Bennett Award speech

Bennett Award Acceptance Speech, 1986

I am not only honored to receive the Bennett Award; I also am moved by a deep sense of having come full circle in my life as a writer. That is something not too often granted while one is still alive and writing. But it is happening today to me.

My first published stories appeared in American “little magazines” and, since a writer can make no claim to be one until she or he is read, my life as a writer really began in this country of yours, thousands of miles away, which I had never seen. What I knew, what I drew from the country that owns me (for I do not say “my Africa”—it’s the other way round)—the sensibility that I drew from Africa was remote from the preoccupations of literary theory, fashion and polemics that are supposed to dominate “little magazines.” Yet, belonging to no literary circle, ignorant of literary fashion and polemics as I was, “highbrow” America gave me a chance to be read outside my own country.

What I had to offer was not exotic in the accepted sense, either; I did not write of jungles and noble savages, nor did I provide, through a Conradian mode, an opportunity for Westerners to bury their own darkest thoughts in an European concept of Africa. And in the early 1950s, when even Ghana had not yet achieved independence from colonial rule, there was very little outside interest in the political and social enormities hatching in South Africa. In America, Martin Luther King, Jr. was a prophet yet to emerge. Racism meant Nazism. So my writing was not published in American “little magazines” because it was in any popular sense topical or “relevant.” It was published for what it was in itself. Whatever was there surfaced unlabeled: the grinding oppression of black South Africans later codified under the sinisterly innocuous euphemism, “apartness”; the courage and audacity of black resistance, and the terrible facts of black suffering, white complicity. My early stories were accepted, here in America, as a small expedition into the terrain of human consciousness, that vast, never-completed, other map that arises directly from but is not restricted to the boundaries of geographical cartography. I did not write what was expected of me, because no one expected anything of me; I myself and the place and people that nurtured me were a space in the consciousness of Europe and America. Only the misnamed “little magazines” would have published work like mine, at that time, and it was through publication in them that the world of commercial publishing noticed my work, and that of many other young writers.

Not able to support us materially themselves, the “little magazines” also opened the way for us to earn our livings as writers. More importantly, in the end—since it is always possible for the writer to earn not only a living but spurious luxury by burying talent in compromise—the “little magazines” gave us the confidence to stand firm. For if commercial publishers appreciated the worth of our writing as it appeared in those magazines, it was pretty well arguable that we should continue to write according to our own inner dictates. Every decade has its test of artistic integrity. In the fifties, if you could resist the temptation to get paid a thousand dollars by the Saturday Evening Post for writing what they wanted, instead of taking (what was it?) a hundred and fifty dollars from Virginia Quarterly Review, Yale Review, The Hudson Review, for writing what you wanted, you had earned freedom to be a writer. And that is success, the ultimate success . . .

So you see the “little magazines” are not little at all: they are great. They die and are reborn—yes, because they carry the seed of the word and free it, in its simplest, most handy and durable form, to sprout in mutation again and again, and seed again. Without microchip, disc or headphones, the word comes alive when you read a “little magazine” in the New York subway, it sprouts in the overalls of black factory workers in South Africa, in the satchels of students, and brings a new yield of the imagination from those whom talent urges to write. For all these reasons, I am glad to have come full circle and to receive The Hudson Review Bennett Award, a tremendous honor from the source of the great “little” magazines which gave me my first recognition.

The above comments were made by Nadine Gordimer upon being presented with the 1986 Bennett Award at a dinner in New York on April 28, 1987.