Nadine Gordimer, the Nobel Prize-winning South African novelist, short story writer, and social activist, died in Johannesburg on July 13, 2014, at the age of 90.
She was a wealthy white South African who spent most of her life fighting for racial justice in her homeland, not just in her fiction and essays but also through her membership in the African National Congress (ANC) which she joined in 1960 when the organization was still illegal and had only a handful of white supporters.
Gordimer worked in the anti-apartheid underground as a courier of messages and by driving wanted ANC members to secret meetings, by harbouring fugitive members in her home and by helping some escape the country.
She was also close to Nelson Mandela when he was the ANC leader. She helped edit Mandela’s famous “I Am Prepared to Die” speech at his trial in 1964 after which he spent an additional 25 years in prison. On his release in 1990 Gordimer was among the first people Mandela asked to see.
Apartheid and racial inequality in South Africa necessarily inform Gordimer’s fiction. Her best novels and stories involve questions of personal loyalty, integrity, and familial and romantic love.
But apartheid is always a prominent and inescapable factor. Even her white suburban characters can’t help but be confronted with its dreadful reality.
Gordimer was born in 1923 in a mining town just outside of Johannesburg. Her father, Isadore, was a Jewish refugee from Tsarist Russia who became a jeweller in South Africa. Her mother, Hannah, was British and Jewish.
Gordimer published two children’s stories in her early teens and her first adult story was published when she was 16.
“I am what I suppose you would call a natural writer,” she later said. “I did not make any decision to become one. I did not, at the beginning, expect to earn a living by being read. I wrote as a child out of the joy of apprehending life through my senses…”
She published her first collection of short stories, Face to Face, in 1949 and her first novel, The Lying Days, in 1953. In 1951 she had her first short story accepted by the New Yorker, which led to decades of publication in the magazine which brought her international exposure.
Her novels often faced censorship and were banned in South Africa for long periods. For much of her career she was better known in Britain and America than at home.
In her middle period she wrote brilliant books that wove the political with the personal.
With The Late Bourgeois World (1966), A Guest of Honour (1970), The Conservationist (which won the Booker Prize in 1974), Burger’s Daughter (1979), and July’s People (1981) Gordimer had a remarkable run of nuanced, honest and moving novels. I read them all and Gordimer has become one of my favourite writers.
When she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991 the Irish poet Seamus Heaney (who would win the Nobel four years later) called Gordimer one of “the guerrillas of the imagination. ”
In a 1988 interview Gordimer said:
“In South Africa as writers I don’t think we have any influence on the government at all. But I think South African fiction writers, if we’ve been of any use at all, have helped rouse and raise the consciousness of the outside world to the long term effects of life in our country. To put it very simplistically, a newspaper account, however good, tells you what happened. But it’s the playwright, the novelist, the poet, the short-story writer who gives you some idea of why.”