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If you like Nadine Gordimer's story, you might also like:
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Nadine Gordimer
Nadine Gordimer
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Nadine Gordimer Biography

Nobel Prize in Literature

Nadine Gordimer Date of birth: November 20, 1923
Date of death: July 13, 2014

Print Nadine Gordimer Biography Print Biography

  Nadine Gordimer

Nadine Gordimer was born in the small gold mining town of Springs, South Africa. Her parents were both immigrants; her mother was born in England, her father in Latvia, then part of the Russian Empire. Although both parents were Jewish by birth, she was raised in a largely secular environment, and educated in part at Catholic girls schools.

Nadine Gordimer Biography Photo
The social hierarchy of a small South African town in the 1930s was both complex and rigid. Recent immigrants from Eastern Europe, like Gordimer's father, Isidore, occupied a stratum below that of the earlier English settlers and the white Afrikaners, mostly descendants of Dutch, French and German colonists. The black Africans who worked the town's gold mines were the most disadvantaged, denied access to all public facilities. Gordimer's father, who had experienced religious discrimination as a Jew in Tsarist Russia, accepted the system as he found it, but her mother Nan bristled at the injustice of the South African order, and founded a daycare center for the children of black workers in the town. The brutal reality of the system was fully impressed on young Nadine when local police raided the family home, ostensibly because they suspected the family's black housekeeper of brewing beer illegally. The incident would later form the basis of one of Gordimer's first published stories.

Although she showed an early enthusiasm for writing, Nadine Gordimer also enjoyed a youthful passion for dance. A brief illness of Nadine's frightened her mother so severely that she withdrew the child from dance classes and then from school altogether. From then on she was educated at home. In the midst of this solitary existence, with few friends and no literary life, she found a world of adventure and ideas in reading. She began to write fiction of her own, and published her first story in the children's section of the local paper. At 15, she published for the first time in a journal for adult readers.

Nadine Gordimer Biography Photo
With little formal education, she schooled herself by studying the masters of European fiction; Proust, Chekhov and Dostoyevsky were powerful role models, and she studied their work closely. She briefly attended the University of Witwatersrand, where she made the acquaintance of educated young black Africans for the first time. She came to know may of the young black artists and writers who gathered in the Johannesburg neighborhood known as Sophiatown.

Gordimer left college without a degree and settled in Johannesburg in 1948. That same year, the National Party, dominated by the white Afrikaners, won a national election and began to institute its policy of apartheid, mandating absolute separation of the races. Sophiatown and other neighborhoods were demolished, to remove black Africans and replace them with white residents. In Johannesburg, Gordimer formed a deep friendship with the labor activist Bettie du Toit, who had a powerful influence on her political thinking and her increasing opposition to the white supremacist government.

Gordimer's first short story collection, Face to Face, appeared in 1949. It was quickly followed by two more collections, Town and Country Lovers and The Soft Voice of the Serpent. Gordimer's writing began to attract attention outside her own country in 1951, when her stories began appearing in The New Yorker magazine. Her first novel, The Lying Days, appeared in 1953. It may be her most autobiographical work, describing the political awakening of a young woman growing up in Gordimer's home town, Springs.

Nadine Gordimer Biography Photo
A brief first marriage resulted in the birth of a daughter, Oriane, in 1950. In 1954, Gordimer married Reinhold Cassirer, an art dealer who had come to South Africa as a refugee from Nazi Germany. This union lasted until his death in 2001. Gordimer and Cassirer's son Hugo was born in 1955. In the early 1960s, the South African government stepped up its repressive measures against black Africans and against all critics of the regime, black and white. The arrest and imprisonment of Bettie du Toit in 1960, and the bloody Sharpeville Massacre of black protesters, further fueled Gordimer's opposition to the regime. She became close friends with dissident attorneys Bram Fischer and George Bizos, who defended Nelson Mandela at his treason trial in 1962.

One of Gordimer's best early novels, A World of Strangers (1958), was banned by the South African government, but her work continued to attract attention outside South Africa, and in 1961 she received the W.H. Smith Commonwealth Literary Award, the first of many international honors. Despite an increasingly hostile political environment, Gordimer continued to challenge the strictures of apartheid in her work. Her 1963 novel Occasion for Loving portrayed a white woman in love with a black man, while actual interracial relationships were forbidden by law. A Guest of Honour (1971) won praise throughout the English-speaking world, and received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. In 1974 she published The Conservationist. Hailed as a masterpiece, it was awarded the Booker Prize, the highest literary honor of the United Kingdom.

Nadine Gordimer Biography Photo
As the armed conflict between the African National Congress (ANC) and the National Party government intensified in the 1970s, Gordimer traveled frequently to lecture at universities in the United States, but she refused all offers to settle permanently outside her own country. She joined the banned ANC and at times hid its fugitive leaders in her home. In 1976, her novel The Late Bourgeois World was banned by the South African government. She was censored again when the government banned her 1979 novel Burger's Daughter. Partly inspired by her friendship with Bram Fischer, it tells the story of the daughter of a left-wing activist who must deal with her parent's radical legacy. Rather than accepting the ban, Gordimer published a pamphlet protesting the censorship, What Happened to Burger's Daughter. The government soon lifted the ban on Burger's Daughter, but Gordimer's troubles with the censors were far from over.

In her next novel, July's People (1981), Gordimer imagined a post-apartheid future in which a violent black-led revolution has driven many whites into hiding. The title refers to a servant, July, who hides his former employers in his native village, where they gradually learn to accept second-class status. This novel too was banned, but white South Africans continued to read Gordimer's work covertly. For them, as for readers around the world, her books had exposed the absurdities and injustice of apartheid. By the end of the 1980s, a critical mass of South Africans had finally concluded that the system could not continue.

Nadine Gordimer Biography Photo
The year 1990 proved to be the long-awaited turning point in South Africa's history. The government recognized the African National Congress as a legal opposition party and soon thereafter began negotiations for the transition to a multiracial democracy. When ANC leader Nelson Mandela was released from prison, Nadine Gordimer was one of the first people he asked to see. The same year, it was announced that she would receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. In selecting her for the award, the Swedish Academy praised the "intense immediacy" of her work in portraying "extremely complicated personal and social relationships." Her work, it was said, exemplified the concept of literature's "benefit to humanity" that Alfred Nobel had envisioned when he created the Prize.

Nadine Gordimer Biography Photo
Gordimer's post-apartheid work continued to explore the difficult issues of a society in transition from a tragic past to an uncertain future, as well as the sorrows of her own personal experience. Her 1998 book, The House Gun, dealt with the increasing level of violent crime in a newly free South Africa. In 2001, her husband of 47 years, Reinhold Cassirer, died after a long illness. Themes of personal bereavement animated her novel Get a Life, published in 2005. Her nonfiction writings on history, politics and literature have been collected in volumes such as The Black Interpreters (on African writers), The Essential Gesture, Writing and Being and Living in Hope and History.

Gordimer's Nobel Prize not only recognized the achievement of her novels, but her mastery of the short story. Over her lifetime, she published 16 separate volumes of short stories, ending with Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black in 2007. A two-volume collection of her stories from 1950 to 1972 appeared in 1992, followed by a final collection, Life Times, drawn from her entire career. Her 15th and final novel, No Time Like the Present, appeared in 2012. Nadine Gordimer died in 2014 at the age of 90.

This page last revised on Jul 14, 2014 15:06 EDT
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