Instead of beginning this way, with these words, this writing might have begun instead as a letter: as a very intimate, very personal letter, written to her even though (or especially because) she is dead, because she died what still feels like only a few weeks ago even though the weeks since her death in 2014 quickly and callously transposed to years. . .and because it’s still very difficult, really, to think about her completely gone, as in really gone, even though she and I never actually met, we knew each other only through our books and through letters. On some days now I feel as though I might cherish her letters even more than her many many books: cherish like a deeply forbidden drug, because they, like her books, make it possible to remember that even – perhaps especially – in what feels like our tremendously evil time, there still are and were and will always be good people, people of the heart, people of the soul and true, people who always really will do – yes, count on it – the right human thing: the thing that will always help other human beings, the thing that is, and should be, our sacred bond. And so if I had decided to make this writing a deeply personal letter to the dead I might have begun it with the words Dear Ms Gordimer, as one would begin a letter to her: Dear Ms Gordimer, I would have written, you are no longer here, you can no longer stand amongst us as a beacon, and even though you died at the ‘good’ age of ninety years, I miss you more than I can say. I would rather still have you here upon the earth, I would have written, as a perhaps toothless and even bent-over ruin of ninety-nine or one hundred-odd, I would have written, sorely meaning it, than to live with this daily and nightly longing of wanting you back, wanting you here, and missing you terribly, awfully, amidst so much daily pretension and stupidity and just downright wretchedness. For the world did seem a bit safer with people like you in it, just as it did when Mr Mandela was in it (remembering that you were one of the very first people he wanted to visit upon his release from prison), and Mr Baldwin was in it, and Ms Lorde was in it: people, like a certain number of others but not so many others, in fact very few on this planet, who constantly and fearlessly spoke the truth, swept aside the rubbish, and wasted little time on wanking the ego. You, for me, principal amongst them. So I would have written, and more, and more still, had I decided to begin this writing as a very personal letter, a missive ultimately of deep-deep grief and longing.
But in the way of the world and its vagaries, this world that is ours and which on this particular day strikes me as more filled with evil and destruction than ever even as its trees and fields and hills and streams continue to scold me (for things are not as bad as all that, they say, even in Chernobyl, though I would disagree), in the ever-unpredictable way of this world, things cannot be counted upon to proceed as might be expected. It certainly could not have been expected that once upon a time, in a small country far far away across the broad sea, a then-young dark man with large eyes and lonely hands would write to a much older white woman far away in her own country across that same sea – one sea of several that had known and hosted centuries of dreadful ships – and ask her, impossibly, if she might read the manuscript of what would soon be his first published book, in order to (as if what he had just asked were not impossible enough) provide a jacket comment for it. But then why, he thought at the time: why was he doing this? Why was he writing to this woman out of the blue, as if he knew her, as if he and she had taken coffee together in her home or his, or as if, in his own country, she and he had sat by the Antillean sea beneath the habitually burning sun and there eaten quantities of steamed fish and bammy washed down by white rum? Was it for mercenary reasons? – because of her fame, known far and wide as she was in numerous countries, and because in the previous decade she had been awarded the planet’s most renowned prize for her writing? But no. No, he explained in his passionate four-page typed letter to her, none of that. He was writing to her with that request because for as many years as he could remember he had felt not only truly honoured as a human being in the presence of her writing, but also because his careful study and sojourning of her novels and essays and short stories had confirmed for him the shocking fact that there actually could exist some white people, albeit a tremendously precious few, who truly cared about the lives of black people, genuinely cared, and who were not filled with hatred, or bile, or self-righteousness, or colonialist spite, or the seething rage that could burn down mosques, firebomb black churches, grip a semi-automatic to decimate dark people in shopping malls or on an island’s summer camp, confine dark children in metal cages at national borders, and permit boatload after boatload of Africans to capsize and drown in the historic sea of legend, the sea of epic heroes and plunderers alike. She was one of the very precious few who were not like the destroyers, the murderers, and the less dramatic ones who – politely — would not sit next to you on a bus or train because you were black. And she, impossibly, wrote back to the then-young dark man, telling him that yes, she would read his soon-to-be-published manuscript, adding that if she felt ‘enthusiastic’ about what she read, she would ‘say so – write so – with honesty’.
And so it was, and so she did, impossibly but very possibly; and so, at that time, something in the world changed. Or rather something changed in his world.
Changed, yes: for there are so many times, aren’t there, when, try though one might with all one’s will to soften the leitmotifs of one’s harshest historical dreams, it is simply just plain difficult not to believe that all white people, or at least most of them, are sooner or later monsters, and monstrous, as the world, this world, our daily world, so often illustrates. Difficult not to believe that sooner or later one or the other of them will roaringly rear a monstrous head, persecute and deport some more immigrants, spray-paint some more swastikas, hoist more white nationalist flags, ignite more nativist torches, and elect another prime minister who speaks of blacks as ‘picanninies’. It is difficult often not to believe, given centuries of such monster-ness and more, that though in daily exchange they might often smile and warmly say ‘Good morning’, or use phrases like ‘Terribly sorry, sir’, or ‘Might I help you with that, madam?’ that a deeply savage heart doesn’t lurk within them, not so far down beneath the paleness and the smile – for after all, doesn’t it take a savage to imagine and begin to invent other savages, and isn’t a savage’s fear of other savages one of his (or her) most precious possessions for both living and death? Well yes, of course; and yes, of course it can be profoundly difficult, witnessing the savagery, to trust any of them – to really trust them. Difficult, that is, until you encounter some of them, like her, who put their very lives on the line against savagery.
