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Tue, 11.20.1923

Nadine Gordimer, Activist, and Author born

Nadine Gordimer

*Nadine Gordimer was born on this date in 1923. She was a white-South African Jewish author and activist.

She was born near Springs, Gauteng (an East Rand mining town), outside Johannesburg.  Her father, Isidore Gordimer, was a Jewish immigrant watchmaker from Latvia, and her mother, Hannah "Nan" (Myers) Gordimer, was from London, England. Her parents partly shaped her early interest in racial and economic inequality in South Africa. Gordimer witnessed government repression firsthand as a teenager; the police raided her family home, confiscating letters and diaries from a servant's room.

Gordimer was educated at a Catholic convent school, began writing at age 9, and kept writing well into her 80s. She said her first "adult story," published in a literary magazine when she was 15, grew out of her reaction as a young child to watch the casual humiliation of Blacks. She recalled blacks being barred from touching clothes before buying in shops in her hometown and police searching the maid's quarters at the Gordimer home for alcohol, which blacks were not allowed to possess.

Her father's experience as a refugee in tsarist Russia helped form her political identity, but he was not an activist toward the experiences of Black Africans under apartheid.  Also, Gordimer saw activism from her mother, whose concern about the poverty and discrimination faced by Black people in South Africa ostensibly led her to found a daycare for Black children.

Gordimer's first novel, "The Lying Days," appeared in 1953. In 1954, she married Reinhold Cassirer, a highly respected art dealer who established the South African Sotheby's and later ran his gallery; their marriage lasted until his death from emphysema in 2001. It was her second marriage and his third. Their son, Hugo, was born in 1955 and is today a filmmaker in New York, with whom Gordimer collaborated on at least two documentaries. Gordimer also had a daughter, Oriane (born 1950), by her first marriage 1949 to Gerald Gavron, a local dentist; they were divorced within three years.

She won the Booker Prize in 1974 for "The Conservationist," a novel about a white South African who loses everything. Among Gordimer's best-known books is "Burger's Daughter," which appeared in 1979, three years after the Soweto student uprising brought the brutality of apartheid to the world's attention. Her 1987 novel, "A Sport of Nature," prophesied the end of apartheid and included a liberation leader based on Mandela.

The Nobel Committee said in awarding the Literature Prize in 1991, "Gordimer wrote with intense immediacy about the extremely complicated personal and social relationships in her environment." In her Nobel acceptance speech, Gordimer said that as a young artist, she agonized that she was cut off from "the world of ideas" by the isolation of apartheid. But she understood "that what we had to do to find the world was first to enter our world. We had to enter through the tragedy of our particular place." After the first all-race election in 1994, Gordimer wrote about the efforts of South Africa's new democracy to grapple with its racist legacy.

She remained politically engaged, praising South Africa for its progress but expressing concern about alleged backsliding on freedom of expression. "People died for our freedoms," Gordimer, who had had works banned by the apartheid government, told The Associated Press in a 2010 interview. "People spent years and years in prison, from the great Nelson Mandela down through many others." According to the family, Gordimer wrote 15 novels and several volumes of short stories, non-fiction, and other works and was published in 40 languages worldwide.

Her novels explored the complex relationships and human cost of racial conflict in apartheid-era South Africa; she died peacefully in her sleep at her home in Johannesburg on July 13, 2014. She was 90 years old. Her son Hugo and daughter Oriane were with her at the time. South Africa's ruling party, the African National Congress, said, "Our country has lost an unmatched literary giant whose life's work was our mirror and an unending quest for humanity."

To be a Writer


Associated Press reporter Malin Rising contributed to this report from Stockholm.

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