Nadine Gordimer – novelist, anti-apartheid activist, and the first South African writer to win the Nobel Prize for literature – has died at age 90. Her novels include The Conservationist (which won the Booker Prize in 1974), July’s People, and The House Gun. Like fellow Nobel laureate Alice Munro, Gordimer’s fiction was brought to a much larger audience thanks to ongoing publication in The New Yorker. Her short stories, spanning the years 1952 to 2007, were collected in the 2011 volume Life Times.
Born in a mining town just outside of Johannesburg, to a Latvian father and a secular Jewish mother from London, U.K., Gordimer grew up to be a fervent advocate for human rights and a bitter opponent of South Africa’s apartheid regime. So fierce was her antagonism to the state-sanctioned policy of racial segregation that many of her books were banned in her home country. She became a member of the African National Congress and attended the trial of Nelson Mandela, who would become the writer’s close friend.
Writing in The New Yorker following Mandela’s death in 2013, Gordimer states, “I don’t know how the book [Gordimer’s 1979 novel Burger’s Daughter], which was banned in South Africa when it was published, was smuggled to Mandela in Robben Island Prison. But he, the most exigent reader I could have hoped for, wrote me a letter of deep, understanding acceptance about the book.”
When Gordimer won the Nobel Prize in 1991, she used the occasion to lash out at repressive political regimes and extremists who would stifle the work of writers and artists. She quoted Czeslaw Milosz (“What is poetry that does not serve nations or people?”) and castigated the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, “a brilliant writer” who “has done for the postcolonial consciousness in Europe what Günter Grass did for the post-Nazi one with The Tin Drum and Dog Years.”
Gordimer concluded her Nobel lecture by saying:
The writer is of service to humankind only insofar as the writer uses the word even against his or her own loyalties, trusts the state of being, as it is revealed, to hold somewhere in its complexity filaments of the cord of truth, able to be bound together, here and there, in art: trusts the state of being to yield somewhere fragmentary phrases of truth, which is the final word of words, never changed by our stumbling efforts to spell it out and write it down, never changed by lies, by semantic sophistry, by the dirtying of the word for the purposes of racism, sexism, prejudice, domination, the glorification of destruction, the curses and the praise-songs.
Quoted by BBC News in 2003, Gordimer referred to herself as an atheist, and expressed “envy” for people who believe in the afterlife. “If you love someone and then lose them it would be very nice to think you’re going to meet one day, but I know that this doesn’t happen. To me if you see a dead bird, you know that that’s the end of it.”
Of course, Gordimer lives on in her writing. Speaking to The Paris Review in 1983, Gordimer said, “I don’t think any writer can say why he chooses this or that or how a theme impinges itself. It may have been around for a long time and then a stage comes in your life when your imagination is ready for it and you can deal with it.”
Elsewhere, she summed up her own life view as that of a “realistic optimist.” “I don’t believe in my country, right or wrong. You have the right – and indeed the duty – to be critical. I think that, considering the huge burden from the past, we have done extraordinarily well.”