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Nadine Gordimer

Nobel Prize in Literature

As writers, we are exploring the mystery, the mystery of existence.

Nadine Gordimer was born in the small gold mining town of Springs, South Africa. Her parents were both immigrants; her mother was born in England, her father in Latvia, then part of the Russian Empire. Although both parents were Jewish by birth, she was raised in a largely secular environment, and educated in part at Catholic girls schools.

1961: Nadine Gordimer accepts the W.H. Smith Commonwealth Literary Award in London. (© Evening Standard)

The social hierarchy of a small South African town in the 1930s was both complex and rigid. Recent immigrants from Eastern Europe, like Gordimer’s father, Isidore, occupied a stratum below that of the earlier English settlers and the white Afrikaners, mostly descendants of Dutch, French and German colonists. The black Africans who worked the town’s gold mines were the most disadvantaged, denied access to all public facilities. Gordimer’s father, who had experienced religious discrimination as a Jew in Tsarist Russia, accepted the system as he found it, but her mother Nan bristled at the injustice of the South African order, and founded a daycare center for the children of black workers in the town. The brutal reality of the system was fully impressed on young Nadine when local police raided the family home, ostensibly because they suspected the family’s black housekeeper of brewing beer illegally. The incident would later form the basis of one of Gordimer’s first published stories.

Although she showed an early enthusiasm for writing, Nadine Gordimer also enjoyed a youthful passion for dance. A brief illness of Nadine’s frightened her mother so severely that she withdrew the child from dance classes and then from school altogether. From then on she was educated at home. In the midst of this solitary existence, with few friends and no literary life, she found a world of adventure and ideas in reading. She began to write fiction of her own, and published her first story in the children’s section of the local paper. At 15, she published for the first time in a journal for adult readers.

1964: Nadine Gordimer at home in South Africa. Her novel, Occasion for Loving, was the subject of fierce debate.

With little formal education, she schooled herself by studying the masters of European fiction; Proust, Chekhov and Dostoyevsky were powerful role models, and she studied their work closely. She briefly attended the University of Witwatersrand, where she made the acquaintance of educated young black Africans for the first time. She came to know many of the young black artists and writers who gathered in the Johannesburg neighborhood known as Sophiatown.

Gordimer left college without a degree and settled in Johannesburg in 1948. That same year, the National Party, dominated by the white Afrikaners, won a national election and began to institute its policy of apartheid, mandating absolute separation of the races. Sophiatown and other neighborhoods were demolished, to remove black Africans and replace them with white residents. In Johannesburg, Gordimer formed a deep friendship with the labor activist Bettie du Toit, who had a powerful influence on her political thinking and her increasing opposition to the white supremacist government.

Nadine Gordimer's 1979 novel Burger's Daughter became the center of a censorship controversy in apartheid-era South Africa.
Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter was the center of a censorship controversy in the apartheid-era South Africa.

Gordimer’s first short story collection, Face to Face, appeared in 1949. It was quickly followed by two more collections, Town and Country Lovers and The Soft Voice of the Serpent. Gordimer’s writing began to attract attention outside her own country in 1951, when her stories began appearing in The New Yorker magazine. Her first novel, The Lying Days, appeared in 1953. It may be her most autobiographical work, describing the political awakening of a young woman growing up in Gordimer’s hometown, Springs.

Nadine Gordimer at home in South Africa in 1981. That year, she published July’s People, where she imagines a bloody South African revolution, in which white people are hunted and murdered after blacks revolt against the anti-apartheid government. The story examines how “people cope with the terrible choices forced on them by violence, race, hatred, and the state.” July’s People was banned by the government. (William Campbell/Sygma)

A brief first marriage resulted in the birth of a daughter, Oriane, in 1950. In 1954, Gordimer married Reinhold Cassirer, an art dealer who had come to South Africa as a refugee from Nazi Germany. This union lasted until his death in 2001. Gordimer and Cassirer’s son, Hugo, was born in 1955. In the early 1960s, the South African government stepped up its repressive measures against black Africans and against all critics of the regime, black and white. The arrest and imprisonment of Bettie du Toit in 1960, and the bloody Sharpeville Massacre of black protesters, further fueled Gordimer’s opposition to the regime. She became close friends with dissident attorneys Bram Fischer and George Bizos, who defended Nelson Mandela at his treason trial in 1962.

