Nadine Gordimer

Names: Gordimer, Nadine

Born: 20 November 1923, Springs, South Africa

In summary: Founding member of COSAW, South African author, script writer,member of the ANC and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (1991)

Nadine Gordimer was born into a well-off family in Springs, Transvaal, an East Rand mining town outside Johannesburg in 1923. Her father was a Jewish jeweller originally from Latvia and her mother of British descent. From her early childhood Gordimer witnessed how the white minority increasingly weakened the rights of the black majority. Gordimer was educated in a convent school and began writing at the young age of nine; her first short story was published at the age of fifteen in the liberal Johannesburg magazine, Forum. She spent a year at Witwaterstrand University, Johannesburg without taking a degree and in 1948 she moved to Johannesburg were she lived most of her life. In 1949 she married G. Gavran and published her first collection of short stories, ‘Face to Face’ in that same year. In 1951 the New Yorker took one of her short stories.

Nadine Gordimer. Source: Gisele Wulfsohn 

In 1954, she married again, this time to a Jewish refugee, Reinhold Cassirer and together they have two children. Her first novel, The Lying Days (1953), was based largely on her own life and set in her home town (Springs). In the novel, the heroine has to free herself from her mining background prejudices, she learns from the intellectuals she meets and eventually she deals with her guilt with regard to racial hatred that she witnesses.

In 1974, her novel ‘The Conservationist’, was joint winner of the Booker Prize for Fiction. ‘Burger's Daughter (1979)’ was written during the aftermath of the Soweto uprising, and was banned, along with other books she has written. Although many of Gordimer’s books were banned by the Apartheid regime in South Africa, they were widely read around the world and served almost as a testament over the years of the changing responses to apartheid in South Africa. She never considered going into exile but in the 1960s and 1970s she lectured at universities in the USA for short periods of time.

‘Learning to write sent me falling, falling through the surface of the South African way of life,’ Gordimer has said.

In the 1980s Gordimer published the short story collections ‘A Soldier's Embrace (1980)’; ‘Something Out There (1984)’; and ‘Jump and Other Stories (1991)’ in the early 1990s.  In 1990 she also published her novel ‘My son’s story’.

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. As a member of the African National Congress, in December 1989 she testified in the mitigation for eleven United Democratic Front leaders and Vaal Civic Association activists. She was one of the founding members Congress of South African Writers (Cosaw) and was on the Transvaal regional executive for many years. Cosaw’s members were majority black and were generally regarded as writers highly 'committed' to the black cause. Nadine was also a prominent member of the Anti-Censorship Action Group and won the CNA Literary Award four times, the last time in 1991.

Also in 1991 one of the highlights in Gordimer’s career came when she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. She was the first South African to win the award and the first women to win in 25 years. The academy had reportedly passed over the then 67-year-old Gordimer several times. "I had been a possible candidate for so long that I had given up hope," Gordimer said in New York City, where she was on a lecture tour to promote her new short story collection, ‘Jump and Other Stories’.

Gordimer has traveled extensively and in addition to her fictional stories, she has written non-fiction on South African subjects and made TV documentaries, collaborating with her son Hugo Cassirer on the television film ‘Choosing Justice: Allan Boesak’. She was responsible for the script of the 1989 BBC film, ‘Frontiers’, and for four of the seven screenplays for a television drama based on her own short stories, entitled ‘The Gordimer Stories 1981-82’.

After the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994, Gordimer continued to write about affects of Apartheid and about life in post Apartheid South Africa. ‘The House Gun (1998)’, explores, through a murder trial, the complexities of violence-ridden post-apartheid South Africa. ‘The Pickup (2001)’ is set in South Africa and Saudi Arabia, and its theme is the tragedy of forced emigration. ‘Loot (2003)’, is a collection of ten short stories widely varied in theme and place and her latest novel is ‘Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black (2007)’.

Gordimer’s books and short stories have been published in forty languages. She has been awarded fifteen honorary degrees from universities in USA, Belgium, South Africa, and from York, Oxford and Cambridge Universities in the UK. She was made a Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France), and is Vice President of International PEN and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Recently, in 2007, Gordimer was awarded the Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur (France).

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