A house divided about 'The Pickup': Students pick apart Reading Project's post-apartheid novel

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The Class of 2011 is far from shy: Many of the new students declare their dislike for Nadine Gordimer's novel about life in post-apartheid South Africa, "The Pickup," the work chosen for this year's New Student Reading Project. And at least one faculty member agrees with them.

When the book was dissected by a panel in Barton Hall on Aug. 19, Michele Moody-Adams, vice provost for undergraduate education, who hosted the event, and three other faculty members gave critical interpretations of the text, followed by frank exchanges with student questioners.

South Africa-born professor of English and Africana studies Grant Farred led off his remarks by polling students: "How many of you didn't like the book?" A sizable portion of the students raised their hands, whooped and clapped. "I'm with the neatly coiffed, carefully attired masses," Farred continued. "With all due apologies to Gordimer, I didn't like the book." Many in the audience roared in approval. "But I think it raises important questions, and I hope we can talk about that," he said.

Before inviting students to the microphones, Moody-Adams inquired of them, "Are there people who in fact liked the book?" Fewer hands went up. "I'm really quite struck, frankly, by how many don't like it."

Students asked about Gordimer's literary style, which blurs the identity of speakers; about her portrayal of Muslims as outsiders; and suggested that next year's reading project allow students to read books of their choice (or that the selected book be a work of science fiction).

Considering the name of the character Abdu, an illegal immigrant, Farred asked, "Is it Abdu's name or his North African being that makes him a threat to post-apartheid South Africa? ... What critical window does Gordimer's Abdu open for those of us who live outside of racially 'sedimented' Johannesburg, those geographically removed but philosophically intimate with the South Africa still grappling with the powerfully permanent residues of apartheid?"

He summed up, "Awkwardly, tentatively, sometimes even pretentiously, the South African Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer strives toward producing in this novel a word, if necessary from another language, a language that is not hers or Julie Summers' [a central character in the novel]. A language that can address the critical issues of immigration."

"The Pickup" illustrates how privileged characters are free to move about the Earth but the poor are blocked at every turn -- "global haves and have-nots," noted Sital Kalantry, assistant clinical professor of law and an expert on immigration law. "The inequality between people in 'The Pickup' emerges in a globalized world where developing countries have opened their borders to capital and culture, often at the behest of developed countries," she said.

Moody-Adams noted, "Professor Farred's talk, perhaps in particular, was an example of the very kind of open discussion and reflection -- even on things where we might disagree quite intensely -- that this book project was meant to generate."

"I'd like to thank you, the audience, for attending and for willing to be provocative in your comments and your questions," said Moody-Adams. "And I hope the provocative discussions will continue."