Nelson Mandela and Nadine Gordimer sing the National Liberation Anthem at the Ghandi Memorial in Johannesburg, 1993. (© Louise Gubb/CORBIS SABA)
1993: Nobel laureates Nelson Mandela and Nadine Gordimer sing the National Liberation Anthem at the Ghandi Memorial. Gordimer joined the African National Congress during the days when the organization was banned and “gave Nelson Mandela advise on his famous 1964 defence speech at the trial which led to his conviction for life.”

One of Gordimer’s best early novels, A World of Strangers (1958), was banned by the South African government, but her work continued to attract attention outside South Africa, and in 1961 she received the W. H. Smith Commonwealth Literary Award, the first of many international honors. Despite an increasingly hostile political environment, Gordimer continued to challenge the strictures of apartheid in her work. Her 1963 novel Occasion for Loving portrayed a white woman in love with a black man, while actual interracial relationships were forbidden by law. A Guest of Honour (1971) won praise throughout the English-speaking world, and received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. In 1974 she published The Conservationist. Hailed as a masterpiece, it was awarded the Booker Prize, the highest literary honor of the United Kingdom.

Nadine Gordimer in Paris, France, 1993. (Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)
1993: Gordimer was the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature and was recognized as a woman “who through her magnificent epic writing has — in the words of Alfred Nobel — been a very great benefit to humanity.” (Getty)

As the armed conflict between the African National Congress (ANC) and the National Party government intensified in the 1970s, Gordimer traveled frequently to lecture at universities in the United States, but she refused all offers to settle permanently outside her own country. She joined the banned ANC and at times hid its fugitive leaders in her home. In 1976, her novel The Late Bourgeois World was banned by the South African government. She was censored again when the government banned her 1979 novel, Burger’s Daughter. Partly inspired by her friendship with Bram Fischer, it tells the story of the daughter of a left-wing activist who must deal with her parents’ radical legacy. Rather than accepting the ban, Gordimer published a pamphlet protesting the censorship, What Happened to Burger’s Daughter. The government soon lifted the ban on Burger’s Daughter, but Gordimer’s troubles with the censors were far from over.

In 2007, Nadine Gordimer published a new collection of her short fiction, Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black and Other Stories.
2007: Nadine Gordimer’s new collection of short fiction, Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black and Other Stories.

In her next novel, July’s People (1981), Gordimer imagined a post-apartheid future in which a violent black-led revolution has driven many whites into hiding. The title refers to a servant, July, who hides his former employers in his native village, where they gradually learn to accept second-class status. This novel too was banned, but white South Africans continued to read Gordimer’s work covertly. For them, as for readers around the world, her books had exposed the absurdities and injustice of apartheid. By the end of the 1980s, a critical mass of South Africans had finally concluded that the system could not continue.

Nadine Gordimer between symposium sessions at La Residence in Franschhoek Valley during the 2009 International Achievement Summit in South Africa. (© Academy of Achievement)
Nadine Gordimer speaks to a table of Academy student delegates between symposium sessions at La Residence in Franschhoek Valley during the 2009 International Achievement Summit in South Africa. (Academy of Achievement)

The year 1990 proved to be the long-awaited turning point in South Africa’s history. The government recognized the African National Congress as a legal opposition party and soon thereafter began negotiations for the transition to a multiracial democracy. When ANC leader Nelson Mandela was released from prison, Nadine Gordimer was one of the first people he asked to see. The same year, it was announced that she would receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. In selecting her for the award, the Swedish Academy praised the “intense immediacy” of her work in portraying “extremely complicated personal and social relationships.” Her work, it was said, exemplified the concept of literature’s “benefit to humanity” that Alfred Nobel had envisioned when he created the prize.

Nobel Prize-winning author Nadine Gordimer receives the Golden Plate Award from Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu.

Gordimer’s post-apartheid work continued to explore the difficult issues of a society in transition from a tragic past to an uncertain future, as well as the sorrows of her own personal experience. Her 1998 book, The House Gun, dealt with the increasing level of violent crime in a newly free South Africa.

The American Academy of Achievement’s Class of 2009, including Nadine Gordimer, South African cabinet minister Barbara Hogan, and author Alexander McCall Smith, after receiving their Gold Medals from Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town during the International Achievement Summit in South Africa.

