Nadine Gordimer was born in 1923 into a land on fire. This is no metaphor, she explains in “A South African Childhood,” the first essay in “Telling Times,” a big new collection of her nonfiction. The gold-mining town that was her birthplace, in the Transvaal region east of Johannesburg, was dotted with man-made hills of coal dust, the relics of old collieries. Some of them, she writes, mimicked natural hills: “real earth had blown on to them to hold a growth of sparse grass and perhaps even a sinewy peppercorn or peach tree.” But inside, they were burning: “They had caught fire at some time or other in their years of disuse, and had continued to burn, night and day, ever since. Neither rain nor time could put the fires out. . . . I have asked people who have studied such things how long it may be expected to go on burning before it consumes itself. Nobody seems to know; it shares with the idea of Hades its heat and vague eternity.
- Telling Times: Writing and Living, 1950 – 2008 by Nadine Gordimer
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