Remarkable People

ID #5221

Nadine Gordimer, Author, Social Activist and Nobel Laureate, South Africa.

Nadine Gordimer (1923-) is a writer, political activist and Nobel laureate. Her writing has long dealt with moral and racial issues, particularly apartheid. She was active in the anti-apartheid movement and joined the ANC when it was still banned. She has recently been active in HIV/AIDS causes.

She was born in Springs, the daughter of Isidore and Nan Gordimer. Gordimer's interest in racial and economic inequality was shaped in part by her parents, who were both Jewish immigrants -- her father's experience as a Jewish refugee in Czarist Russia and her mother’s concern for the poverty and discrimination faced by blacks that led her to start a crèche for black children.
Gordimer was educated in a Catholic convent but was largely home-bound because of her mother's "strange reasons of her own". Often isolated, she began writing at an early age and published her first stories at age 15. Her first published work was a children’s short story, "The Quest for Seen Gold," which appeared in the Sunday Express in 1937. "Come Again Tomorrow" appeared in Forum around the same time. At 16, she had her first adult fiction published.

Gordimer studied at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) for a year, where she mixed with 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 magazines. She collected many of these stories in “Face to Face” which was published in 1949.

In 1951, the New Yorker accepted Gordimer's story, "A Watcher of the Dead". It was  the beginning of a long relationship and she continued to publish stories in the New Yorker and other prominent journals. Gordimer's first publisher, Lulu Friedman, was wife of the Parliamentarian Bernard Friedman. It was in their home that Gordimer met other anti-apartheid writers. 

Gordimer's first novel, “The Lying Days”, was published in 1953. In 1954, she married Reinhold Cassirer, an art dealer who established the Sotheby's agency and later ran his own gallery. Their "wonderful marriage" lasted until his death in 2001. Their son Hugo, with whom Gordimer has collaborated on documentaries, is a filmmaker in New York.

The arrest of her best friend, Bettie du Toit and the Sharpeville massacre spurred Gordimer's entry into the anti-apartheid movement. Thereafter, she became active in 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 to teach in the United States. She had begun to achieve literary recognition, receiving her first major award in 1961. Throughout this time Gordimer continued to demand that South Africa re-examine its policy of apartheid.

The government banned several of her works. “The Late Bourgeois World” which was banned for a decade was her first experience with censorship. 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 because it was “…too one-sided to be subversive”. Gordimer responded in Essential Gesture, pointing out that the board banned two books by black authors when it unbanned her own work. July's People was also banned and faced censorship under the post-apartheid government as well. In 2001 a provincial education department removed July's People from the school reading list, describing it as "deeply racist, superior and patronizing" -- a characterization Gordimer took as a grave insult.

Gordimer saw the ANC as South Africa's best hope for reversing the treatment of its black citizen and joined when it was still an illegal organization. She hid ANC leaders in her home and said that the proudest day of her life was when she testified at the 1986 Delmas Treason Trial on behalf of 22 anti-apartheid activists. Throughout these years she took part in anti-apartheid demonstrations and traveled internationally to speak out against apartheid discrimination and repression.

Literary recognition for her accomplishments culminated in the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991, which noted that Gordimer "through her magnificent epic writing has been of very great benefit to humanity".

Gordimer's activism has not been limited to the struggle against apartheid. She has resisted censorship and state control of information, refusing to let her work be aired by the SABC because it was government-controlled. Gordimer also served on the Anti-Censorship Action Group. A founding member of the Congress of South African Writers, Gordimer has also been active in South African letters and international literary organizations and has been Vice President of International PEN.

In the post-apartheid 1990s and 21st century, Gordimer has been active in the HIV/AIDS movement. In 2004, she organized writers to contribute fiction for “Telling Tales”, a fundraising book for the Treatment Action Campaign which lobbies for funding for HIV/AIDS prevention and care.

While on lecture tours, she has spoken on matters of foreign policy and discrimination beyond South Africa. For instance, in 2005, when Fidel Castro fell ill, Gordimer joined other Nobel prizewinners in a letter to the United States warning it not to destabilize Cuba's government. In 2001 she urged Susan Sontag not to accept an award from the Israeli government. Gordimer's resistance to discrimination extended to her refusing to accept "shortlisting" in 1998 for the Orange Prize because it recognizes only women writers.

Gordimer has achieved international recognition for her works, most of which deal with political issues, as well as the "moral and psychological tensions of her racially-divided country." Virtually all her work deals with love and politics. She tells stories of ordinary people, revealing moral ambiguities and choices. Her characterization is nuanced, revealed more through the choices they make than through their identities and beliefs.

Her first novel, “The Lying Days” (1953), takes place in Springs. A semi-autobiographical work, it is a Bildungsroman, charting the growing political awareness of a young white woman, Helen, toward small-town life and 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 who is in love with Gideon Shibalo, an artist.

Gordimer collected the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for “A Guest of Honour” in 1971. She was a co-winner with Stanley Middleton of the Booker Prize for her 1974 novel, “The Conservationist” which 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"

Her 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 banned. Gordimer described the novel as a "coded homage" to Bram Fischer.

In July's People (1981), Gordimer imagines a revolution in which whites are murdered after blacks start a revolution against the apartheid government. The work follows an educated white couple hiding for their lives with July, their former servant.
“The House Gun” (1998) was Gordimer's second post-apartheid novel. It follows the story of a couple dealing with their son Duncan's murder of one of his housemates. The novel treats the rising crime rate as well as the legacy of apartheid and their concerns about their son's black lawyer.

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 Julie Summers, a white woman and Abdu, an Arab immigrant. After Abdu's visa is refused, the couple returns to his homeland, where she is the alien.
Gordimer's recent novel “Get a Life” is the story of a man undergoing treatment for a life-threatening disease. While drawn from personal experience, the novel continues her exploration of political themes. The protagonist is an ecologist, battling installation of a nuclear plant. However, he is simultaneously undergoing radiation therapy for cancer, causing him personal grief and, ironically, rendering him a nuclear health hazard in his own home.

Ronald Suresh Roberts published a biography of Gordimer -- No Cold Kitchen -- in 2006. Gordimer had granted him interviews and access to her personal papers, with the understanding that she would have the right to review the manuscript before publication. However, Gordimer and Roberts failed to reach agreement over his account of the illness and death of her husband as well as her views on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Roberts published independently and Gordimer disavowed the book, accusing Roberts of breach of trust. In addition, Roberts critiques Gordimer's post-apartheid advocacy on behalf of black South Africans as paternalistic and hypocritical white liberalism. The biography also revealed that Gordimer's essay – A South African Childhood -- was not wholly biographical.RSANG

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Last update: 2014-03-02 21:48
Author: Alan McIver
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