Nadine Gordimer (20 November 1923 – 13 July 2014) was a South African writer, political activist and recipient of the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature. She was recognized as a woman “who through her magnificent epic writing has – in the words of Alfred Nobel – been of very great benefit to humanity”.
Gordimer’s writing dealt with moral and racial issues, particularly apartheid in South Africa. Under that regime, works such as Burger’s Daughter and July’s People were banned. She was active in the anti-apartheid movement, joining the African National Congress during the days when the organization was banned, and gave Nelson Mandela advice on his famous 1964 defence speech at the trial which led to his conviction for life. She was also active in HIV/AIDS causes.
Gordimer was born near Springs, Gauteng, an East Rand mining town outside Johannesburg. Her father, Isidore Gordimer, was a Jewish immigrant watchmaker from agar (then Russian Empire, now Lithuania), and her mother, Hannah “Nan” (Myers) Gordimer, was from London. Her mother was from an assimilated family of Jewish origins; Gordimer was raised in a secular household.
Gordimer’s early interest in racial and economic inequality in South Africa was shaped in part by her parents. Her father’s experience as a refugee from tsarist Russia helped form Gordimer’s political identity, but he was neither an activist nor particularly sympathetic toward the experiences of black people under apartheid. Conversely, Gordimer saw activism by her mother, whose concern about the poverty and discrimination faced by black people in South Africa led her to found a crche for black children. Gordimer also witnessed government repression first-hand as a teenager; the police raided her family home, confiscating letters and diaries from a servant’s room.
Gordimer was educated at a Catholic convent school, but was largely home-bound as a child because her mother, for “strange reasons of her own,” did not put her into school (apparently, she feared that Gordimer had a weak heart). Home-bound and often isolated, she began writing at an early age, and published her first stories in 1937 at the age of 15. Her first published work was a short story for children, “The Quest for Seen Gold,” which appeared in the Children’s Sunday Express in 1937; “Come Again Tomorrow,” another children’s story, appeared in Forum around the same time. At the age of 16, she had her first adult fiction published.
Gordimer studied for a year at the University of the Witwatersrand, where she mixed for the first time with fellow professionals across the colour bar. She also became involved in the Sophiatown renaissance. She did not complete her degree, but moved to Johannesburg in 1948, where she lived thereafter. While taking classes in Johannesburg, she continued to write, publishing mostly in local South African magazines. She collected many of these early stories in Face to Face, published in 1949.
In 1951, the New Yorker accepted Gordimer’s story “A Watcher of the Dead”, beginning a long relationship, and bringing Gordimer’s work to a much larger public. Gordimer, who said she believed the short story was the literary form for our age, continued to publish short stories in the New Yorker and other prominent literary journals. Her first publisher, Lulu Friedman, was the wife of the Parliamentarian Bernard Friedman, and it was at their house, “Tall Trees” in First Avenue, Lower Houghton, Johannesburg, that Gordimer met other anti-apartheid writers.
Gordimer’s first novel, The Lying Days, was published in 1953. Gordimer had a daughter, Oriane (born 1950), by her first marriage in 1949 to Gerald Gavron, a local dentist, from whom she was divorced within three years. In 1954, she married Reinhold Cassirer, a highly respected art dealer who established the South African Sotheby’s and later ran his own gallery; their “wonderful marriage” lasted until his death from emphysema in 2001. Their son, Hugo, was born in 1955, and is a filmmaker in New York, with whom Gordimer collaborated on at least two documentaries. Hugo Cassirer later married Sarah Buttrick, and had three children.
Activism and Professional Life
The arrest of her best friend, Bettie du Toit, in 1960 and the Sharpeville massacre spurred Gordimer’s entry into the anti-apartheid movement. Thereafter, she quickly became active in South African politics, and was close friends with Nelson Mandela’s defence attorneys (Bram Fischer and George Bizos) during his 1962 trial. She also helped Mandela edit his famous speech “I Am Prepared to Die”, given from the defendant’s dock at the trial. When Mandela was released from prison in 1990, she was one of the first people he wanted to see.
During the 1960s and 1970s, she continued to live in Johannesburg, although she occasionally left for short periods of time to teach at several universities in the United States. She had begun to achieve international literary recognition, receiving her first major award in 1961. Throughout this time, Gordimer continued to demand through both her writing and her activism that South Africa re-examine and replace its long held policy of apartheid.
During this time, the South African government banned several of her works, two for lengthy periods of time. The Late Bourgeois World was Gordimer’s first personal experience with censorship; it was banned in 1976 for a decade by the South African government.A World of Strangers was banned for twelve years. Other works were censored for lesser amounts of time. Burger’s Daughter, published in June 1979, was banned one month later; the Publications Committee’s Appeal Board reversed the censorship of Burger’s Daughter six months later, determining that the book was too one-sided to be subversive. Gordimer responded to this decision in Essential Gesture (1988), pointing out that the board banned two books by black authors at the same time it unbanned her own work.July’s People was also banned under apartheid, and faced censorship under the post-apartheid government as well. In 2001, a provincial education department temporarily removed July’s People from the school reading list, along with works by other anti-apartheid writers, describing July’s People as “deeply racist, superior and patronizing”a characterization that Gordimer took as a grave insult, and that many literary and political figures protested.
