Downtown Johannesburg

“The Pickup” Picks Up the Story: Nadine Gordimer’s Take on the Post Apartheid Generation in South Africa

Why I Read The Pickup

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself with a hole in my scheduled where an installment of “Bedtime Short Stories” was supposed to go, and I wasn’t sure that I was going to have time to read something new. I had a brainwave and decided to go with Nadine Gordimer, whom I could write about with a minimum of fuss because I have taught her so many times.

When I taught 11th grade, which was the beginning of the difficult International Baccalaureate Literature course, I always began the course with a short story unit, and Gordimer was one of the very few authors I used with every class.

I liked starting with Gordimer because she packs so much into every sentence, and the first weeks of the IB course are about showing the students the expected depth in this course.

I remember giving the students sentences from her stories to analyze…they would think it was the warm up when actually it was a 40 minute lesson!

I usually stuck with Gordimer’s early work because I didn’t care for the stories that she did later; they became more and more stridently political. While I suppose her work by necessity reflected the untenable situation in South Africa, it was too specific to a time and place, and any rate, it would have a tendency to lead high school students into cliché’s.

And the fact is that after apartheid finally ended in South Africa in 1994, her some of her work became dated.

On the other hand, it’s important in IB languages to teach literature written in the target language from as many regions as possible that produce it, and Gordimer is a good option for Africa and her perspective, as one of the descendants of the “imposters” from the colonial era is unique.

When I looked up Gordimer to begin preparing the short story article, I became interested in The Pickup because I lived in an Arab country for several years. The Pickup is about a youngish White South African woman who stumbles into a relationship from an Arab car mechanic in Johannesburg.

Not wanted to do two articles about Gordimer in quick succession, I dithered, found myself solving the Short Story problem by enjoying The Training School for Negro Girls enough to race through it, and found The Pickup available digitally through one of my libraries.

Procurement remains more of an issue than usual because the bigger of the two local library systems I use remains completely closed due to COVID 19 closures for the time being.

I was interested in The Pickup is because during my years living in the Middle East I came to know many people who had all combinations of international marriages and relationships. I know people who have done them successfully, some who end very sadly or even lead them into legal trouble. I had a close friend who worked for years in the immigration office for an embassy of a country that attracts many people, and she has a lot of experience with those who take the route of duping a citizen into marrying them to get that important stamp on their passport. Then there are the ones whose stories aren’t tragic, but who do end up living permanently away from their families and own people even after the relationship ends because they don’t want to isolate themselves from their kids, and then there are the people who lose both the relationship and their kids anyway no matter what they do.

International marriage is no joke. Even when people come from similar cultures, and even share a mother tongue, it’s still harder than you think to “read” someone from somewhere else. And it’s easier to accept things that you wouldn’t from a national of your own country.

So, all in all, I opened The Pickup with a pretty strong attitude of cynicism.

Why You Should Read The Pickup

A Very Personal Response

At the beginning, I wasn’t sure I was going to like The Pickup because I was afraid its literary style was going to annoy me and be too hard to follow, but I was able to read it fairly quickly. There are certain things you may not understand or are not clear as you go, but that’s deliberate, I think, to show the reader that things are not clear or not understood as you go into any relationship, and most particularly one in which the couple shares almost nothing: a mother tongue, social status, even resident status, religion, culture…nothing.

Just keep going. The idea is to show that no one really knows what’s going on, and frankly, that’s the way it is when you are dealing with different languages and cultures.

The relationship has a pretty inauspicious beginning: it starts because Julie, the protagonist, thinks Adbu/Ibrahim is hot, and she has a mild rebellious streak against the “establishment” represented by her parents. Not enough to shun her white privilege, mind you, but enough to play at shunning it. To me, the most annoying kind of person.

And of course, as Abdu eventually admits but you know must be true from the beginning, he is never blind to the fact that Julie may hold some keys to help him get into South Africa permanently. I’m sure he enjoys sleeping with her in her “remodeled servants’ cottage” (eye roll) too, rather in the back room of a garage where he is living, but throughout the book he seems less occupied with his physical comfort than with his bigger goal of getting out of his situation, and not having children until he can give them something different.

In short, Abdu is not the villain here.

Nope. By the end of the book, I for one, admire him.

Julie. Huh. I don’t find her decisions anything to be proud of. Julie’s thing is to hang on to the situation where she can keep her white privilege, and her sense of her moral superiority, intact.

Some readers might disagree with me, but in the end, Julie trades a culture that she can neither embrace nor completely renounce (it’s privileges anyway) for one that is going to allow her to keep her illusions about herself because of the connections she holds that can help them.

Just one example is her obtuse lack of understanding of the value of knowing some English. It’s even clearly stated in the book, but she things the demand for her services have to do with her skills and ability to connect, when actually…English is currency. One of the few currencies available to the people she is among.

