Something Out There

Dialogues

Written by Nadine Gordimer in 1984, Something Out There is a collection of 9 short stories and one novella. Most of the short stories are set in Africa, but one is a letter response of Hermann Kafka, to his son's letter. Gordimer is a good author, and this is a nice sampling.

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  Dialogues
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Set in depression-era America, Steinbeck's novel deals with some of the same things as Something Out There. Both mention people having their homes bulldozed in an effort to get them to leave, both feature disposable workers who are often mistreated and in each, there is definately a struggle between the classes, between the haves and the have-nots. When some people are considered less worthwhile than others, and there is not enough money to go around, certain things are true no matter where the setting is.
  Notes

About Nadine Gordimer

Born in 1923 in Springs, Transvaal (a mining town outside of Johannesburg)

father: Jewish jewler from Latvia

mother: British descent

Education: at a convent school, along with a year at Witwaterstrand University

Nadine began to write at the age of nine. Her mother belived Nadine had a weak heart and kept her home often.

1949 first Short story collection, Face to Face was published. 1991: Nadine wins the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Quotes from Nadine Gordimer:

"For a long time I used to get The Observer and then The Independent, and then it just got too much. In recent years, once The Weekly Mail started printing pages from The Guardian, I thought that will do" (Lazar).

"I think we all fall into some kind of uniform" (Lazar). (commenting how people tend to define themselves by the clothes they wear)

"Some people can never change. They may be wonderful in a certain situation and totally impotent in another" (Bazin).

"Power is something of which I am convinced there is no innocence this side of the womb."

"You can't change a regime on the basis of compassion. There's got to be something harder" (Lazar).

"To me, it's progress. It's not specacular, but it's progress" (Lazar). (a response to the conditions in South Africa.)

"The winner of the 1991 Nobel Prize for Literature challenged those who were crtiical of her portrayal of black characters and said a writer has to be able to imagine themselves in the shoes of both genders and all races and ages. 'I don't think you can all anyone a writer at all if they don't have this ability, ' she said. 'We writers must claim some sort of mysterious sixth sense. I don't think it should be considered arrogant or elitist. It's just part of our job'" (Thomasson).

About Something Out There

Short Story titles:
A City of the Dead, a City of the Living
At the Rendezvous of Victory
Letter from His Father
Crimes of Conscience
Sins of the Third Age
Blinder
Rags and Bones
Terminal
A Correspondence Course

Novella Title:
Something Out There

The novella focuses on two things: the four people plotting to attack the power station, and the mysterious beast which is terrorizing suburbia.


The Beast


No one can quite decide what the animal is. The following occurs after a group of doctors encounter the beast on a golf course: "Vangelder had observed the gait, and in gait Vangelder read bones. It was not a monkey. It was not a man. That was a baboon" (126). The only characters who ever report on the beast are from the suburban white neighborhoods where the animal roams, eating small dogs and attacking suburbanites. The debate over the beast's species hovers around three options: a monkey, a baboon, or a black man. The fact that these three options are lumped together so nonchalantly, as if they were really very closely related, reveals some of the attitudes of white society. "The monkey or whatever it was in self-imposed exile. If it had been content to stay chained in a yard of caged in a zoo, its proper station in life, it wouldn't have had to live the life of an outlaw. If one might presume to do so without making oneself absurd by speaking in such terms of something less than human-well, serve the damn thing right" (189). Even though the beast has brought this misfortune upon itself, the suburbanites find a solution: "If, as a number of people insisted, it was an ape, it would find a safe home in the new ape-house, where at 3 p.m. every day the inmates perform a tea-party for the amusement for children of all races" (172). The fact is, the suburbanites are encroaching on the beast's land. They have built houses where there used to be forest, and define everything in terms of civilization. In their eyes, the beast is not a native inhabitant, but a misplaced being. It is not from the wilderness, but escaped from a zoo, or a home where it was groomed and civilized. It is an outlaw, an escapee whose current unfortunate situation could be remedied, even now. They never imagine that the beast may enjoy its situation, or that it never was part of a civilized system. In the minds of the suburbanites, there is no room in the colonial system for a wild animal whose actions against them may only be natural. Everything must be civilized, and like it. Their influence, with zoos and homes, must improve the lives of those they influence, or else the colonial system is wrong. And there is no room in the system for failure.


