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Nadine Gordimer: In her own words

2014-07-15 20:00
Following the death of Nadine Gordimer, News24 chronicles the views of the iconic South African writer.

The Nobel Prize winning author wrote 15 novels and countless short stories and works of non-fiction - captivating the world with her tales of apartheid, alienation, exile and love.

But what do we know of her beyond her pages? News24 finds out.

On being Jewish

Though her father was brought up as an orthodox Jew in Latvia, and her English mother was born into an Anglo-Jewish family, Gordimer herself was never given any Jewish education in the family home in South Africa.

According to the Jewish Women’s Archives (JWA) she only learned about Judaism when she studied comparative religion as an adult. She identified with being born a Jew and therefore being  "a Jew forever", but according to the JWA had "no religious belief".  

Gordimer said being Jewish was "something inside you, in your blood and in your bones".

Gordimer’s concern and support for the black struggle had nothing to do with her being Jewish, according to the JWA, as she maintained that a social conscience does not come from being part of a persecuted race.

On being South African

Though Gordimer hated apartheid, she never fled the country and only considered emigrating once - to Zambia.

She said: "Then I discovered the truth, which was that in Zambia I was regarded by black friends as a European, a stranger.

"It is only here that I can be what I am: a white African."

In a statement following her death, Gordimer's family said the author "cared most deeply about South Africa, its culture, its people, and its ongoing struggle to realise its new democracy".

On apartheid and Mandela

Gordimer’s political struggle was sparked by the arrest of her best friend, Bettie du Toit, in 1960 - the year of Sharpeville.

Gordimer met Mandela before his arrest in 1962. They talked about politics - for “what else would we talk about?” she said.

According to the Nobel Prize Organisation, she became close friends with Nelson Mandela’s defence lawyers, Bram Fischer and George Bizos, during his and his colleagues trial.http://www.nobelprize.org/

She fought for Mandela’s freedom and became a leading member of the ANC. Though many of her books were banned by the apartheid regime, they were read widely around the world.

Someone even managed to smuggle a copy of Burger’s Daughter in to Robben Island for Mandela to read. He asked her to visit but she was refused entry.

In an interview with the Academy of Achievement Gordimer said: “You can't just live in an ivory tower. This doesn't mean to say that you write propaganda. That's a task for people directly in politics.

“But you are not only a writer, you are also a human being living among your fellow human beings in your society, in your country. You're enclosed by the laws of that country. You're enclosed by the morals and attitudes of the people around you. You have to be in relation to that as well, take your responsibility of being a human being in a human society.”

On her proudest day

According to the Nobel Prize Organisation, Gordimer said her proudest day was not when she won the Nobel Prize, but when she testified at the Delmas trial in 1986, to save the lives of twenty-two ANC members, all of them accused of treason.

On winning a Nobel Prize

Some 40 years after first publishing her works, in 1991 Gordimer became the first South African to win  the Nobel Prize for Literature - and the first woman to win in 25 years.

It had been a long time coming, with the academy reportedly passing over her many times.  “I had been a possible candidate for so long that I had given up hope,” she said.

She gave a portion of her Nobel Prize winnings to the South African Congress of  Writers  -

of which she was a founding member.

On life after apartheid

Though famed for her damning writings on apartheid, shortly before winning her Nobel prize she told Reuters: “I cannot simply damn apartheid when there is human injustice to be found everywhere else.”

Indeed, in her later years she campaigned for the HIV and Aids movement, fundraising for the Treatment Action Campaign. She brought together twenty award-winning writers in 2003, including Amos Oz, Susan Sontag and Arthur Miller, to publish a collection of short stories.

Telling Tales was launched at the United Nations on the eve of World AIDS Day in 2004 and the proceeds went towards HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment programs in southern Africa.

As Gordimer said, "Life didn't end with apartheid; new life began”.

On the ANC

Gordimer became a member of the ANC before it was legal to do so, and though she was a supporter of Mandela she was never shy of criticising the party.

Only last month she spoke out against a law proposing to limit the publishing of sensitive government information.

She said: "The reintroduction of censorship is unthinkable when you think how people suffered to get rid of censorship in all its forms.”

On her legacy

A decade after the end of apartheid, Gordimer said: “I have failed at many things but I have never been afraid.”

A few years later, in 2009, Gordimer was asked by the Academy of Achievement what she wanted her legacy to be.

She replied: “If I have one, it’s between the pages of books I’ve written”.

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