It’s ironic to me that with all the Arabic terms Gordimer throws in the book, she never uses one of the first that I learned, which is “wasta”. That means pull, or connections. The first words you learn in a country, to me, tell you something about the country.

Julie high hands her parents, but to the bitter end, she benefits from their hard work in making good lives for themselves in harrowing situations. And her reliance on her uncle, the accused sexual harasser who, in the 1990’s, still thinks it’s ok to regularly give women vaginal exams with no female present?

Seriously, obtuse. And Abdu/Ibrahim recognizes her wasta even if she doesn’t.

But don’t take my word for it. Read The Pickup for yourself because there is no doubt that my personal experiences affect my interpretation of this story.

In all my years overseas, I told myself never to forget that as much as I like the people I’m with, and respect them, that “going native” ignores the fact that I am and always will be, at least to a degree, what I was born. No escaping it. I tried to remember always who I was in order to show respect to those around me.

Julie thinks she’s a big deal because she fasts during Ramadan. And yes, to a degree doing so earns her some respect. But that’s not the same as being devout (and she never even pretends to take the Muslim faith) and having that be your life, forever and ever. It’s different when you choose, and when, be honest, you can choose to walk away.

A Word on Gordimer’s Style

Julie is a fictional character, and of course interpreting characters is part of the fun of fiction.

What I will say that struck me and kept me riveted in terms of Gordimer’s style is how deftly she conveyed the rhythms and balance of everyday life in an Arab country. Between my experiences working mostly with locals on a day to day basis and the things I’ve heard…friends, etc….I am really astounded. I’ve never lived in a village the way that Julie does, but I’m pretty sure Gordimer gets it right, especially in her depiction of the matriarch in the family.

So many people assume that women in Muslim countries are automatically oppressed, but they do not realize the matriarch’s power in the home and family. Gordimer does an astounding job of conveying the limitations and contradictions of life in the Middle East.

Understanding the Context of The Pickup

The first section of this novel is set in Johannesburg, South Africa, which is a first world country and easy to look up. Julie comes from a privileged background yet spends most of her time in the more Bohemian places in the city.

Julie and her friends hang out in what is supposed to be a kind of gritty area…one where they couldn’t go before the end of apartheid, which I thought might look something like the picture below.

The second part of the novel is set in an unnamed village in an unnamed country “somewhere in the Middle East”.

The most specific reference she gives is that the village is near the Tomb of Sidi Yusuf, which is near Marrakesh, Morocco. The area near the tomb is called Sidi Youssef Ben Ali (All translations of Arabic words that we can read in English involve shifting the sounds of Arabic letters into English, so ignore the spellings in English.). To be honest, the description in Wikipedia doesn’t exactly match Gordimer’s description of the place. Maybe it’s the 20 years’ difference time, or maybe the village she describes is meant to be an amalgam of villages in different countries.

There are two details that don’t fit with Morocco as the setting for me:

  1. There is no mention of French in the entire book. I’ve been to Morocco, which was a French colony, and believe me, if you are Caucasian, locals will speak French to you. Morocco has only recently started using Arabic as their academic language; most education is still done in French.

  2. Gordimer mentions Abu’s country as being carved out by colonial powers, which fits Jordan and other nearby (Lebanon and Syria) much better than Morocco, which has existed for centuries.

What does the Village Look Like?

Since the exact country Ibrahim is from is unstated, of course it’s difficult to say exactly what the village would look like; however, I had a rough idea in my mind, so I set out to find some good representatives photos.

The type of village Julie lives in is a place that a foreigner would rarely, if ever go unless she was doing some sort of specialized work there, which I was not, so it turned out to be surprisingly difficult.

After spending a significant amount of time searching, the best representation I found in the end is an old news report, from 2009 (the book is set roughly in the late 1990’s) that depicts Jordanian villages while explaining the reality of another significant issue in the book, water.

You will also get to hear from some women who are probably similar in dress and appearance to Ibrahim’s family; just remember that Muslim women do not wear hijab (the head covering) at home.

In Jordan, like most of Middle East and North Africa, foreign women definitely do not need to wear a head covering or traditional clothes. Even local women don’t always, especially in the city.

Generally women don’t go out in public wearing short shorts or a very strappy top just because it attracts too much attention, but tight clothes are fine.

Generally speaking, loose gauzy clothes are more comfortable in the hot but dry heat than fitted clothes, and it’s more comfortable, actually, to shade the skin from the sun.

Villages On The Front Line: Jordan (three parts)

More by Nadine Gordimer

As I mentioned in the introduction, much of Gordimer’s work addresses apartheid in South Africa, which ended in 1994.

July’s People is her best known novel and is set during the struggles to end apartheid. No Time Like the Present is the story of a biracial just after segregation has ended. Life Times, which I highly recommend, includes a sort of “best of” her earlier stories plus stories written since 2007.

Cover photo: Martyn Smith, “Downtown Johannesburg Street”, 18 December 2017/flckr