By Ikeogu Oke
Even if I were born for a life destined to surprise the unworthy and uplift the underserving, it would still be a rare good fortune that I knew Nadine Gordimer closely, that she adopted me as her friend, that I benefitted from her support as a writer. That I was not born for such a life makes my privilege more special, my gratitude more profound. I was introduced to Nadine on May 26, 2008, by the South African culture activist Raks Morakabe Seakhoa. He organised the celebration of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart at 50 in Johannesburg and invited me to take part in a panel discussion and as a performance poet and arranged my meeting Nadine on the side.
With a book-length manuscript of The Heresiad, my unpublished anti-censorship epic meant as a gift for Nadine, we arrived her house in the company of Phakama Mbonambi, a close associate of Raks. For such a revered writer and global figure, I was surprised that she would keep me completely at ease for the nearly two hours’ duration of our meeting. Not hers the airs I had sometimes noticed from some far less accomplished writers. I could hardly believe that such a great figure could embody such humility.
“Poetry is closer to the essence,” she said, comparing the purity of the literary genres after she offered me a seat on a settee and sat right next to me. Then she opened my manuscript and proposed a reading game. She requested that we took turns reading from the poem, a line at a time. She reciprocated to my gift of the manuscript after the reading with a gift of her collection of short stories, Beethoven was One-sixteenth Black, autographed “For IkeoguOke – To mark the pleasure of our meeting…”, a pleasure she made far more mine.
Before we left she told me how she cherished the memory of her visit to my country to take part in an event held in honour of Wole Soyinka. Then she took me to a secluded corner and showed me a handwritten birthday message Soyinka had sent her, her eyes radiant with pleasure, in which Soyinka apologised for his unavoidable physical absence to celebrate with her and added with touching humour that if she heard “a glug” at the stroke of midnight it was him drinking to her health. For me it was an unforgettable initiation into literati privilege.
She was a gracious and untiring mentor. When I called her after my return to Nigeria she would regularly ask me “What are you writing now?” and say “Send it to me!” after I have told her. Following the publication of my second book of poems, Salutes without Guns, I sent her a copy through Raks. I was surprised by her letter thanking me for the book and praising the poems. But a greater surprise from her awaited me: Later, the Nigerian journalist Tolu Ogunlesi notified me of her selection of the book as her Book of the Year (2010) for the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) – jointly with the novel Point Omega by the American writer Don DeLillo. Tolu then sent me a copy of the TLS in which the selection was published. I couldn’t believe that a writer of her galactic stature would remark of a struggling writer like me (and stake her reputation with the remark by having it published in the TLS): “Here is a writer who finds the metaphor for what has happened and continues, evolves, not often the way we want in our lives in Africa and the world. He does so timelessly and tellingly, as perhaps only a poet can.” Her life, marked by such extraordinary gestures, was an eloquent testimony of grace.
Before leaving Nigeria for the 2014 African Literature Association conference held at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, I called to let her know that I would be visiting her country once more. She wished me a safe trip and asked me to let her know as soon as I arrived Johannesburg. I called her after I arrived Johannesburg on April 4, 2014. “I want to invite you to my house for a drink. Come no later than 5.30. I want you to meet my friends,” she said, sounding persuasive rather than peremptory.
Long after 5.30 I was still locked in traffic with a cabby who didn’t seem to know his way. I called to let her know, suspecting she would call off the appointment, the time having elapsed. “Give the phone to the driver,” she requested. I did. And she patiently gave directions to the driver and told me she would wait after he returned the phone to me.
It was a rare evening spent in the company of her friends: Maureen Isaacson, Mary Beth and David Goldblatt. I was meeting the last two for the first time. Holding court, she steered our conversation effortlessly from the Pistorius trial in her country to the Boko Haram insurgency in mine, from literature to religion. And poetry was not left out of the bounties we shared at that gathering: I also read and sang “The Tree” to everyone’s delight, a poem I dedicated to her, in which I acknowledge her as “Mother of what I am and all that I may become”.
Before leaving I offered her an autographed copy of The Lion and the Monkey, my children’s story first published in Nal’ibali, a South African journal based at the University of Cape Town, and Song of Success, my collection of poems for children published (with a sing-along CD) by HEBN, Ibadan. “Do you have all my books?” she asked as she received the books from me, her eyes agleam. “No,” I said. “Which ones do you have?” I mentioned those. Then she asked for one of her books. With an autograph that read “…IkeoguOke. With much love and celebration of your work.” she handed me a copy of My Son’s Story, her book brought by Maureen Isaacson. Then she said: “We must always give back”, a remark for which I thought Mahatma Gandhi should have added “Taking without Giving” to his famous list of deadly sins.
Ikeogu Oke is on firstname.lastname@example.org