|Born||November 20 1923
Springs, Gauteng, Johannesburg,
|Died||July 13 2014 (aged 90)
Johannesburg, South Africa
|Notable work(s)||The Conservationist, July's People|
|Notable award(s)||Nobel Prize in Literature
Her writing dealt with moral and racial issues, particularly apartheid in South Africa. She was active in the anti-apartheid movement, joining the African National Congress during the days when the organization was banned. After the fall of the apartheid regime, the release of Nelson Mandela and his subsequent election as President of the Republic of South Africa, Gordimer turned her attention to another pressing problem in Africa, the scourge of HIV/AIDS. She lent her voice to those calling for greater attention to solving this devastating epidemic.
Nadine Gordimer was born in Springs, Gauteng, an East Rand mining town outside Johannesburg, the daughter of Isidore and Nan Gordimer. Her parents were both Jewish immigrants, her father a watchmaker from Lithuania near the Latvian border, and her mother from London. 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 Jewish refugee in tsarist Russia helped form Gordimer's political identity, but he was neither an activist nor particularly sympathetic toward the experiences of black Africans under apartheid.
Gordimer's mother, however, demonstrated her concern about the poverty and discrimination faced by black people in South Africa by founding a crèche for black children. Gordimer also witnessed government repression firsthand, when 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 of her mother's "strange reasons of her own" (apparently, fears 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 color bar. She also became involved in the Sophiatown renaissance. She did not complete her degree, but moved to Johannesburg in 1948, where she has lived ever since. While taking classes in Johannesburg, Gordimer 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 to be the literary form for our age, continued to publish short stories in the New Yorker and other prominent literary journals.
Gordimer had a daughter, Oriane born in 1950, by her first marriage in 1949 to Gerald Gavron, a local dentist, from whom she was divorced within three years. Her first novel, The Lying Days, was published in 1953. 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. It was her second marriage and his third. Their son, Hugo, was born in 1955, and became a filmmaker in New York, with whom Gordimer collaborated on at least two documentaries.
Gordimer died in her sleep on July 13, 2014 at the age of 90.
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 defense attorneys (Bram Fischer and George Bizos) during his 1962 trial. When Mandela was released from prison in 1990, Gordimer 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 12 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.
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 has 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. (See Simon Nkoli, Mosiuoa Lekota, etc.) 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.
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 served as Vice President of International PEN.
In the post-apartheid 1990s and twenty-first century, Gordimer was active in the HIV/AIDS movement, which is 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 Mbeki has 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 prizewinners in a public letter to the United States warning it not to seek to destabilize Cuba's communist government. In 2001 she urged her friend Susan Sontag not to accept an award from the Israeli government, though she angered some (including her biographer) by refusing to equate Zionism with apartheid. Gordimer's resistance to discrimination extended to the extent that she even refused to accept "shortlisting" in 1998 for the Orange Prize, because the award recognizes only women writers.
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 exile and alienation, particularly concerning questions of race and apartheid in South Africa. Gordimer examines power relations and truth, telling stories of ordinary people, revealing moral ambiguities and choices but in an unsentimental manner. Her characterization is nuanced, revealed more through the choices her characters make than through their claimed identities and beliefs.
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. Ann Davis is white, however, and Gideon Shibalo is black, and South Africa's government criminalized such relationships.
The Conservationist explores Zulu culture and the world of a wealthy white industrialist through the eyes of Mehring, the antihero. Per Wästberg 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 analyzing 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 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), Gordimer imagines a bloody South African revolution, in which white people are hunted and murdered after black people begin a revolution 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.
Gordimer's novel Get a Life, written in 2005 after the death of her longtime 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.
Ronald Suresh Roberts published a biography of Gordimer, No Cold Kitchen, in 2006. Gordimer 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 disavowed the book, accusing Roberts of breach of trust.
In addition to those disagreements, Roberts critiques 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 revealed that Gordimer's 1954 New Yorker essay, A South African Childhood was not wholly biographical and contained some fabricated events.
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 in 1991, which noted that Gordimer "through her magnificent epic writing has—in the words of Alfred Nobel—been of very great benefit to humanity".
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.
All links retrieved November 5, 2018.
1976: Saul Bellow | 1977: Vicente Aleixandre | 1978: Isaac Bashevis Singer | 1979: Odysseas Elytis | 1980: Czesław Miłosz | 1981: Elias Canetti | 1982: Gabriel García Márquez | 1983: William Golding | 1984: Jaroslav Seifert | 1985: Claude Simon | 1986: Wole Soyinka | 1987: Joseph Brodsky | 1988: Naguib Mahfouz | 1989: Camilo José Cela | 1990: Octavio Paz | 1991: Nadine Gordimer | 1992: Derek Walcott | 1993: Toni Morrison | 1994: Kenzaburo Oe | 1995: Seamus Heaney | 1996: Wisława Szymborska | 1997: Dario Fo | 1998: José Saramago | 1999: Günter Grass | 2000: Gao Xingjian
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