But then it wasn’t only her books and testimony in the apartheid society that drew him to her and made him grow to love her, he realised; it was also the fact that, though she had never set eyes on him in the flesh and never would in her lifetime, nor would his feet in her lifetime ever enter her country, she clearly understood from the very outset, after having read his first letter to her, the powerful political import of a black man (and a black queer man at that) connecting with her, a white South African Jewish anti-apartheid writer-woman, from his ‘postcolonial’ black-majority Caribbean country: his country of sometimes proud but often withered people savaged and ravaged for centuries by the betrayals and cruelties of slave-trading, slave-raping England. For the many British-occasioned atrocities that had occurred in his country across a few centuries had been similar, hadn’t they, to the atrocities that had ripped apart black bodies in her country through centuries of internecine wars waged by the British, by the Dutch, by the Boers: atrocities committed by white hands and white-owned guns firing upon black bodies throughout the entire African continent. Ever since the beckoning of gold and silver, and more, the British hadn’t been able to keep their hands out of and off black people’s flesh – literally – and it was at least those centuries of British-perpetrated evil and its consequences that connected them, the black Caribbean man and the white African woman, across the broad sea that had pulled down and drowned so many others. For there she was, he learnt over the years as he read more about her and more by her: a Jew (though not ever religiously observant), who even as a young girl had been aware in the apartheid-riven black majority country of her whiteness and the blood-edged privileges it bestowed. What startled him about her early on, in part, was not only her steadfast commitment to acknowledge and criticise, often severely, the privilege and power granted her and others like her by whiteness, but also her constant determination to live as a white person of conscience (a phrase he might have once believed to be oxymoronic), thereby refusing to become, via unconscientious laziness and indifference, a racist practitioner. It was startling indeed for him, because it was so very rare, to see a white person fully engaging with the enormous moral responsibility demanded of any caring human being in a society that consistently, always to its own tragic detriment, rewarded and encouraged white ignorance and white racist viciousness.
And here is something, never to be forgotten: sometimes, when someone you have come to love partly because of what they believe in and what they stand for (in her case justice and equality, to say nothing of her tersely elegant novels) dies, you miss them terribly – really in a way that words just can’t describe, because even the best and bravest of words, and the most truthful, despite their noblest efforts, simply cannot plunge that deeply into the blood-and-flesh where longing begins. Yet, if you’re writing, you try, because at the day’s end there’s nothing else to be done, apart from (but in secret, of course) crying. You try your very best to describe how you miss them to the point of shock, as, shocked, you stagger a little, just a very little, over how much it really is possible to love and miss the presence and living force of another human being, even – especially? – someone whom you’ve never met, and who has never met you. Who knew, who would ever have thought, that love could exist like that? You try as best you can to describe how you miss her in particular because you realised, after she’d gone, that so very few like her have ever existed and, given our world’s daily evidence, few such will ever exist. You realised, again shocked, that it was exactly her being the way she was that challenged your cynicism and scepticism about people who looked like her, as not only her repeated generosity to you but also her commitment to humanity, and to subjugated black humanity in particular, forced you to understand that some human beings could exercise the choice to be human first, to live as human first, instead of swearing allegiance to the supremacy of their skin colour. You try so hard, as hard as you can, to describe how her presence in the world made you feel a little safer, and certainly more determined to try to be honourable, because, well, if she could spurn and deplore all the rewards her country offered if she merely joined the club of white ignorance and inhumanity, others here and there could certainly stand upright as well. For in the end the simple truth always returns: that people like her whom Western societies reward simply for existing, but who critique and disdain the rewards, simply don’t come along much, in any colour. That rarity must be acknowledged, but also passed on, and in the passing on, acted out. Acted and, if possible, though sure not to be easy, written.
But instead of ending this way, with the preceding words, this writing might end instead as a direct memory: one spoken directly to the dead who, within the deepest heart, never die, no matter how fiercely they are missed. For I remember that in one of her letters, she called me ‘comrade’. And so it came to pass that not long afterward, in one of my books fortunately published six years before her death, I hailed her in the dedication as my ‘comrade,/but also,/always,/beacon’. Beacon, yes, because you were a comrade-in-arms, Ms Gordimer, to so many of us. Beacon, because not only I, but so many of us are still powerfully missing you. Beacon, still gazing calmly out at me from your photograph here on top of my bookcase: pride of place, with your books lined up on the first shelf underneath. Your letters have been stored safely, and also have been scanned. But then what good really are words? ‘Beacon’ suggests light, a saving light. A hand extended across the restless water. Let me now see a great deal of light, then, comrade. Let me summon it. It’s greatly needed. Needed for the overwhelming sadness of this world, our world, but also for the sadness of missing you and wanting you back. The longing to continue making the words and remembering them, like the ongoing sadness, that has not stopped.
Thomas Glave has work forthcoming in Transition magazine (2019). His most recent book is Among the Bloodpeople: Politics and Flesh. His first book is Whose Song? And Other Stories, featuring ‘The Final Inning’, which won an O. Henry Award. He has received two Lambda Literary Awards for the essay collection Words to Our Now: Imagination and Dissent and the edited volume Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles.