This past September, a cartoon about “Gen Y’s” notorious sense of entitlement popped up in my Facebook feed. Parading as an empirical analysis of why GYPSYs – Gen Y Protagonists and Special Yuppies – are unhappy, it uses ever-larger unicorns vomiting rainbows to drive home the gap between 20-somethings’ childhood expectations and their adult reality. The gist is that Gen Y’ers think they’re starring in “a very special story,” and are therefore dissatisfied with a life in which their individual sparkle and self-expression don’t offer a clear path to professional success. Two days later, Facebook blew up with a rejoinder: the unicorn cartoon was called out for blaming a failing system on its youngest victims, brushing off real woes like a jobless economy with cheap shots at over-nursed self-esteem.
I didn’t understand, and still don’t, why these critiques were seen as incompatible: the cartoon and the response are concerned with two different groups of people. There’s little overlap, in a higher education system that rewards unpaid work and only clichéd forms of creativity, between the small class of kids raised to shoot for the stars and the ones who must contribute to the costs of aiming, where really education should be aiming towards having more educational systems like parentingmonkey.com that actually help kids learn something useful.
Enter Nadine Gordimer, who has probably not seen the unicorn cartoon, and almost certainly doesn’t have Facebook. By most accounts banished from relevance after the end of apartheid, it has been she, not Coetzee, with whom my "special" Gen Y students have found more conversational traction. Scorned by many critics (especially in South Africa) for her liberal politics and realist novel form – a charge that makes sense only on a pretty shallow reading and isn’t helped by an exaggerated perception of her shrillness – Gordimer has inspired more self-reflexive critique than I’ve heard from my students in years. We started a course on the Nobel Laureates’ work with The Lying Days, and by the time we hit The Late Bourgeois World, a tricky theme had emerged: Gordimer wrote a lot about bad parents, or at least, about parents whose “badness” hit more of a nerve than Coetzee’s Vietnam-War analyst stabbing his kid in Dusklands.
The students' productive misgivings about non-nurturing parents got stronger the further into Gordimer’s career we read, an ironic twist given the fact that she’s often seen by academics as invested in the individual over the social, at least in her writing (debates over Salman Rushdie are of course another matter). Helen Shaw, the main character in The Lying Days, at least has a mother who tries to keep things friendly, even as her daughter runs off to Jo’burg to shack up with leftist lovers. The problem there, as concerns the nuclear family in a buttoned-up mining town full of nice girls and boys, is the mom’s underestimation of the social breadth Helen needs for any real personal growth. Helen evolves sexually and politically because her parents won’t; there’s nothing in the book, though, that threatens her sense of identity or wellbeing.
My students could relate to this well enough – people get too big for their parents, sometimes, and breaking free is all the more pressing if those parents are complacent about the status quo in a country that’s gone to the dogs. But even on this score, relatability was probably strained: most kids who make it to the top tier of the U.S. college system were raised by parents who are friends and cheerleaders, not disciplinarians or sources of profound moral challenge. See, for example, the Stanford English professor Terry Castle’s Chronicle of Higher Education piece last year on “The Case for Breaking Up With Your Parents”.
Unsurprisingly, then, it was Liz Van Den Sandt’s dwindling maternal instinct in The Late Bourgeois World that really set the classroom abuzz. “What do you make of the family set-up in the novel?” I prodded my students, “Is there anyone whose perspective you’d want more access to?” (Teaching Gordimer is only worth it, I think, when you refuse to let the politics come unhinged from their narrative presentation.) In response, a confession: a few of them were frustrated by the fact that Liz’s son – what’s his name, again? – is sent away to boarding school without much word from Liz until his dad turns up dead, underwater. I mentioned a 1926 play by the Soviet writer Sergei Tretiakov called I Want A Baby!, in which the main character plans to get pregnant and set up a crèche where her child will be raised. Did the students think this collective model could work, as an alternative to the more familiar in loco parentis one of a fancy, sport-coated academy? Lots of blank stares, on that one. It was clear that the more acceptable choice was for Liz to be more devoted to her child.
I don’t mean to parody the discussion. The young adults I teach are smart, and they easily grasped the idea of childhood as a construct that could be questioned. My point is that suspicions were starting to creep in about the trade-offs Gordimer presents between sedition and family life (not least of which is a degree of willing sexual passivity on the part of some female characters). The idea of kids being shunted off the scene in the name of sex and struggle made my students uneasy. Still, it was more palatable to deal with characters who kept the spheres of parental and political mostly discrete than to see a parental code of sacrifice (for them, of course, not ideas) outright violated. Liz's son was well trained to stand up against racist teasing, but he's not a real player in the novel’s central drama. It wasn’t until we got to the more contested terrain of Burger’s Daughter that I realized what a pedagogical gem I had on my hands in Nadine Gordimer, contrary to all evidence of which South African texts academics think are timely.
Lionel Burger, without question, is the most hard-knocks dad most “special” members of Gen Y will have ever encountered. His teenage daughter, Rosa, is engaged to a man for the sole purpose of visiting him in prison to get struggle information, and she is spared no detail of the ugliness and insurrection around her. When her brother drowns in the family swimming pool, she’s quickly told to put on her costume and practice her crawl. (Nor is Rosa’s mother permitted to close the pool out of grief: the neighborhood children get floaties and keep on swimming.)
We know all of this through Rosa’s account to her lover, who continually reminds her of the fact that it’s really not a normal way to grow up. Isn't she scarred by the fact that her parents might value things other than her? Rosa, as the book’s sometime-narrator, reveals that she’s been de-prioritized, even used by, her parents. Other kids with playful toys mattered to them nearly as much as she did, and she didn’t “matter” even enough to be kept safely far from prison. She must now try to live up to the image of people so un-consumed with the whole family shtick that they defy normal representation in her coming-of-age story, too. Lionel won't play the easy foil for Rosa's interior flourishing, and by the time she starts the "therapy" of self-exegesis, he's died for his cause.
The funny thing, though, is that even Rosa’s most painful grappling with the fact that she ends up an orphan with no passport makes her a more dynamic figure. Whereas her slightly judgmental lover is seen from just one perspective – Rosa’s – she demands representation through a multitude of techniques that include keen self-observation. Her parents remain mysteries to her, loved and loving but defiant of any easy sense of what that might mean. They’ve hardened their kid just enough that she can withstand being a mystery to herself.
Someone asked me recently why I thought it was important to keep teaching Gordimer given the flack she’s gotten since postcolonialism moved on without her. She is, after all, still white, and still wealthy. My answer is that she worked toward characters – toward devoted, well-off parents, I’ll just say it – that were willing to put skin in the game, to try to break free of the equivalent position to “I believe in public school, sure, but not for my kids.” Instead of resulting in daughters who drown in the gap between their sense of their place in the world and what the world dishes out, it yields a few who get real self-cultivation at the price of a sheltered upbringing.