Biography of Nadine Gordimer

Nadine Gordimer (20 November 1923 – 13 July 2014) was a South African writer, Nobel Prize winner, and an outspoken anti-apartheid activist. She was born in Springs, South Africa to Jewish immigrant parents. Her father was from Latvia and her mother from England. Her father had been a refugee from tsarist Russia. Though he was not notably sympathetic to the black struggle under apartheid in South Africa, his experience of displacement influenced Gordimer's politics. Gordimer’s mother, however, was sympathetic to the black struggle, particularly on the issues of poverty and discrimination. She opened a day care for black children. Due to her mother’s activism, her family home was raided by the police. Gordimer went to a Catholic convent school, but her mother kept her home for extended periods due to an unfounded fear of Gordimer’s weak heart. It was in her home-bound social isolation that Gordimer began to write, publishing her first stories in 1937 at the age of 15. Her first published work was a short story for children, "The Quest for Seen Gold," which appeared in the Children's Sunday Express in 1937; "Come Again Tomorrow," another children's story, appeared in Forum around the same time.

During her studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, she mixed for the first time with people of color and partook in the Sophiatown renaissance—a thriving period for music and culture in the poor black neighborhood of Johannesburg. She dropped out of university after one year, but stayed in Johannesburg and there continued to write and publish, becoming a prominent literary figure. Her story "A Watcher of the Dead" was published in the New Yorker in 1951, marking the beginning of her international reception. Gordimer’s first novel, The Lying Days, was published in 1953.

In 1949 Gordimer married a Johannesburg dentist, Gerald Gavron. They had a daughter, Oriane, the following year. They divorced in 1952 and in 1954, she married Reinhold Cassirer, an art dealer who established the South African Sotheby's and ran galleries in South Africa. They had one son, Hugo. Gordimer remained with Cassirer until his death in 2001.

In 1960 Gordimer’s best friend, Bettie du Toit, was arrested during the Sharpeville massacre uprising. This event initiated Gordimer's participation in the anti-apartheid movement. She became active in South African politics after this, and was close with Nelson Mandela's defense attorneys (Bram Fischer and George Bizos) during his 1962 trial. She edited Mandela’s famous speech "I Am Prepared to Die," given from the defendant's dock at the trial. When Mandela was released from prison in 1990, he immediately visited her.

During the 1960s and 1970s, she taught for short periods at various universities in the United States, though Johannesburg remained her residence. She began to achieve international literary recognition, receiving the Commonwealth Award 1961. Apartheid became the central issue of Gordimer’s political thought and writing during this period; she demanded that South Africa examine itself.

Many of her works were banned in South Africa during this time and through the 1980’s. The Late Bourgeois World was banned in 1976 for a decade. A World of Strangers was banned for twelve years. Other works were censored for lesser amounts of time. Burger's Daughter, published in June 1979, was banned one month later. July's People was banned during the apartheid period, but also faced censorship under the post-apartheid government, being removed in 2001 from school reading lists. Unlike its previous censorship, it was now described as being racist.

Gordimer joined the African National Congress when it was an illegal organization. Though she was critical of some of the ANC’s policies, she saw it as the best option for leading black citizens to self-determination. She used her home as a safe house for ANC leaders escaping persecution. She testified at the 1986 Delmas Treason Trial on behalf of 22 South African anti-apartheid activists.

She continued to win international awards for her work, receiving the Booker Prize for The Conservationist in 1974. In 1991, she won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Along with her resistance to apartheid, Gordimer spoke out loudly against censorship and state control of information. She served in South Africa's Anti-Censorship Action Group. She was a founding member of the Congress of South African Writers and became Vice President of PEN International. In the 1990's and 2000’s, she became active in the HIV/AIDS prevention movement.

She remained outspoken and politically engaged until her death on July 13, 2014. She died in her sleep. She was 90 years old.


Study Guides on Works by Nadine Gordimer

July's People, published in 1981 by Nadine Gordimer, is set during a counterfactual revolutionary civil war in South Africa, in which black South Africans rise up and overthrow their white oppressors, with the aid of neighboring African nations....

Nadine Gordimer once again tackled the issue of Apartheid in South Africa through metaphor and symbolism in her short story “Once Upon a Time.” First published in a shorter version in 1988 in the Weekly Mail, the standard full length tale appeared...