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Writer turns sights to battling AIDS

Posted: Thursday, January 06, 2005

 

  In this photo released by the United Nations, Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer addresses a news conference at the U.N. Nov. 30, 2004. Gordimer, who is also a U.N. Development Program goodwill ambassador, was there to help launch Telling Tales, a collection of short stories published for the benefit of HIV/AIDS victims in South Africa. (AP Photo/United Nations, Even Schneider) EVAN SCHNEIDER

In this photo released by the United Nations, Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer addresses a news conference at the U.N. Nov. 30, 2004. Gordimer, who is also a U.N. Development Program goodwill ambassador, was there to help launch Telling Tales, a collection of short stories published for the benefit of HIV/AIDS victims in South Africa. (AP Photo/United Nations, Even Schneider)

EVAN SCHNEIDER

South African writer Nadine Gordimer, 81, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991, is noted for her novels and short stories about the inhumanity of apartheid. Several were once banned in her own country. Gordimer was in New York recently to talk about her latest project, ''Telling Tales.'' It is a compilation of 21 short stories ''that capture the range of emotions and situations of our human universe,'' she writes in the book's introduction. The stories are by world renowned authors — five Nobel prize winners including Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Gunter Grass, and writers who likely will be on the shortlist for future Nobel literature prizes.

Anglo-Indian writer Salman Rushdie, for example, tells a quietly horrifying tale in ''The Firebird's Nest'' about the men in India who marry for dowries, burn their young brides, and remarry to acquire yet another dowry.

John Updike writes in ''Journey to the Dead'' about a middle-age man's preoccupation with, and terror of, an acquaintance's impending death from cancer.

Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, in the humorous story ''Sugar Baby,'' portrays a group of friends looking back at their years surviving the Biafran war and how one of them managed to make it bearable.

There are other memorable reports on the human condition from Margaret Atwood, Woody Allen, South African writer Njabulo S. Ndebele and Gordimer, herself.

The story collection, published by Picador Press, was put together to raise money to battle AIDS. Published in paperback in December, the book costs $14, has 40,000 copies in print and is selling ''very well,'' according to the publisher.

Only a year ago, Gordimer wrote to writer friends and others whom she didn't know but whose stories she admired with the idea of putting together an anthology of short fiction.

''I thought if they (musicians) could get up and sing,'' to raise money to battle AIDS, ''we (writers) could sit down and write.''

Along with the anthology's writers, 13 publishers releasing the book in other countries also have agreed to contribute their proceeds to fighting AIDS. Literary agents and at least one translator say they will waive their fees, and the bookstore chain Borders has agreed to make a donation.

Almost 40 million people throughout the world now have the HIV virus. Over 20 million have died since the virus was first diagnosed, in 1981.

''The risk of a pandemic which makes those numbers modest is real,'' said Rushdie, author of ''Midnight's Children'' and ''The Satanic Verses.''

''The sad thing is we actually now have in our power the tools to arrest the spread of the disease,'' Rushdie said.

''The worst thing we can do is pretend it's not there,'' said Updike, winner of two Pulitzer prizes for his fiction. ''It's very easy to be a well-off American and feel very aloof from it. In the '50s, we didn't think about atomic warfare being possible. In this century, we try not to think about AIDS.''

A petite woman with an erect carriage, her silver hair combed back meticulously into bun at the nape of her neck, Gordimer has a businesslike demeanor on this overcast December morning. She has no time to comment on the stunning view from her 37th floor Manhattan hotel room as she talks about AIDS.

Gordimer's books include ''The Sport of Nature,'' a richly documented chronicle of post-colonialism; ''My Son's Story,'' about a married black man who falls in love with a white activist; and ''Burger's Daughter,'' banned for three months in South Africa when it was released in 1979, which details the struggles of the daughter of the late South African Communist party leader.

South Africa leads the world with the number of HIV/AIDS victims — over 5 million, according to the United Nations Development Program.

Gordimer is particularly aware of the babies. The Salvation Army runs a hospice in Johannesburg for about 30 infants born with HIV and abandoned by their mothers. ''They live there and they die there,'' Gordimer says. ''They are found by the police in public toilets, in the streets in bins.''

She has designated that all the money raised by ''Telling Tales'' be given to the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) in South Africa, an anti-HIV/AIDS activist organization.

She is especially impressed with Zackie Achmat, 41, TAC chair and one of its founders, who has AIDS.

Achmat applauded Gordimer and the other writers included in ''Telling Tales'' for their inspiring effort.

''There's a holocaust happening to poor people particularly in our country, based on a combination of drug company profiteering, bureaucratic neglect and also locally and globally, personal and social complacency,'' Achmat said in an interview from his office in Capetown, South Africa.

Are there plans to promote the book further?

Gordimer is ''a bully,'' Rush-die said, half-joking. ''We all do what she says. We're waiting for her to give us her orders.''



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