Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Laureate

Calla Lily ProfileArleen Solomon Rotchin3 Comments
I have failed at many things, but I have never been afraid.
Photo Andrew Crowley

Photo Andrew Crowley

Nadine Gordimer was the South African writer whose literary ambitions led her into the heart of apartheid.  She created a body of fiction that brought her a Nobel Prize in 1991.  She wrote of moral and racial issues, was active in the anti-apartheid movement and joined the African National Congress during the days when the Organization was banned.  She was also active in HIV/AIDS causes.

Nadine Gordimer was born to Jewish immigrant parents on November 20, 1923 in Springs, a mining town outside of Johannesburg.  Her father, Isidore Gordimer, a watchmaker, had been driven by poverty to emigrate from Lithuania, eventually establishing his own jewelry store.  Her mother, the former Nan Myers, had moved with her family from Britain and never stopped thinking of it as home.  

Theirs was an unhappy marriage.

Surprisingly, Nadine Gordimer’s books were not the product of someone who had grown up in a household where the politics of race were discussed.  

She began to write at the age of nine.  Her first short story which was published in a South African magazine when she was only fifteen,  grew out of her reaction as a young child watching the casual humiliation of blacks.  She recalled blacks being barred from touching clothes before buying in shops in her hometown, and police searching the maid’s quarters at parent’s home for alcohol, which blacks were not allowed to possess.

She has written 14 novels, over 200 short stories, and several volumes of essays.  She rose to international fame for novels and short stories that stunned the literary world and resulted in some of her books being banned in her native country.

The Irish poet Seamus Heaney called her one of the great guerillas of the imagination.  As a white South African who hated apartheid, she also played a political role in her country’s troubled history.  Nobody knew as well as she did how to describe the reality of apartheid-era South Africa, and she did it through her complex novels that explored the human cost of the racial conflict.

Photograph: Jon Hrusa

Photograph: Jon Hrusa

Nadine Gordimer presents Nelson Mandela with The Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience Award, 2006.

One of Gordimer’s banned books Burger’s Daughter made its way to Nelson Mandela’s cell at the Robben Island prison.

‘I don’t know how it got there, but Mandela was the most exigent reader I could have hoped for,’ said Gordimer.  

He wrote her a ‘letter of deep, understanding acceptance about the book.’  In his autobiography about his incarceration, Mandela said that Gordimer’s writing taught him a great deal about ‘white liberal sensibility.’

Shortly after his release in 1990, Mandela requested to meet her and they stayed in touch for the rest of his life.

In 1954, Nadine Gordimer married her second husband Reinhold Cassirer.  Art was always close to his heart. He opened a gallery in Johannesburg nurturing and exhibiting some of South Africa’s best artists before they became famous. Nadine and Reinhold had been married for almost 50 years when he passed away in 2001 at 93 years old.

Despite the death of her husband, and the frightening robbery she endured five years later, Gordimer remained in the leafy old suburb where she had always lived. Her way of coping with Cassirer’s death was to carry on as before and remembering him.

During the robbery, she and her housekeeper were dragged upstairs and her housekeeper was punched and kicked when she started screaming. Gordimer shouted at the robbers that the housekeeper was old enough to be their grandmother and they stopped.  Both women were locked in a cupboard as the robbers left.  

When she was interviewed about the attack, Gordimer said she was calm and thought, Oh well, it’s my turn to experience what so many others have.  

She said, ‘I have failed at many things but I have never been afraid.’  

Honorary Degrees: Yale, Harvard, Columbia, New School for Social Research, USA; University of Leuven, Belgium, University of York (England), Universities of Cape Town and the Witwatersrand (South Africa), Cambridge University (England).

Honorary Member American Academy of Arts & Sciences

Honorary Member American Academy & Institute of Arts & Letters

Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature

Goodwill Ambassador UNDP