Racial Relations


The beast and the conspirators bring to light another topic: the relations between the races. In a letter to the editor, a man wrote: "…tell the black man who slapped his wife before snatching her purse that he had broken her dental bridgework, causing pain and inconvenience on what was to have been the holiday of a lifetime, and that he was no better than an uncivilized ape at large" (132). This is of course, a natural conclusion. Criminal acts are uncivilized, especially when they involve violence. The offended man uses the beast as a comparison for someone who has gone outside of the comfortable system. The typical set of relationships was this: "Every household in the fine suburb had several black servants-trusted cooks who were allowed to invite their grandchildren to spend their holidays in the backyard, faithful gardeners from whom the family watchdog was inseparable, a shifting population of pretty young housemaids whose long red nails and pertness not only asserted the indignity of being undiscovered or out-of-work fashion models but kept hoisted a cocky guerilla pride against servitude to whites…" (147). Everyone is in their place, and the system provides work and civilization to those they meet. And if their servants are good, they can see a glimpse of the wonderful life that the white people lead, the top of civilization. They can invite grandchildren to visit; they can glimpse the lifestyle, but cannot stay. It is the same mindset as when people give children candy: it's okay to be indulgent, and give them a little bit, but too much is not good for them, and they wouldn't be able to judge how much is okay without an adult to ration it for them. The description of the Chinese restaurant where the police hang out represents a good example of how to fit in the system: "Their restaurant had few ethnic pretensions of the usual kind---no velvet dragons of wind-chimes--but they had put up a shelf on the wall where the large color television set was placed like a miniature cinema screen…" (157). There is so little to point out the differences between the Chinese immigrants and the white policemen that gather there, that the enforcers of the colonizers feel comfortable there, accepting drinks on the house, and being rowdy after hours. It's a restaurant that knows its place in the Empire.
Toward the end of the novella, the white conspirators turn away a black man asking about Vusi and Eddie (their missing black compatriots), and the man doesn't ask where they've gone. "Gone? He knew it was no use asking where. When black people leave a white man's place, they've gone, that's all; it's not the white man's business to know where they'll find work next" (185). Here there is no sense of social responsibility that usually plagues relationships. In this instance, the black people are just considered temporary help, just a temporary commodity to be used while it was needed, and then discarded. This relationship is much like the relationships between migrant workers and farmers who even today, in the United States, are used and discarded in much the same manner. The only person who speaks about the obsession and concern over a beast, the ape that society wants to reform and treat to tea parties in the zoo, is a newspaper writer. "A left wing writer, taking up a sense of unfortunate duty to speak out on such paradoxes, wrote a stinging article noting sentimentality over a homeless animal, while--she gave precise figures--hundreds of thousands of black people had no adequate housing and were bulldozed out of the shelters they made for themselves…" (189). This is the only instance in the novella where anyone bothers to point out the lack of concern for the real social issues, and the callous society that worries over a misplaced ape while treating their black compatriots without even respect, let alone compassion.

The Four Conspirators

The conspirators are a white man, a white girl, and two black men. The white couple rent a house by the power station, on the pretense that they are a newly married couple from Australia. The black men are passed off as their servants, so as not to raise suspicion. At the end, Vusi and Eddie (the black duo) hide out in a cave with munitions before the power plant is attacked. Vusi notes that "These were made not for life; for death. He and Eddie lay there protected by it as they had never been by life" (146). The guns they are sheltered with may be instruments of destruction, but they are also the only protection the two have. Life never offered them a place in the world; the two never felt they fit in. The colonial system set up few options for them, none of which could be taken without sacrificing who they were. Death offers them a home, where the colonizers cannot touch them. They feel that they have found a place in the world, as agents of destruction. They are going to attack the power plant; they plan to destroy. That is their place. They have more in common with the cold, metal guns than they do with the rest of the world.
But while they lived in the house, when they were passing the time in preparation, Vusi makes a saxophone out of scraps of metal, especially beer tabs. "…Charles was reminded of the ingenuity of objects displayed in the concentration camps of Europe, now museums. These were made by the inmates out of nothing, effigies of the beautiful possibilities of a life to be lived" (163). The imagery brings up the feeling of tragic loss; that the situation is one which is caused by the regime in charge, and the conspirators are merely acting the only roles they've been given. The classes are separate: the conspirators represent those without power, those excluded from the things in life that are supposed to be good. But Vusi shows here that they are not without culture, the hallmark of civilization. He is not without talent, musical or engineering. No one else in the book exhibits half the creativity and aesthetic desire it takes to create the saxophone. The tragedy is that these talents, no matter how many he may possess, will mean nothing to the upper white classes unless they can derive entertainment from it. He will never be one of them; the very highest he can climb in their system is as an entertainer, not an equal. The tragedy is that he surpasses them in civilization by his act of culture, but it will never be recognized. The classes aren't separated by education or culture as is advertised; it's simply prejudice that keeps the classes apart. Charles points out another way of telling the classes apart: "The sewage from a white suburb and the sewage from a squatter's camp-you couldn't find a better way of measuring the level of sustenance afforded by different income levels…Show me what you shit, man, and I'll tell you who you are" (167). It seems that everything is different about these people, even what they flush. The very basest element, the crudest and most common of human features, even that is different.

