It’s hard for me to imagine a world without Nadine Gordimer. With her death on July 13 at the age of 90, a towering moral presence has been lost. Though physically small in stature, she cast a long shadow — stern, fierce, endowed with an unflinching humanism. The depth and scope of her literary achievements coupled with her commitment to a more just society in South Africa earned her a Nobel Prize for literature in 1991, the first ever awarded to a South African.
She began reading and writing at an early age, turning to books for companionship after her mother took her out of school because she was found to have a rapid heartbeat as a result of an over-active thyroid gland. Her isolated childhood proved to be fertile ground for her imagination. By 15, her first short story, “The Quest for Seen Gold,” written for children, was published. Not much later, she began writing for adults, and published short stories in The New Yorker and other leading literary journals. Her first novel, “The Lying Days,” was published in 1953. From there, her career steadily grew, an impressive list of novels, short fiction collections, essay collections, plays, adaptations and other written works penned over seven decades. In all her works, she grappled, in one way or another, with the iniquities of the apartheid system and the crippling effects of racial discrimination on both the oppressed and the oppressor. Several of her novels — “The Late Bourgeois World,” “A World of Strangers,” “Burger’s Daughter” —– were banned. Never once, did she perceive herself as brave. She just got on with the job of being a writer, with vision and unswerving determination. In a 1987 interview, she had this to say, “Banning doesn’t hang over my head as I write. You get lost in the work. Thinking comes later…”
Despite its banning, “Burger’s Daughter” made its way to Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island, the island prison where he was incarcerated for 27 years. Mandela read the novel and sent Gordimer a “letter of deep, understanding acceptance about the book.” In his autobiography, Mandela wrote that Gordimer had taught him about “white liberal sensibility.” Upon his release, he requested to meet her and they stayed in touch for years.
In addition to winning the Nobel, she won many other awards, including the Booker Prize, the W.H. Smith Commonwealth Literary Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Rome Prize and the CNA Prize. She garnered at least 15 honorary degrees, was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, an Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and an “Officier de la Légion d’honneur” in France, among many other accolades. The list of her extraordinary achievements is long.
But what has Nadine Gordimer meant to me? Like her, I was born in South Africa to Jewish parents of Lithuanian extraction. Coming of age a generation later, I cut my teeth on her books. When I left South Africa for the U.S. at the age of 21, I bought “Burger’s Daughter” in a London bookshop and read it voraciously. Unlike Rosa, the main character, whose father was an anti-apartheid activist, mine was not. He was a country doctor who treated patients of all races and was as comfortable speaking Afrikaans as he was speaking English.
Still, as I struggled to understand my past and begin a new life in a new country, Rosa’s attempts to come to terms with what it meant to be Burger’s daughter, and her reactions to being away from home, in France, hit a nerve. These words will stay with me forever: “If I’d been black that would at least have given the information I was from Africa. Even at a three-hundred-year remove, a black American. But nobody could see me, there, for what I am back where I come from.” Perhaps this is what Mandela meant when he told Gordimer that through this book he understand “white liberal sensibility,” that whites like Burger and his daughter, Rosa, could feel as deeply connected to their country as my father did, and as I do.
Like Gordimer, I became a novelist but chose to write about South Africa from afar, beginning my serious writing career in 1994, after I voted for Nelson Mandela at a polling place for ex-pats that was set up on the lawn of the United Nations Plaza, in South Africa’s first democratic elections.
This is just one example of the myriad ways Gordimer’s words have shaped me. In a Paris Review interview, she talks of writers she admires, “At different times in my life I’ve — liked is not the word — I’ve been psychologically dependent upon different writers. Some have remained influential in my life and some haven’t…”
Over the years, I have been psychologically dependent on Gordimer. She has been a constant in my pantheon of writers, the invisible mentors who guide me when I sit down to work. Her unerring dedication to her craft and to describing political realities peopled with psychologically nuanced characters epitomizes what it takes to inhabit a writer’s life. Just below the surface, her sense of herself as a Jew has shimmered. A professed atheist, she identified as being Jewish through birth — “A Jew forever” without having any religious belief. In 2005, she told Haaretz that being Jewish is like being black, “It’s something inside you, in your blood and in your bones.” Although not always the thrust of the main story, Jewish characters and themes appear in many of her novels, a powerful minor chord in the saga of South Africa.
At the conclusion of her Paris Review interview, summing up her thoughts about what a novel or any story ought to be, she quotes Kafka, who said, “A book ought to be an ax to break up the frozen sea within us.” With her passing, that sea is a little more frozen. Those of us left behind will have to work harder, inspired by her great influence, to break the ice.
Anne Landsman, who lives in New York City, is the award-winning author of the novels “The Devil’s Chimney” and “The Rowing Lesson.”