In South Africa, she joined the African National Congress when it was still listed as an illegal organization by the South African government. While never blindly loyal to any organization, Gordimer saw the ANC as the best hope for reversing South Africa’s treatment of black citizens. Rather than simply criticizing the organization for its perceived flaws, she advocated joining it to address them. She hid ANC leaders in her own home to aid their escape from arrest by the government, and she said that the proudest day of her life was when she testified at the 1986 Delmas Treason Trial on behalf of 22 South African anti-apartheid activists. Throughout these years she also regularly took part in anti-apartheid demonstrations in South Africa, and traveled internationally speaking out against South African apartheid and discrimination and political repression.
Her works began achieving literary recognition early in her career, with her first international recognition in 1961, followed by numerous literary awards throughout the ensuing decades. Literary recognition for her accomplishments culminated with the Nobel Prize for Literature on 3 October 1991, which noted that Gordimer “through her magnificent epic writing hasin the words of Alfred Nobel been of very great benefit to humanity”.
Gordimer’s activism was not limited to the struggle against apartheid. She resisted censorship and state control of information, and fostered the literary arts. She refused to let her work be aired by the South African Broadcasting Corporation because it was controlled by the apartheid government. Gordimer also served on the steering committee of South Africa’s Anti-Censorship Action Group. A founding member of the Congress of South African Writers, Gordimer was also active in South African letters and international literary organizations. She was Vice President of International PEN.
In the post-apartheid 1990s and 21st century, Gordimer was active in the HIV/AIDS movement, addressing a significant public health crisis in South Africa. In 2004, she organized about 20 major writers to contribute short fiction for Telling Tales, a fundraising book for South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign, which lobbies for government funding for HIV/AIDS prevention and care. On this matter, she was critical of the South African government, noting in 2004 that she approved of everything President Thabo Mbeki had done except his stance on AIDS.
While on lecture tours, she spoke on matters of foreign policy and discrimination beyond South Africa. For instance, in 2005, when Fidel Castro fell ill, Gordimer joined six other Nobel prize winners in a public letter to the United States warning it not to seek to destabilize Cuba’s communist government. Gordimer’s resistance to discrimination extended to her even refusing to accept “shortlisting” in 1998 for the Orange Prize, because the award recognizes only women writers.
In 2006, Gordimer was attacked in her home by robbers, sparking outrage in the country. Gordimer apparently refused to move into a gated complex, against the advice of some friends.
In a 1979-80 interview Gordimer identified herself as an atheist, but added: “I think I have a basically religious temperament, perhaps even a profoundly religious one.”
Ronald Suresh Roberts published a biography of Gordimer, No Cold Kitchen, in 2006. She had granted Roberts interviews and access to her personal papers, with an understanding that she would authorize the biography in return for a right to review the manuscript before publication. However, Gordimer and Roberts failed to reach an agreement over his account of the illness and death of Gordimer’s husband Reinhold Cassirer and an affair Gordimer had in the 1950s, as well as criticism of her views on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Roberts published independently, not as “authorized”, and Gordimer disowned the book, accusing Roberts of breach of trust.
In addition to those disagreements, Roberts criticizes Gordimer’s post-apartheid advocacy on behalf of black South Africans, in particular her opposition to the government’s handling of the AIDS crisis, as a paternalistic and hypocritical white liberalism. The biography also stated that Gordimer’s 1954 New Yorker essay, “A South African Childhood”, was not wholly biographical and contained some fabricated events.
Gordimer died in her sleep on 13 July 2014 at the age of 90.
Works, themes, and reception
Gordimer achieved lasting international recognition for her works, most of which deal with political issues, as well as the “moral and psychological tensions of her racially divided home country.” Virtually all of Gordimer’s works deal with themes of love and politics, particularly concerning race in South Africa. Always questioning power relations and truth, Gordimer tells stories of ordinary people, revealing moral ambiguities and choices. Her characterization is nuanced, revealed more through the choices her characters make than through their claimed identities and beliefs. She also weaves in subtle details within the characters’ names.
Overview of critical works
Her first published novel, The Lying Days (1953), takes place in Gordimer’s home town of Springs, Transvaal, an East Rand mining town near Johannesburg. Arguably a semi-autobiographical work, The Lying Days is a Bildungsroman, charting the growing political awareness of a young white woman, Helen, toward small-town life and South African racial division.
In her 1963 work, Occasion for Loving, Gordimer puts apartheid and love squarely together. Her protagonist, Ann Davis, is married to Boaz Davis, an ethnomusicologist, but in love with Gideon Shibalo, an artist with several failed relationships. Davis is white, however, and Shibalo is black, and South Africa’s government criminalised such relationships.
