Her writing is timeless, and all of us are indebted to her for crafting important documentation of the people, perspectives, and politics of South Africa during its tumultuous history
NADINE GORDIMER, was the first South African and only the seventh woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Seamus Heaney, a fellow Nobel laureate, called her one of the great “guerrillas of the imagination”. In over two dozen works of fiction, she frequently addressed the complex and often tormented political situation of her native land.
She was one of the most eminent South African writers. She had been an active socio-political activist, therefore through her writing and choices of the subject she strengthened the forces of resistance to apartheid and continued to speak out against any form of official censorship.
Although, by her own admission, she was not a “political person” by nature, but had a profound impact on political life.
In a similar way, Gordimer claimed that she did not have any other option but to take up the political atmosphere of South Africa and use it in her writing. She quoted Goethe to summarize a writer’s duty - “Thrust your hand deep into life, and whatever you bring up in it, that is you, that is your subject.” For her, doing so meant writing about her South African countrymen and their homeland.
For her, the freedom to express herself was both a shield and a spear that she wielded against the abuse of public power in whatever form it takes.
A close analysis of her writing - but even more specifically, the way in which her writing coalesced with the politics of South Africa - provides an interesting commentary on how authors both influence and are influenced by their culture.
Delved into the heart of apartheid
Gordimer was considered a modern literary genius, an important chronicler of the injustices of racial segregation.
“Her proudest days were not only when she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991,” her family said in the statement, “but also when she testified at the Delmas Trial in 1986 to contribute to saving the lives of 22 [African National Congress] members, all of them accused of treason.”
Under the harsh apartheid regime, Gordimer hid stowaways, helped people across the border, passed messages, and assisted those trying to evade the police. She worked tirelessly to free Nelson Mandela from prison, and the two maintained a close relationship until his death.
Gordimer was one of the first people Nelson Mandela wanted to see upon his release from prison in 1990. A copy of her 1979 novel Burger’s Daughter, which explored the family life of the children of revolutionaries, had been smuggled into his hands while he was imprisoned.
She also helped Mandela to edit his speech “I Am Prepared to Die.”
Way of narration
Gordimer never preaches, never interprets, and never spells out. Characters unfold slowly through direct and indirect speech and actions, as do incidents leading up to the story’s climax. If we are slapped with a grand question mark at the end through the inexplicit details given, it is because we are invited to re-examine evidence and not leave the story with the feeling of smugness we would have after solving a murder-mystery. No, Gordimer’s stories are not a form of entertainment but a means of scrutiny.
She portrays politics and human emotions in a subtle and unbiased way. Her work, though fictional, has been a constant source of inspiration for several generations of writers.
Early life and work
Nadine Gordimer was born on November 1923 near Johannesburg, South Africa. Her father was a watchmaker from what is now Lithuania, and her mother was from London. Her political identity was formed by her father’s opinion but he was not particularly concerned about the state of affairs in South Africa. It was her mother who facilitated her in evoking the sense of injustice against discrimination and extreme poverty faced by the black people.
Gordimer attended a Catholic convent school, but as a child was often home-bound. Her mother had reasons for it, which she never disclosed to Nadine. Since she was often isolated from her peers, Gordimer started to write at an early age. She published her first stories when she was only 15 years old. The story “The Quest for Seen Gold” appeared in the Children’s Sunday Express in 1937 and “Come again tomorrow” in Forum. Gordimer published her first adult fiction book when she was 16.
Gordimer has a career break as her story “A Watcher of the Dead” was published by the New Yorker in 1951.
Childhood Reflected in Fiction
Gordimer had problems with schools, and often wanted to absent herself. This wasn’t from a dread of school, but a desire to be alone; she was always busy writing, although she was encouraged to think of herself only as a potential housewife.
Anyway, the girl from Springs found her short stories published round the world and she became a favourite of the New Yorker. As her career progressed, she was able to rub shoulders with literary giants from Octavio Paz to Salman Rushdie.
Critics have described the whole of her work as constituting a social history as told through finely drawn portraits of the characters which peopled it. About her own life, Gordimer told little, preferring to explore the intricacies of the mind and heart in those of her protagonists. “It is the significance of detail wherein the truth lies,” she said.
But some critics saw in her fiction a theme of personal as well as political liberation, reflecting her struggles growing up under the possessive, controlling watch of a mother trapped in an unhappy marriage.
Gordimer was the author of more than two dozen works of fiction, including novels and collections of short stories in addition to personal and political essays and literary criticism. Her first book of stories, Face to Face, appeared in 1949, and her first novel, The Lying Days, in 1953. In 2010, she published Telling Times: Writing and Living, 1954-2008, a weighty volume of her collected non-fiction.
As a child, Gordimer recalled in an interview, she was a brash show-off who loved to dance and dreamed of becoming a ballerina. But her mother insisted that she stop dancing, because she had a rapid heartbeat.
Years later, Gordimer said she learned that the rapid heartbeat was a result of an enlarged thyroid, and that it did not pose the danger her mother had implied. She came to believe that her supposed ill health had dovetailed with her mother’s hunger for romance.
“The chief person she was attracted to was our family doctor,” she told in an interview. “There’s no question. I’m sure it was quite unconscious, but the fact that she had this delicate daughter, about whom she could be constantly calling the doctor — in those days doctors made house calls, and there would be tea and cookies and long chats — made her keep my ‘illness’ going in this way.”
Gordimer said little about her personal life in interviews. She did mention flirtations on occasion. “My one preoccupation outside the world of ideas was men,” she once said, without providing details.
Banned Novels and a Nobel
Three of Gordimer’s books were banned in her own country at some point during the apartheid era — 1948 to 1994.
Gordimer was never detained or persecuted for her work, though there were always risks to writing openly about the ruling repressive regime.
She won the Booker Prize in 1974 for The Conservationist (1974), and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991, “who through her magnificent epic writing has - in the words of Alfred Nobel - been of very great benefit to humanity.” While she appreciated the recognition, her response at the time of winning the Nobel was to remind everyone that ‘writing is not a horse race’.
There is a belief, prevalent in South Africa, that she received the Nobel more for her politics than for her literature. The distinction between politics and literature is to her absurd; she quotes with approval a maxim, ‘Once I am no more than a writer I will stop writing’.
No writer, she says, should be required to separate the inner life from a perception of the outer world. A writer, in her view, is someone who is deeply engaged with, and uniquely equipped to understand, the political and cultural life of his country.
Although Gordimer was immensely gratified to receive the Nobel, its valedictory connotations led her to worry about what it said to the world about her future.
“When I won the Nobel Prize,” she said, “I didn’t want it to be seen as a wreath on my grave.”
Life after apartheid ended
Gordimer went on writing after apartheid, resisting the idea that its demise had deprived her of her great literary subject. It “makes a big difference in my life as a human being,” she said, “but it doesn’t really affect me in terms of my work, because it wasn’t apartheid that made me a writer, and it isn’t the end of apartheid that’s going to stop me.”
Politically, she eventually embraced other causes, among them the fight against the spread of the H.I.V. virus and AIDS in South Africa and a writers’ campaign against the country’s punishing secrecy law.
Gordimer died of natural causes when she was 90 years old in 2014. She is remembered in South Africa and abroad as a towering literary figure and powerful voice for justice and freedom of expression.
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