South African Nadine Gordimer’s unstinting literary resistance and refusal to back down is a testimony to bravery. She dared to face powerful opposition to her writing about government-sanctioned racial oppression, repressive policies that normalized daily beatings, jailings, and murder. Three of her books were banned, but she never stopped exercising her right as an artist to openly state her condemnation of apartheid. Beloved by anyone who had read her fiction and hated by anyone who feared the polemic potential of her writing, this defiant woman helped create the post-apartheid future she envisioned in her novels.
She was born in 1923 in the East Rand town of Spring, the daughter of a Latvian jeweler father, who had been drawn to the diamond mining money in the southern Traansvaal tip of Africa, and a hypochondriac British mother. Nadine was frequently kept home from convent school by her housebound mother, and at age nine, felt the urge to pick up a pen. By the time she was fifteen, Forum magazine had published a story by the gifted girl.
Through her father’s business she came to learn of the terrible conditions in the diamond mines. The mines, which were managed by whites who sent Black South Africans into the hot and dangerous shafts, quickly taught the sensitive and observant Nadine about the stratified society ordained by the white Afrikaners in power. The sense of injustice that informed her sensibility as a young woman only developed with time as the incongruity of colonial cruelty increased in a country straining toward modernity.
Gordimer claims as a major influence Georg Lukacs, a Hungarian philosopher and essayist whose writings at the turn of the century and beyond helped shape European realism. Gordimer’s first book, The Lying Days, was published in 1953 and traced the impact of Europeans in South Africa. From this historical beginning, her short stories and novels amplified her complaint against acculturated segregation and a caste system enforced upon the people native to Africa. Reviewer Maxwell Geismar declared her fiction “a luminous symbol of at least one white person’s understanding of the black man’s burden.”
The novels that have emerged as a legacy for this outcast writer include
The Conservationist, July’s People, and Burger’s Daughter. Readers praise Gordimer’s painterly quality of rich detail, full characterization, and symbolic setting, though a few object to the mechanics of her narratives, judging it as unfashionable to see a story through to completion. A few critics even carp at her attention to race and lack thereof to feminism, but her own insistence is to speak to the issues of humankind, inclusive of race and gender.
Decried by whites in her home country, Nadine Gordimer continued to live in Johannesburg despite pressure to leave. For a time, recognition of her skill as a writer and the validity of her message only came from abroad. The New Yorker published her often, and she taught in American universities during the politically restive ’60s and ’70s. After the Soweto uprising in South Africa, her powerful novel Burger’s Daughter was banned for its potential to inflame insurrectionists. In response, Gordimer focused with greater intent on her political opposition to apartheid and cofounded the Congress of South African Writers. She went on to work in documentary films along with her son, Hugo Cassirer, and published nonfiction about subjects specific to South Africa. She refused the Orange Award because of its restriction to women, but joined the exclusive ennead of Nobel-winning women in 1991. The academy had previously passed her over a number of times, and she herself stated, “I had been a possible candidate for so long I had given up hope.” Gordimer said upon accepting the prize that as a young writer, she feared that the isolation of apartheid separated her from “the world of ideas,” but eventually came to realize that “what we had to do to find the world was to enter our own world fully first. We had to enter through the tragedy of our own particular place.”
At great personal risk and in spite of the constant threat of ostracism, this woman’s pen marked the dividing line between white and Black South Africa and the ways of life on either side. With unmatched lucidity, she examined the rituals of persecution and life under the fist. Her Nobel Prize for Literature was a tribute to her singular courage and life’s work of telling the truth through fiction.
Perhaps more than the work of any other writer, the novels of Nadine Gordimer have given imaginative and moral shape to the recent history of South Africa.
Jay Dillemuth, The Norton Anthology of English Literature