Once Upon a Time Background

Once Upon a Time Background

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 a year later in America in the journal Salmagundi before Gordimer included it in her 1991 collection, Jump and Other Stories.

As the title implies, Gordimer frames this assault upon the systemic and legislated racist policy of segregation in South Africa at the time in an allusive form that brings to mind many conventions of fairy tales. The story starts out with a section that is almost more akin to prefatory material that an author includes as background to how they came to write the fiction about to be read. While lying in bed one night, the narrator heard strange noises that stirred fear stoked by recently reported cases of criminal behavior in her neighborhood. Finally accepting that the noises are due to the house settling, she decides to tell herself a bedtime story in order to get the sleep.

The bedtime story is told in the conventional style of fairy tales, but it is really a suburban nightmare about South African whites so fearful of the perceived threat of blacks that they take increasingly extreme steps to increase security. The story concludes with the death of a young white boy getting trapped within the razor wire on the border wall while pretending to be Prince Charming.

“Once Upon a Time” became another story that contributed to Gordimer’s esteem outside her own country. While the Apartheid government once again moved to limit access to the story within its borders, Gordimer’s international standing and influence continued to grow. The year that “One Upon a Time” was published in Jump and Other Stories, Nadine Gordimer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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