Nobel laureate who wrote about injustices of apartheid

Nadine Gordimer: November 20th, 1923 - July 13th, 2014

Sat, Jul 19, 2014, 01:00

Nadine Gordimer, who has died in Johannesburg aged 90, was a writer whose literary ambitions led her into the heart of apartheid and brought her a Nobel Prize.

As a young writer, Gordimer did not choose apartheid as her subject, she insisted, but she found it impossible to dig deeply into South African life without striking repression.

“I am not a political person by nature,” she said years later. “I don’t suppose if I had lived elsewhere, my writing would have reflected politics much, if at all.”

Through Gordimer’s novels and stories, international readers learned the human effects of the “colour bar” and the punishing laws that systematically sealed off each avenue of contact between races.

Her books are rich with terror. In her stories the fear of the security forces pounding on the door in the middle of the night is real. Freedom is impossible; even the liberated political prisoner is immediately rearrested after experiencing the briefest illusion of returning to the world. Critics have described the whole of her work as constituting a social history as told through finely drawn portraits of the characters who peopled it.

Banned works She was the author of more than two dozen works of fiction, including novels and collections of short stories in addition to personal and political essays and literary criticism. Many were banned in her own country. Her first book of stories, Face to Face, appeared in 1949, and her first novel, The Lying Days, in 1953. In 2010, she published Telling Times: Writing and Living, 1954-2008, a weighty volume of her collected nonfiction.

Gordimer was never detained or persecuted for her work, though there were always risks to writing openly about repression. One reason may have been her ability to give voice to perspectives far from her own, like those of colonial nationalists who had created and thrived on the system of institutionalised oppression that was named the “grand apartheid” when it became law.

Her ability to slip inside a life completely different took her beyond the borders of white and black to explore other cultures under the boot of apartheid. In the 1983 short story “A Chip of Glass Ruby”, she entered an Indian Muslim household, and in the novel My Son’s Story (1990), she wrote of a mixed-race character. She won the Booker Prize in 1974 for The Conservationist, which had a white male protagonist.

Nadine Gordimer was born to Jewish immigrant parents in Springs, a mining town in a vast, largely rural area now known as Gauteng. Her father, Isidore, was a watchmaker who had been driven by poverty to emigrate from Lithuania.