Related Issues

Writing and politics

"Nadine Gordimer says she is not a political person; yet her writings document, decade
by decade, the impact of politics on personal lives and what an increasingly radical
white South African woman felt, thought and imagined during the rise and fall of
apartheid" (Bazin). Even though Gordimer makes no claims of being politically
motivated, every interviewer seems to quiz her on politics, and every critic seems to
consider the influence of politics in her writing. She is often criticized as not knowing enough about the situations she writes about to be able to portray them correctly. It is also pointed out, though, that "…Gordimer makes no suggestion that she possesses insider knowledge, however
achieved, of the cultural or historical contexts from which their novels arise"
(Greenstein). To Gordimer, writing is not a political act. Politics are corruption; writing is art and art should be separated from things that would limit it. "In defining the writer's imagination as a form of truth telling that can not be impeded or denied, even by the radical separation of people imposed by apartheid, Writing and Being also asserts that art must not be narrowed to the immediate, strategically or ideologically driven purposes of resistance or political action" (Greenstein). Gordimer has done nothing that would be cause to deny her abilities as a writer or to dismiss her work as unimportant. "Gordimer clear-sightedly condemns the penchant for the exotic, the corrupting fascination with the dispossessed, that manifested itself as "revolutionary tourism" on the part of opportunistic travelers in the 1980s….Despite her astringent rejection of such behavior, Gordimer will continue to be dismissed by some, especially in South Africa , as irrelevant" (Greenstein). So should writers use their gift for political reasons? Is there a social obligation that writers have to use their talent for purposes other than art? "Seeing literature as inescapably political, it replaces literary values by political ones. It is the murder of thought. Beware!" (Rushdie).


Writer and Nation

"The irony that links Gordimer and her fellow novelists is that each experiences his native land as a place of exile" (Greenstein). There is always a tricky relationship between the writer and their nation. It involves the question of politics and writing, and if the two should be mixed, amongst other things. But the problematic relationship has a history: "The nation either co-opts its greatest writers (Shakespeare, Goethe, Camoens, Tagore) or else seeks to destroy them (Ovid's exile, Soyinka's exile). Both fates are problematic. The hush of reverence is inappropriate for literature; great writing makes a great noise in the mind, the heart. There are those who believe that persecution is good for writers. This is false" (Rushdie). Writers always end up writing about their surroundings, their environment. They write what they see, and when that writer is in a politically charged nation, things get tricky. To the writer, their environment is simply the way things are, and they record them as such. To this, the writer may add what they think the world ought to be like, or how it may someday be, but underneath the prose is always the undertow of their circumstances. When writers practice their craft in a nation in turmoil, people will usually read the book and see it as supporting or denying the various ideologies of the factions in charge. Everything written is compared in political terms, and writers are set up as examples of the voice of the struggle. Some times this is unwanted, unsought after on the part of the writer. What happens to a book once it is out of the writer's hands, and into the world, is something the writer cannot control ("The word, uncag'd, never returns" Horace, 1 B.C.). But there are those writers who take the position gladly, and willingly claim their place as official spokesperson. "Beware the writer who sets himself or herself up as the voice of a nation" (Rushdie)."Nationalism corrupts writers, too" (Rushdie). Nadine Gordimer's work may be adopted by some, but despite her political interests, she does not claim to speak for anyone but herself. The writer/ nation relationship becomes increasingly troublesome, the more turbulent and uneasy the nation is.
"But Gordimer discovered that it precisely when the writer is dedicated to opposing or over throwing a tyrannical government that other kinds of freedom-imaginative, artistic , existential-may be lost. And she has insisted that it is only the writer, never the state who can preserve, or annihilate, those freedoms" (Linfeld).

Feminism and the State

Colonialism has a large effect on the relationship between women and the state. Gordimer points out about one of her characters: "This is, I think, a typically colonial attitude-that the white woman has a man who looks after her. In the classic colonial situation she wouldn't even have worked" (Bazin). A colonial system is one where everyone has their place, and are expected to stay there. It is also largely patriarchal. When any system sees one person as lesser than another, problems arise. "For too long represented as national symbols rather than citizens, women have an ambiguous relationship to nationality" (Gardiner). Gordimer was often criticized for dismissing feminism in its early days. Now, a few decades later, she notes that "It's interesting. I can't see any vestiges now of that trivial feminism that I was talking about so disparagingly in the early times…" (Lazar). The feminism she scoffed at so long ago was unlike the current brand. (If there is such a monster…) The battle modern feminism fights is usually with the media: the most problematic issue is how women are portrayed. "But, you know, that is the women's magazine culture: to be a beauty queen is the ultimate ambition. It's rather interesting that women have to be consciously feminist in order to reject the whole beauty queen thing" (Lazar). So does the media's portrayal of women try to perpetrate a patriarchal society? Does the state still have a place for everyone, a section in society that they are supposed to stay in? It may not be that drastic, or so conspiratorial, but it's definitely something to think about.