In 2001, her husband of 47 years, Reinhold Cassirer, died after a long illness. Themes of personal bereavement animated her novel Get a Life, published in 2005. Her nonfiction writings on history, politics and literature have been collected in volumes such as The Black Interpreters (on African writers), The Essential Gesture, Writing and Being and Living in Hope and History.

The Academy of Achievement's Class of 2009 receive their Gold Medals.
Nadine Gordimer joins the other 2009 Golden Plate awardees after receiving their Academy of Achievement Gold Medals from Council member Archbishop Desmond Tutu at a ceremony at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town.

Gordimer’s Nobel Prize not only recognized the achievement of her novels, but her mastery of the short story. Over her lifetime, she published 16 separate volumes of short stories, ending with Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black in 2007. A two-volume collection of her stories from 1950 to 1972 appeared in 1992, followed by a final collection, Life Times, drawn from her entire career. Her 15th and final novel, No Time Like the Present, appeared in 2012. Nadine Gordimer died in 2014 at the age of 90.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 2009

In her exquisitely crafted short stories, and novels such as The Conservationist, Burger’s Daughter and July’s People, Nadine Gordimer explored the distortions imposed on ordinary human relationships by oppressive social systems like that of apartheid in her own South Africa.

Her fiction was repeatedly banned by the South African government, but in the pages of her books, readers around the world experienced the reality of a society built on injustice. While her work behind the scenes for the freedom struggle remained unknown for many years, her published writings made her the literary conscience of South Africa.

With the coming of multiracial democracy to South Africa, Nadine Gordimer applied her imagination and formidable powers of observation to a new reality, exploring the legacy of her country’s tragic past and the ironies and contradictions of its dynamic future. In 1991, her life achievement was recognized with the Nobel Prize in Literature.

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Your novel Burger’s Daughter portrays a family deeply involved in the liberation struggle in South Africa. How did you come to write it?

Nadine Gordimer: I knew many activist families.  And I began to see — I was still fairly young myself, my children were small — that if you were the child of such families, and I can think at once of two or three, you were brought up in an atmosphere where the struggle came first, and you as a child — a young boy or girl — you came second.  And indeed you were groomed, so to speak, politically groomed into the struggle.  And I wondered and wondered, knowing many of them, how they felt about it.  So how shall I put it? I put myself into that position to see, and that’s how it came about.  I also waited a long time to do it, because I thought, I am not in this.  I’m neither a parent nor a child. I’m waiting for somebody to write it who would know more about it than I did.  Nobody did, so I did.  And it’s only later that some of those children who were part of that grew up and wrote it.  But I did it in the way I’ve described.

Did you ask any of these people to read Burger’s Daughter before it was published?

Nadine Gordimer: I never asked anybody. I never have and still don’t. I’ve written all my books, the main part, in this house, and my husband was extraordinary. He never asked to see what I was writing. It was not part of our intimacy. He was the first person to read the book when I finished it, but he never saw a word and I never talked about it to anybody while it was being written. That’s just the way I worked.

We’ve read that you were actually waiting to visit a friend in prison when you first had the idea.

Nadine Gordimer: Yes, yes, that’s true. I was going to see Bettie du Toit. And there were some other people, some young and others older, with their clean clothes or whatever it was.

Was there a particular young girl you saw there?

Nadine Gordimer: Yes, there were several young girls. I really don’t want to talk about it because that’s my business. I don’t go further.

Two recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Nadine Gordimer of South Africa, and Nigeria's Wole Soyinka, at the 2009 International Achievement Summit. (© Academy of Achievement)
Recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature: Nadine Gordimer of South Africa, and Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka, during the Academy of Achievement’s introductory reception at 2009 International Achievement Summit in South Africa.

Burger’s Daughter was banned by the South African government. Could you tell us about your experience with censorship?

Nadine Gordimer: I had three books banned, and an anthology I put together of poetry by black writers.

Did you anticipate that certain books of yours were going to be banned?

I knew Burger’s Daughter would be banned because I even put in it — the movement sometimes scattered little pamphlets in the street, you know, which were swept up. But I always picked these things up, and I think I put one almost in its entirety in the book, so that would be enough for it to be banned. What else could you do? If you are a writer you must write what you see, and what you know, and what you’ve come to know, and what’s happening around you.

