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Nadine Gordimer, Nobel laureate Print E-mail
03 January 2011

Once a thorn in the side of the apartheid government, Nadine Gordimer is still standing up against discrimination in other parts of the world.

THE year 1991 was a significant one for world-renowned writer Nadine Gordimer: she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in that year, the first South African to win the award for literature.


Nadine Gordimer
Nadine Gordimer
Gordimer had repeatedly missed winning the Nobel, and had given up hope of receiving it, according to the website.


Now 87, she has been writing for the past 61 years. She began writing at an early age; her first published story was in a magazine in 1937, at the age of 15. These first stories were children’s stories, but she published her first adult fiction soon afterwards, in 1938, according to Wikipedia.

In 1949, her first book of short stories, Face to Face, was published. In the same year, she published The First Circle, Six One-Act Plays. She achieved international recognition when a short story, A Watcher of the Dead, was published in the New Yorker in 1951. Her first novel, The Lying Days, followed in 1953.

Gordimer has subsequently written 15 novels, fiction being the medium with which she is happiest. In December this year, a collection of her short stories, going back to the 1950s, was published as Life Times.

Three collections of essays have been published, in 1973, 1988 and 1995. These have been collected into one publication called Telling Times: Writing and Living, 1950-1980, published in 2010.

Of the essays, she says in an article in the Mail & Guardian newspaper in November: “That’s nothing. That was just on the side. Fiction is what really matters.”

An actress or a dancer
When she was young she wanted to be an actress or a dancer, she told the Mail & Guardian. But when she was 12, her parents’ maid, who lived on the property, was subjected to a liquor raid by the police. Her possessions were dumped in the yard.

Her parents passively watched this happening, but the young Gordimer was horrified, knowing even at that age that the police should have produced a permit. “One of the first stories that I wrote came out of that,” she says.

Born in Springs on the East Rand in 1923, of Jewish parents, Gordimer moved to Johannesburg to study at Wits University briefly, but left without completing a degree. She has lived in Joburg ever since.

In 1949, she married a dentist, Gerald Gavron, with whom she had a daughter. They divorced a few years later. In 1954, she married Reinhold Cassirer, an art dealer who ran Sotheby’s in South Africa, and who was 16 years her senior. She was married to him for 40 years, and had a son with him. He died in 2001.

She has made several TV documentaries with her son Hugo, including Choosing Justice: Allan Boesak and The Gordimer Stories 1981-82.

The Late Bourgeois World and A World of Strangers were banned by the apartheid government, along with several other novels. The government was unhappy with her continued criticism of apartheid policies.

Her 1974 novel, The Conservationist, was joint winner of the Man Booker International Prize for Fiction. Some contend that she is more popular with overseas readers than South Africans.

“A fine descriptive writer, thoughtful and sensitive, Gordimer is noted for the vivid precision of her writing about the complicated personal and social relationships in her environment: the interplay between races, racial conflict, and the pain inflicted by South Africa's unjust apartheid laws,” notes the website.

Joined the ANC
After the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, Gordimer joined the ANC and became close friends with Nelson Mandela’s defence attorneys, Bram Fischer and George Bizos, during his 1962 trial, indicates Wikipedia. When Mandela was released from jail in 1990, Gordimer was one of the first people he wished to see.

She was an active anti-apartheid campaigner, speaking out against apartheid on overseas lecture tours.

Today she defends the ANC government, saying it is too early to judge progress. “We are still in the morning after. I cannot emphasise strongly enough, we have had 16 years [since democratic elections]. That’s all. Sixteen years,” she told the Mail & Guardian.

She feels strongly about the Aids cause in South Africa, having criticised former president Thabo Mbeki for his denialist stance. In 2004, she persuaded 21 writers to contribute short stories to a publication called Telling Tales, the proceeds of which went to the Treatment Action Campaign, an Aids-awareness NGO.

Gordimer is also sensitive to discrimination in other parts of the world. In 2005, she joined six other Nobel laureates in a letter to the US government, urging it not to destabilise Cuba when Fidel Castro fell ill, says Wikipedia.

A host of international and local awards have been given to Gordimer – among them the CNA Literary Award, which she won four times; the WH Smith Literary Award; the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur; and the Best of the Booker.

About 15 honorary degrees, some from the world’s most prestigious universities: Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Cambridge, and the universities of Cape Town and the Witwatersrand, have been bestowed on her. She has received the Order of the Southern Cross at home, and similar honours from Cuba and Chile.

Often saying she would never write an autobiography, in 2005 she agreed to grant Ronald Suresh Roberts interviews and access to her personal papers, on the condition that she review the manuscript before publication. But they fell out over several details in the book, and she never authorised the biography, which was published in 2006 as No Cold Kitchen.

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Last Updated on 10 January 2011