Prejudice

Nadine Gordimer has often had to field the question of prejudice. "For me, being Jewish is like being black: you simply are. To want to deny it is disgusting. It's a denial of humanity. There's no shame in being black, and there's no shame in being Jewish. But I'm not religious, I haven't led a religious upbringing, and whether I'm an unbeliever in terms of Jehovah or Jesus Christ to me is the same thing" (Lazar). She also notes that understanding racism is a universal thing: if you are a human being, you should be able to comprehend the horrors of it, whether or not you've experienced it firsthand or not. "I would hate to think that you have to be Jewish in order to understand racism, just as I would hate to think you have to be black to understand it. It should be something absolutely repugnant and quite impossible for anybody who is a real human being" (Lazar). One observation that speaks volumes on the subject is about Gordimer's time spent in the United States. "While she was living in the United States and lecturing at Harvard in the mid-nineties, Gordimer notes, her life was far more racially segregated than it had been in South Africa, and she ponders the curious separatism into which American blacks and whites- including black and white intellectuals- have retreated" (Linfeld).

The art of writing

This section provides quotes by Nadine Gordimer, and from critics, dealing with writing as a craft.

Nadine Gordimer

"Novelists don't give answers; they ask questions" (Bazin).

"All of these things come from my own experience, from inside. Now, late in my life, obviously I can read anything, and it's too late for things to influence me. I don't need influencing anymore" (Bazin).

"The creative act is not pure. History evidences it. Sociology extracts it. The writer loses Eden,writes to be read and comes to realize that he is answerable." (Gordimer)

"I never really take detailed notes. I would, as you saw, struggle with names, because names are very important to me. Changing people's names, crossing them in and out, and so on" (Bazin).

Critics

"Their art makes a middle-class form, the novel, hold working -class vernacular dear, prizing eloquence the classics omit or patronize" (Dizard).

"They fashion art so as to change whole nations" (Dizard).

"One of the lessons indelibly taught by the twentieth century is that art will not save us from our worst selves" (Greenstein).

"Gordimer's anger is palpable: readers who seek the originals of characters in life or in the personae of the writer's psyche are misguided or worse" (Greenstein).

"…characters are forged in the writer's imagination out of raw materials that come from no single source" (Greenstein).

"As inspired "liar," the writer tells the deepest truths" (Greenstein).

"She chose to differentiate herself, to seek a home in her native land, to stay the course, and to write without disguise or indirection about what she could see from her particular vantage point" (Greenstein).

"For Gordimer, fiction must always be an excavation of the truth, never an advertisment for onself" (Linfeld).

"…fiction is a game with all the powers and rights of serious application" (Winner).

"Story is gross anatomy. Yet just as essential as story is our need for story to be something more: something that conveys our complexity and dignity as human agents" (Winner).

  Links

*Books and writer's section on Nadine Gordimer. A short biography, some interesting info. http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/gordimer.htm

*Nadine Gordimer: Crimes of Conscience. Section about Gordimer, novel "Crimes of Conscience", Questions for Reflection and Works cited. http://krypton.hpc.sdsmt.edu/online-courses/is/hum375/gordimer.html

***Nadine Gordimer. This link is so darn throrough... if you want to know more about anything pertaining to Africa, Apartheid or Nadine Gordimer, this is the place to go! http://www.thecore.nus.edu/landow/post/as/gordimer/gordimerov.html

**New York Times Archives. A page full of links to and descriptions of articles by and about Nadine Gordimer. http://www.newyorktimes.org/books/98/02/01/home/gordimer.html

**Funk and Wagnell's Gordimer selection. This is the encyclopedia's section on Nadine. A short bio, links to South Africa... good for a short overview. http://www.fwkc.com/encyclopedia/low/articles/g/g010001408f.html

***South African Literature and Interpretation by San Francisco University High School. A good resource for those looking to broaden their South African Literature horizens. A nice section on Nadine Gordimer's "July People." http://www.sfuhs.org/HTMLold/students/African/africanhome.html