Were you ever given a reason for any of your books being banned?

Nadine Gordimer: Yes, indeed.

Keys to success — Courage

I did something that nobody else had done, because I figured — which book of mine? I think it was, it might have been The Late Bourgeois World. Or was it Burger’s Daughter? No. I then asked the censorship board the reasons. And of course I consulted with my lawyer friends whether I was entitled to this, and indeed it turned out that within, I don’t know, two weeks or something of the banning order, you could apply. But if it was any later… So I did it very quickly and I got the opinions of these people on why the book was banned. And indeed then, I had a friend at the University of Witwatersrand, an Afrikaans lecturer there, but he and other friends were doing a little secret kind of little publishing venture of anti-apartheid literature. And to do this as an Afrikaner was not easy, believe me, even less easy than for the rest of us, and we talked about it and they agreed — I think he may have even suggested it — that I should write what happened in court, which I did, and there’s this little booklet, which is called What Happened to Burger’s Daughter. So it was Burger’s Daughter, yes. And it was then printed. They did it, and it was given to book shops to give away free to people who bought books there. So it was the only way of distributing it.

And I’m so glad that we did that and indeed, asking them for their reasons. You want to be read, and you want to be read by your own people, right? I was writing in a world language, and my books were published in England and America and all over the place, but my own people couldn’t read the book, except those who smuggled it in, in the covers of fairy stories or something.

How were you notified that your book would be banned?

Nadine Gordimer: Well, you’re not notified. It just gets gazetted. It was in the government gazette. And then you make an appeal to the board. I hardly knew that the appeal existed, but my lawyer friends knew about it. There was this cut-off point so I hurriedly made the appeal in a letter of course, yes.

What was the impetus for making the appeal, just frustration?

Nadine Gordimer: Oh, no.

Keys to success — Perseverance

We felt, “Who are these people who are banning our books?” And remember, I had got the reasons, yes, and one of the reasons was that a child is going around a church and there were pictures. You might have remembered if you read the book, there’s an unusual Christ on the cross, and here he was dark, dark hair or something.  And the child said, “No, that’s not Jesus. Jesus has got blond hair,” and so on.  And so the parents who were taking her around said, “You know, this was in the Middle East, and it’s very likely indeed that he was very dark.  So not blue-eyed and blond at all.”  And this was blasphemous. For God’s sake!  Or in any of the gods’!

So Burger’s Daughter was banned for blasphemy, of all things.

Nadine Gordimer: Yes. That’s why the book that we put together was called What Happened to Burger’s Daughter, which means that was what happened to it. It had gotten banned, and the reasons for the banning were for everybody to read, which nobody had read for anybody’s book before. They just were thrown away. I think then that my friend André Brink was inspired, as you would say, to do the same with a book of his that was banned.

Nadine Gordimer addresses the 2009 International Achievement Summit symposium in Cape Town, South Africa.

You mentioned that people in America, England and other countries were able to read your books, even when they were banned in your own country. Are you conscious of writing for a particular audience?

Nadine Gordimer: No, no. I write for anybody who reads me.

Do readers ever tell you about things that they’ve found in your books? Does that ever influence your writing?

Nadine Gordimer: No. They tell me sometimes, but it doesn’t influence my writing.

Do you think a writer has a responsibility to push cultural limits, in a given country, or in a given era?

Nadine Gordimer: I’m looking more from the point of view of justice in the country, rather than the cultural side, but I suppose it all comes into it.

Keys to success — Integrity

Albert Camus, who is one of the great writers that did mean a tremendous amount to me and still do — unfortunately dead as you know — he said, and this is engraved somewhere in me, “The day that I am no more than a writer, I shall no longer write.”  Because you can’t just live in an ivory tower.  This doesn’t mean to say that you write propaganda.  That’s a task for people directly in politics.  And indeed, for a writer to begin to be a propagandist is the death of the talent that that writer has. But you are not only a writer, you are also a human being living among your fellow human beings in your society, in your country.  You’re enclosed by the laws of that country.  You’re enclosed by the morals and attitudes of the people around you.  You have to be in relation to that as well, take your responsibility of being a human being in a human society.