Nadine Gordimer, South African Author and Activist
By Alex J. Coyne | On October 12, 2023 | Updated November 3, 2023 | Comments (0)
Nadine Gordimer (November 20, 1923 – July 13, 2013) was a South African activist and Nobel Prize-winning author. Her short stories and long form fiction explored themes of alienation, apartheid, and exile in the context of South African people.
She published her first short story collection in 1949, and her first novel,The Lying Days, in 1953. Many of her works, including July’s People and Burger’s Daughter, were banned by the apartheid government at the time they were published.
In addition to the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, and countless other awards and honors, she cofounded the Congress of South African Writers (COSAW) and was a notable member of the African National Congress (ANC).
Her lifetime was devoted to political and social causes, including being a friend to many stalwarts of the anti-apartheid struggle in their time of need.
Early life and literary beginnings
Nadine Gordimer was born in 1923 in Springs, South Africa, a small mining town that’s about thirty miles from Johannesburg, Gauteng. She was the daughter of Jewish immigrants Isidore Gordimer (from Latvia) and Nan Myers (from the United Kingdom).
A privileged upbringing gave her secure foundation, and she began writing from the age of nine. By 1937, she was a published teenage author in the Sunday Express.
She went to school at the Convent of Our Lady of Mercy in Springs between ages eleven and sixteen. She was later removed from the school, and went to live with family.
She enrolled for college studies at the University of Witwatersrand, but left after a year to pursue writing. Her stories continued running in South African newspapers and magazines.
First collection and debut novel
Gordimer’s first short story collection published in 1949 via now-defunct Johannesburg publisher Silver Leaf Books. The rare collection Face to Face explored how apartheid affected South Africans, setting the tone for much of Gordimer’s lifetime work.
Her next short story collection was published in 1952. Its eponymous story, The Soft Voice of the Serpent, tells of a man contemplating the loss of a limb while sitting in his garden.
Her debut novel, The Lying Days, appeared in 1953. The book draws from her life experiences; it takes place in a small town and is written from the perspective of a South African woman named Helen Shaw. The Lying Days is considered a coming-of-age novel, as the protagonist discovers life and truth outside her small hometown.
Gordimer’s work quickly caught public attention, dealing with themes like racial separation and crossing boundaries. Her work would soon also catch the South African government’s attention and became the object of frequent bannings.
Life after early publications
Gordimer was married to Gerald Gavronsky from 1949 to 1952. She married again in 1954, staying married to art dealer Reinhold Cassirer until his death in 2001. Famous in his own right, he established the South African branch of the auction house Sotheby’s, and would later run his own art gallery.
The New Yorker published Gordimer’s short story, A Watcher of the Dead, in 1951. She maintained this editorial relationship, writing several stories for The New Yorker during her career.
After friend Bettie du Toit’s arrest during a protest action, Gordimer became more involved in anti-apartheid causes and social activism. Gordimer joined the African National Congress (ANC) and continued to show support through her writing.
She was a friend to many anti-apartheid figures, including Nelson Mandela. In 1963 – 1964, she created biographical sketches for The Guardian of Nelson Mandela and his co-accused at the famous Rivonia Trial. Gordimer also assisted Mandela in writing his famous “I Am Prepared to Die” speech.
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Banned and continuing to write
Gordimer published The Late Bourgeois World in 1966. It was the first of her books to be banned under government censorship. Touching on sensitive topics, it was written from the perspective of a pompous South African white woman.
More of her work written during the apartheid era was the object of bans by the government, notably July’s People and Burger’s Daughter. This intentionally created a difficult environment for politically inclined writers of the time.
In the 1960s to 1970s, Gordimer spent time away from Southern Africa teaching in United States schools. Gordimer went back to South Africa after this period, returning to write.
In 1961, she received the W.H. Smith Commonwealth Literary Award for her work.
From City Lovers to BBC’s Frontiers
The famously banned novel Burger’s Daughter was published in 1979. She wrote the book as a coded tribute to a friend who had been one of Nelson Mandela’s attorneys during the Rivonia Trial. She would later write an essay about the book’s banning, “What Happened to Burger’s Daughter.”
In 1989, Gordimer contributed an episode (Gold and the Gun) to Frontiers, a BBC show also featuring authors John Wells and Frederic Raphael. The show coincided with the fall of the Berlin Wall, a highly political time.
When Nelson Mandela was released from prison just a year later in 1990, he asked for Gordimer to be one of the first people he wanted to see.
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Her post-apartheid work centered around themes of an evolving political landscape, such as that of guns, their impact, and the legal implications. The House Gun (1998) explored the topic of “house guns” as commonplace as “house cats” in the country at the time.
Gordimer would continue to be one of the most prolific, politically-charged fiction writers of the age. Her work won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991, adding to her repetoire of writing awards.
A novel exploring alienation and human relationships called The Pickup appeared in 2001. This time, she explored a romance between the characters Julie and Abdu. When Abdu isn’t allowed to stay in South Africa, Julie joins him as an outsider in his country with little context for its new culture and customs.
Telling Tales (2003) is a result of Gordimer’s activism, collecting her own stories along with other Nobel winners and authors into one volume. Proceeds from the book were donated to HIV/AIDS-related causes. During this time, she was especially critical of President Thabo Mbeki’s public stance on the disease.
Get a Life (2005) tells the story of an anti-nuclear activist protesting against a nuclear plant in his town. This is contrasted with his personal life, while the character receives chemotherapy cancer treatment, which gives rise to mixed feelings about its impact.
An unauthorized biography of Gordimer was published against her wishes in 2006. While No Cold Kitchen had her cooperation at first, she later claimed that the author breached her trust for the purpose of writing the book. Later that year, Gordimer left South Africa to lecture at the University of Toronto.
Beethoven was one-sixteenth black (2007) was her next story collection, followed by her last novel No Time Like the Present (2012). The latter revisits a racially mixed romance set in post-apartheid South Africa.
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Gordimer in 2019 (photo: Wikimedia Commons)
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Death & Legacy
In addition to receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, Gordimer was bestowed the French Legion of Honor award in 2007 for her contributions to literature. Her awards and honors are too numerous to list here; get a full picture here.
Nadine Gordimer died at age ninety in 2013, reportedly in her sleep at her home in Johannesburg. Her legacy as literary stalwart is well regarded, with much of her work recorded in the South African National Archives.
Contributed by Alex J. Coyne, a journalist, author, and proofreader. He has written for a variety of publications and websites, with a radar calibrated for gothic, gonzo and the weird. His features, posts, articles and interviews have been published in People Magazine, ATKV Taalgenoot, LitNet, The Citizen, Funds for Writers, and The South African, among other publications.
More about Nadine Gordimer
- The Lying Days (1953)
- A World of Strangers (1958)
- Occasion for Loving (1963)
- The Late Bourgeois World (1966)
- A Guest of Honour (1970)
- The Conservationist (1974)
- Burger’s Daughter (1979)
- July’s People (1981)
- A Sport of Nature (1987)
- My Son’s Story (1990)
- None to Accompany Me (1994)
- The House Gun (1998)
- The Pickup (2001)
- Get a Life (2005)
- No Time Like the Present (2012)
In addition to the novels listed above, Nadine Gordimer published numerous collections of short stories, essays. See a nearly complete bibliography here.
More information and sources
- SA History
- National Archives (SA Government)
- Nobel Prize (1991: Literature)
- New World Encyclopedia