America, Vol. 166, No. 20, June 6, 1992, pp. 518–19.
Gordimer, Nadine, "Living in the Interregnum," in The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics and Places, edited by Stephen Clingman, Jonathan Cape, 1988, pp. 261–84.
Jeyifo, Biodun, "An Interview with Nadine Gordimer: Harare, February 14, 1992," in Callaloo, Vol. 16, No. 4, Fall 1993, pp. 922–30.
Lazar, Karen, "'A Feeling of Realistic Optimism': An Interview with Nadine Gordimer," in Salmagundi, No. 113, Winter 1997, pp. 150–65.
——, "Jump and Other Stories: Gordimer's Leap into the 1990s: Gender and Politics in Her Latest Short Fiction," in Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 18, No. 4, December 1992, pp. 783–802.
Mantel, Hilary, "Irrecoverably Dark, Without All Hope of Day: Jump and Other Stories by Nadine Gordimer," in the Spectator, Vol. 267, No. 8519, October 19, 1991, pp. 43–44.
Wästberg, Per, "Nadine Gordimer and the South African Experience," at http://www.nobel.se/literature/articles/wastberg/index.html#2 (on the official Nobel Prize Web Site)
Brink, André, Reinventing a Continent: Writing and Politics in South Africa, 1982–1995, Secker & Warburg, 1996.
One of South Africa's foremost novelists and opponents of apartheid brings together this collection of essays about the role of the writer in South Africa.
Davis, Geoffrey V., Voices of Justice and Reason: Apartheid and Beyond in South African Literature, Amsterdam, 2003.
Davis provides a detailed overview, with an extensive bibliography, of South African writing under apartheid, with a focus on black writers.
Finnegan, William, A Complicated War: The Harrowing of Mozambique, University of California Press, 1992.
A Complicated War is an eyewitness journalistic account of the civil war in Mozambique that was sponsored by South Africa and ultimately killed over a million Mozambicans.
Karodia, Farida, A Shattering of Silence, Heinemann, 1993.
Karodia gives a fictionalized account of the adventures of a young Mozambican girl who loses her family to the civil war in her country.
Vines, Alex, Renamo: Terrorism in Mozambique, Indiana University Press, 1991.
Vines provides an historical overview of Renamo, the rebel movement supported by South Africa that fueled the civil war in Mozambique.
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