*Nobel Prize winners' Nadine Gordimer section. A short bio, list of works. http://nobel.sdsc.edu/literature/laureates/1991/gordimer-bio.html

**The United Nations Development Program's Policy Development and Advocacy Section on Nadine Gordimer. A long name for such a short site, ne? Check out the lists of her books, awards and honors. http://www.undp.org.za/docs/misc/gordimerbio.html

**University of Melbourne's Africa Under Apartheid research study guide. Sure, this page is for a class assignment,but it also has lots of excellent resource ideas, in literature, movies, etc. Want to know more about the topic of Apartheid? this page could definitely help you out. http://www.history.unimelb.edu.au/coursematerials/sth_africa/essay-guide.html

*Brockport Writer's forum. This site has information on ordering a video of Nadine Gordimer discussing her works and Apartheid. Looks like an excellent teaching resource. The link doesn't have anything else, but a description of the movie and links to buy it. http://www.acs.brockport.edu/~srubin/gordimer.htm

***University of Texas Law e-texts. This has an interesting essay about Gordimer's life and work. Definitely worth reading. http://tarlton.law.utexas.edu/lpop/e-text/lsf/gannon15.htm

***Nadine Gordimer Selected Stories Study guide. Tips on the lingo and questions to ponder. http://www.wsu.edu:8000/~brians/anglophone/gordimer.html

***Postcolonial studies at Emory. Nothing on Nadine Gordimer in specific; but if you want to know more about post-colonialism, this is a good place to go. http://www.emory.edu/ENGLISH/Bahri/Intro.html

**University of Florida's Section on Nadine Gordimer. Also has short sections on many other famous African authors. A good place to go if you want thumbnail-bios of African authors. http://web.uflib.ufl.edu/cm/africana/gordimer.htm

**Nando Times. This site is a short article about Gordimer's reading to celebrate her 75th birthday. Lots of nice quotes by gordimer about writing. http://www.nandotimes.com/newsroom/ntn/world/112198/world4
_27734_noframes.html

***Chaos and order in Nadine Gordimer's works. A nice essay; a good read if you're interested in chaos theory and Gordimer's writing. http://members.tripod.com/~ElizBrunner/Scholar/GordimerOne.htm

  Teaching

"Letter from his Father" could easily be taught as a companion to the letter that Franz Kafka wrote to his father. It could also be easily used in studying Kafka's life, or in studying letters as a fictional writing form. There are lots of things you could do with this.

Any of the stories (except from "Letter From his Father") could be used to supplement a unit on South Africa. "A City for the Dead, A City for the Living" could be a good discussion text, considering the ending. The simple question of why the wife does what she does could easily be chewed over in class.

Nadine Gordimer wrote several articles about apartheid and such. (See the New York Times Archive Link in the Links section.) It would be interesting to use one of her articles and compare it to or use it as a companion with her short stories.

The united nations site in the links section above has a list of movies involving Gordimer's texts. These can be used as a supplement, compare contrast with the texts...

Nadine Gordimer is quite an activist. Her stories could be used as part of a study of the writer as a social voice, study other authors whose works furthered social causes.

  Citations

Bazin, Nancy Topping. "An interview with Nadine Gordimer." Contemporary Literature v36n4 (Winter 1995): 570-587

Dizard, Robin "Book Reviews-Betrayals of the Body Politic by Andres Vogel Ettin / Protest and Possibility in the Writing of Tillie Olsen by Amra Faulkner / Toni Morrison's World of Fiction by Karen Carmean / The Voices of Toni Morrison by Barbara Hill Rigney." Signs: Journal of Women in Cultrue and Society v20n2 (Winter 1995): 444-447

Gardiner, Judith Kegan "From the Margins of Empire: Chrisitna Stead, Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer" Studies in the Novel no. 3 (Fall 2000) p. 402-405

Greenstein, Susan "Apologia pro vita sua? Nadine Gordimer's Writing and Being." Research in African Literatures v28n2 (Summer 1997) 145-153

Lazar, Karen "'A feeling of realistic optimism': An interview with Nadine Gordimer." Salmagundi n113 (Winter 1997) 150-165

Linfeld, Susie "Why, the beloved country" Nation no20 (Dec 13, 1999): 26-35

Rushdie, Salman "Notes on Writing and the Nation." Harper's v29n1768 (Sept 1997); 22-24

Thomasson, Emma "Nobelist Nadine Gordimer awaits new era in South African Literature." Africa news online, Nov. 28, 1998 (http://www.nandotimes.com)

Winner, Anthony "Authenticity, authority and application: Buzzati, Kundera, Gordimer." Kenyon Review v20n3/4 (Summer 1998): 94-120

 

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