Here they are, returning, arriving over and again, because the unconscious is impregnable. They have wandered around in circles, confined to the narrow room in which they've been given a deadly brainwashing. You can incarcerate them, slow them down, get away with the old Apartheid routine, but for a time only. As soon as they begin to speak, at the same time as they're taught their name, they can be taught that their territory is black: because you are Africa, you are black. Your continent is dark. Dark is dangerous. You can't see anything in the dark, you're afraid. Don't move, you might fall. Most of all, don't go into the forest. And so we have internalized this horror of the dark.—Hélène Cixous "The Laugh of the Medusa" (877-878)
In Nadine Gordimer's first novel, Lying Days, the protagonist, Helen Shaw, lists the writers who shaped her literary heritage: Auden, T. S. Eliot, Donne, Hemingway, D. H. Lawrence, Chekhov, Smollett, and [End Page 245] Pepys. She is puzzled to find that "in nothing that I read could I find anything that approximated to my own life; to our life on a gold mine in South Africa." If she failed to recognize her world in European narratives, Helen felt equally alienated from the pictures of Africa portrayed by books she read: "What did the great rivers, the savage tribes, the jungles and the hunt for huge palm-eared elephants have to do with the sixty miles of Witwatersand veld that was our Africa?" (96-97).
Helen's dilemma is paradigmatic to South Africa as well as to women writers and, as this essay argues, to the plight of Rosa Burger in Burger's Daughter. Following Rosa's cue in her desire to break through the surface of a given political ideology to sound the depths of her female origins, I will begin by briefly placing Gordimer within the context of colonized, contemporary South African writers. I will then show how Gordimer's preoccupation with "the personal life" places her in a female literary tradition. These preliminary steps will lead to a discussion of Rosa Burger, a female "place where something has occurred" (Burger's Daughter, opening epigraph).
As a South African writer, Gordimer knows the difficulty of writing out of a colonial past and finding little to identify as a tradition. Living in a country where censorship has banned political writers—and as Gordimer herself says, in South Africa the political filters through every level of experience—Africans have only two alternative forms of representation available to them: government approved art and literature or artistic depictions of themselves by foreigners. This, of course, is only one facet of the problem. If Africans had the freedom of self-expression, the next question to be addressed is one of identity: who are we? As Dan Jacobson said of his own culture, "a colonial culture is one which has no memory. Blankness rules; blankness perpetuates itself" (Schreiner 7, 8).
This blankness or lack of identity stems partially from having had a European tradition imposed on South African culture. It was the Nationalists' hope that the native way of life would evolve or be assimilated into the colonizer's and thereby come to enjoy the "fullness" of western civilization. For the writer, approval by Europe and America meant acceptance into the literary community. The imperative to conform to an established and recognized literary standard was what led writers like Jacobson to excuse himself for not being "universal," or Alan Paton to extol cooperation between races through Christian liberalism rather than miscegenation. Here again the value and significance of how and what one writes came from outside rather than from within.
In her fiction Gordimer has consistently alluded to the inadequacy [End Page 246] of cloaking one culture in another. She deems this liberalism a failure because it precludes real dialogue and exchange among radically diverse groups—blacks, coloreds, Indians, Afrikaners, and English-speaking Africans—a dialogue that would uncover a totally new form of community, unimaginable under apartheid rule.