Posts Tagged ‘Neil Gordon’

South Africa’s Sheila Gordon on apartheid, and “the pity and pain of how we deal with one another”

Tuesday, June 13th, 2017

A few weeks ago I wrote about the writer Neil Gordon, who died last month. In the course of writing about him, I found an Atlantic interview with his mother, the novelist Sheila Gordon, who died in 2013, also in May. Like mother, like son: “I’m interested in where the personal and the political touch each other, in how prevailing society affects people’s daily lives and relationships,” she said. “While growing up in South Africa I found myself observing an officially sanctioned unjust society, and I could see how everyday lives were shaped by the politics of apartheid. I suppose one’s political and moral commitments are intrinsic to what one writes about. I don’t feel writers are obliged to be more politically committed than other citizens.”

An excerpt:

Q: Do you choose your subjects or do they choose you?

A: When I’m taken with an idea, I write. The length is dictated by the idea itself. Waiting for the Rain, for example, deals with how children regard the “Other,” or those who are different from themselves. The idea for the novel came as I watched on television a group of white soldiers riding into a township to quell an uprising of black schoolchildren. I saw how scared the white soldiers looked; the same fear was on the faces of the black children — who were the same age as the soldiers. I was moved to pity by the situation; these children were pitted against one another by the conditions adults had laid down for them. Out of this brief image the whole novel developed.

She suggested that “perhaps the place of one’s birth is stamped indelibly on one’s sensibility. Africa particularly: there’s something so vast, lonely, dramatic, and primal about that continent. One experiences it vividly and profoundly.”

She concludes, “I don’t think it’s the writer’s job to change people, although I believe that truly good fiction transforms, enriches, heightens awareness. When I write, I’m trying to tell a good story, to reflect on the pity and pain of how we deal with one another, and in a way that will engage the reader’s imagination and heart.”

Read the whole thing here.

Au revoir, novelist Neil Gordon (1958-2017), who wrote about the purity of conviction, the reality of engagement

Friday, May 26th, 2017

The writer Neil Gordon has died, after a long battle with cancer on May 19 in New York City.

My acquaintance with him was slight, but memorable. We had a conversation over coffee in Paris, when I was a visiting writer at the American University of Paris, during Neil’s term as dean there.

But I knew another side of him. By one of those odd coincidences that are considered far-fetched when we read them in Dickens, Neil turned out to be the brother-in-law of a longstanding friend, the writer Eren Göknar. Neil was married to Eren’s sister, Esin Göknar, photo editor of the New York Times Magazine, who had cared for him during his final illness. His brother-in-law, Erdağ Göknara translator of Orhan Pamuk, was a recent fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center.

Neil was born in South Africa in 1958. His family emigrated two years later to escape the apartheid government. “His mother, Sheila Gordon, was also a writer, and his father Harley Gordon was a dedicated physician who cared for the underserved all his life,” Eren told me. “Sheila wrote a delightful book about Neil called Monster in the Mailbox, about his waiting and waiting for the monster he bought through a newspaper ad. Remember the ads for X-ray vision glasses in the back of comic books in the ’60s?”

GordonHe was primarily a historical and political novelist. He published four novels, one set in the history of the Holocaust and the state of Israel; (Sacrifice of Isaac) the second about Israel, America, and the arms trade (The Gunrunner’s Daughter); the third about the radical Left in America during the War in Vietnam (The Company You Keep), which was made into a 2012 film with Robert Redford and Shia LaBoeuf. The fourth about the story of the American Left, from the Spanish Civikl War to Occupy Wall Street (You’re a Big Girl Now).

He worked for many years at The New York Review of Books and was the founding Literary Editor of The Boston Review. He spent three years in Paris serving as dean, vice President, and professor of comparative literature at the American University of Paris, where I met him. He returned to the U.S. and taught at the New School.

He wrote: “My courses, whether writing or literature classes, like my novels, focus on the intersection between individuals and the political history that surrounds them; on the representation of lived political and historical experience in fiction; on the mechanics of the sympathetic imagination; as well as on the forms of the literary, political, and cultural essay.”

He has a PhD in French literature from Yale, but he had his academic roots in Michigan, where he took his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and bagged two Hopwood Writing Awards along the way (like Humble Moi), and also met his future wife, Asin.

In 1994, he became the first literary editor of the Boston Review. A couple links to his work there: an essay on John Fante and a moving autobiographical reflection, “The Last Time I Saw Yaakov.”

From Joshua Cohen‘s eloquent tribute, over at the Boston Review:

Neil wrote four very fine novels (Sacrifice of Isaac remains my favorite), all thrillers mixing strong narratives, deeply-researched history, and serious political ambition. Whatever the topic, I always heard Neil wrestling with the same problem: about purity of conviction and worldy engagement. Sometimes he wrote admiringly of the purity, sometimes he worried about its degeneration into fanaticism, and always he was uneasy about the distance it created from the individual lives that ultimately matter (as it had distanced his young German friend Yaakov). So you will not be surprised to hear that Neil’s voice always sounded a little anxious.

Until our final phone conversation in February of this year. Neil was dying of cancer: his medical options had run out and while he was trying to keep his hopes up, he knew that he did not have much more time. What I heard this time was not anxiety but calm gratitude, all focused on the people—largely the people in his family—who had helped to enable him to have such a good life. He was free from worries about purity and survival and filled instead with an affirming sense of acceptance and an unambivalent love. Neil told me that he was, finally and deeply, happy.

He will be missed by many, but most of all his wife Esin, his daughter and son Leila and Jake Gordon, both born in New York City, a sister Philippa, a brother David, and nieces Sophie, Eve, Anne, Leyna and Dillon Lightman.