Column Editor: Donna Jacobs (Retired, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC 29425)
Have you ever witnessed a conversation where the participants are a family, a bunch of close long-term friends, a squad, a couple or confidants? There is usually a code spoken when referring to specifics in the conversation or aside references to situations or circumstances known only to the “group” or surface explanations where the “group” always understands the deeper realities. The back-story of the varying codes can be learned — if offered, but sometimes gets lost in translation. A Sport of Nature by Nadine Gordimer reads like such a conversation. “He was waiting to see if there was any need to explain what could not be said, whether the experience of this white girl with whom nothing had needed an explanation, so far, went so far as to ‘follow him’ as she would put it.”
Gordimer begins the novel by offering the reader the Oxford English Dictionary definition for “Lusus naturae — Sport of nature: A plant, animal, etc., which exhibits abnormal variation or a departure from the parent stock or type…a spontaneous mutation; a new variety produced in this way.” This variation, spontaneity and departure from parental stock is introduced in the first line of the story: “Somewhere along the journey the girl shed one name and emerged under the other……she threw Kim up to the rack with her school pajama and took on Hillela.” Hillela continues to develop her unique phenotypic behavior brought on by this spontaneous act and directed by the racially charged environment in which she exists.
An exploration of Gordimer’s biography identifies elements of her life experiences that are reflected in this novel: Gordimer’s parents are Jewish immigrants to South Africa (Hillela comes from a Jewish background), Gordimer’s mother is an activist influenced by the racial problems in South Africa (Hillela’s aunt is an activist influenced by the racial problems in South Africa), Gordimer’s home was raided by the local police confiscating family letters and diaries (there is a raid on one of Hillela’s lovers’ apartment where his works are confiscated), and Gordimer herself was involved in the anti-apartheid movement to the point that several of her books were banned by the apartheid regime (the course of Hillela’s life, her many love affairs, her worldly experiences, her marriages and thus this story are all entwined in the anti-apartheid movement).
“It was dangerous to believe anything open, while holed up in refugee status where everything is ulterior. They stared past, willing her to go. Then someone walked in whom she did know. She began from that moment to have credibility of her own: he came back, the man who had appeared so black, so defined, so substantial from out of water running mercurial with light. He had come between them, a girl and man in the sea, paling them in the assertion of his blackness, bearing news whose weight of reality was the obsidian of his form. A slight acquaintance seems more that it was when two people meet again in an unexpected place. Although he had not acknowledged her when he rose from the sea, and she had only put in a word here and there in the conversations he had led at Ma Sophie’s, he took her by the shoulders in greeting, shook her a little, comradely, and she was close enough to see the lines made by dealing with the white man, down from either side of his mouth, and the faint nicked scars near the ears made by blacks in some anterior life. — How did you find out I’d just arrived? — The shaking of her head, over the sweet warm drinks from a cupboard, became a sign to them both; she must have known without knowing. He was a man who did not laugh loosely but had a slow-developing strong smile when confirming something he was sure of. He was not curious about her presence in the country; the norms of exile were constant displacement and emplacement on orders not to be questioned, or by circumstances over which the one in refuge had no control, either. That fact that she did not have a refuge also gave her some credibility for him — what black man would believe a white girl would leave the luxuries of home without reasons valid for refuge?”
And thus begins the love between Hillela and Whaila that is formalized by marriage, consummated vividly and punctuated with conception. What tone will this new expression from the spontaneous mutation take? It is a question that Hillela ponders: “Our colour. She cannot see the dolour that relaxes his face, closes his eyes and leaves only his mouth drawn tight by lines on either side. Our colour. A category that doesn’t exist: she would invent it. There are Hotnots and half-castes, two-coffee-one-milk, touch-of-the-tar-brush, pure white, black is beautiful — but a creature made of love, without a label; that’s a freak.” And thus the mutation moves into the population creating a new dynamic.
I checked two Nadine Gordimer novels from the library, tossed a coin and started reading A Sport of Nature. I don’t often read more than one work from Nobelist, except in the case of Garcia-Marquez, one of my all time favorite authors, but I felt compelled to read the second choice. No Time Like the Present is a story about a “mixed” couple struggling for freedom against apartheid. It will be interesting to see how Gordimer once again uses mixed relations to continue her theme and from what perspective.