Gordimer collected the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for A Guest of Honour in 1971 and, in common with a number of winners of this award, she was to go on to win the Booker Prize. The Booker was awarded to Gordimer for her 1974 novel, The Conservationist, and was a co-winner with Stanley Middleton’s novel Holiday. The Conservationist explores Zulu culture and the world of a wealthy white industrialist through the eyes of Mehring, the antihero. Per Wstberg described The Conservationist as Gordimer’s “densest and most poetical novel”. Thematically covering the same ground as Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm (1883) and J. M. Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country (1977), the “conservationist” seeks to conserve nature to preserve the apartheid system, keeping change at bay. When an unidentified corpse is found on his farm, Mehring does the “right thing” by providing it a proper burial; but the dead person haunts the work, a reminder of the bodies on which Mehring’s vision would be built.
Gordimer’s 1979 novel Burger’s Daughter is the story of a woman analysing her relationship with her father, a martyr to the anti-apartheid movement. The child of two Communist and anti-apartheid revolutionaries, Rosa Burger finds herself drawn into political activism as well. Written in the aftermath of the 1976 Soweto uprising, the novel was shortly thereafter banned by the South African government. Gordimer described the novel as a “coded homage” to Bram Fischer, the lawyer who defended Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid activists.
In July’s People (1981), she imagines a bloody South African revolution, in which white people are hunted and murdered after blacks revolt against the apartheid government. The work follows Maureen and Bamford Smales, an educated white couple, hiding for their lives with July, their long-time former servant. The novel plays off the various groups of “July’s people”: his family and his village, as well as the Smales. The story examines how people cope with the terrible choices forced on them by violence, race hatred, and the state.
The House Gun (1998) was Gordimer’s second post-apartheid novel. It follows the story of a couple, Claudia and Harald Lingard, dealing with their son Duncan’s murder of one of his housemates. The novel treats the rising crime rate in South Africa and the guns that virtually all households have, as well as the legacy of South African apartheid and the couple’s concerns about their son’s lawyer, who is black. The novel was optioned for film rights to Granada Productions.
Gordimer’s award-winning 2002 novel, The Pickup, considers the issues of displacement, alienation, and immigration; class and economic power; religious faith; and the ability for people to see, and love, across these divides. It tells the story of a couple: Julie Summers, a white woman from a financially secure family, and Abdu, an illegal Arab immigrant in South Africa. After Abdu’s visa is refused, the couple returns to his homeland, where she is the alien. Her experiences and growth as an alien in another culture form the heart of the work.
Get a Life, written in 2005 after the death of her long-time spouse, Reinhold Cassirer, is the story of a man undergoing treatment for a life-threatening disease. While clearly drawn from personal life experiences, the novel also continues Gordimer’s exploration of political themes. The protagonist is an ecologist, battling installation of a planned nuclear plant. But he is at the same time undergoing radiation therapy for his cancer, causing him personal grief and, ironically, rendering him a nuclear health hazard in his own home. Here, Gordimer again pursues the questions of how to integrate everyday life and political activism.New York Times critic J. R. Ramakrishnan, who noted a similarity with author Mia Alvar, wrote that Gordimer wrote about “long-suffering spouses and (the) familial enablers of political men” in her fiction.
Honours and Awards
- W. H. Smith Commonwealth Literary Award for Friday’s Footprint (1961)
- James Tait Black Memorial Prize for A Guest of Honour (1972)
- Booker Prize for The Conservationist (1974)
- Central News Agency Literary Award for The Conservationist (1974)
- Grand Aigle d’Or (France) (1975)
- Orange Prize shortlist; she declined
- Central News Agency Literary Award for Burger’s Daughter (1979)
- Central News Agency Literary Award for July’s People (1981)
- Scottish Arts Council Neil M. Gunn Fellowship (1981)
- Modern Language Association Honorary Fellow (1984)
- Rome Prize (1984)
- Premio Malaparte (Italy) (1985)
- Nelly Sachs Prize (Germany) (1985)
- Bennett Award (United States) (1987)
- Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for A Sport of Nature (1988)
- Inducted as an honorary member into Phi Beta Kappa (1988)
- Central News Agency Literary Award for My Son’s Story (1990)
- Nobel Prize for Literature (1991)
- International Botev Prize Laureate (1996)
- Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the Best Book from Africa for The Pickup (2002)
- Booker Prize longlist for The Pickup (2001)
- Officier of the Legion of Honour (2007)
- American Academy of Arts and Letters, Honorary Member (1979)
- American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Honorary Member (1980)
- Royal Society of Literature, Fellow
- Congress of South African Writers, Patron
- Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Commander
- 15 honorary degrees
- Senior Fellow, Massey College of the University of Toronto
- Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement (2009)
- Order of the Aztec Eagle
On November 20, 2015, Google celebrated her 92nd birthday with a Google Doodle.