I was lucky enough to grow up in a part of the world with some extraordinary men and women around: writers, political activists, thinkers. For decades I looked up to two women who inspired and challenged me in so many ways. They seemed indestructible and part of me believed they would go on forever. Doris Lessing and Nadine Gordimer, women I read through the dark long years when Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on the island we could see from signal Hill or Table Mountain, the small rocky island of Robben Island out in the bay.
When Doris Lessing died, it was not unexpected, but I couldn’t quite believe it. Then Nelson Mandela too was dead, the country and beyond us, the world, immersed in grieving and gratitude.
And the Nobel prize-winning novelist and anti-apartheid activist Nadine Gordimer died in Johannesburg on Sunday, aged 90. Not unexpected, but a shock all the same.
Nadine Gordimer was born in a scruffy small mining town named Springs in 1923. Her parents were Lithuanian Jewish immigrants. She would study at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1945 and marry a refugee art dealer from Nazi Germany.
And in 1948 the Afrikaner Nationalist party came into power and established apartheid as official state policy. Black people could not own land or property, could not live or work in certain areas, could not vote. And much, much more. Gordimer began to write about the everyday racism and hatred underlying the peaceful sunny veneer of South Africa. She would go on writing about this until apartheid ended. And after that she would write about other forms of human injustice and intrigue.
I found a book written by Nadine Gordimer, The Lying Days, and began reading it when I was at school in Zimbabwe. I wrote a book report on it and was sent to the headmistress to be given a detention punishment and the book was confiscated. Nadine Gordimer’s books were Communist and unChristian, I was told.Regardless, I went on searching for more of her stories and novels, not from teenage defiance but because I found a truthfulness there that meant a great deal to me. Like Doris Lessing, the works of Nadine Gordimer were banned for many years and I read illicit copies hidden at the back of the bookcase, ordered books from overseas because they were not sold locally. What does it do to a writer when book after book is banned and ignored? Gordimer, indomitable, courageous, obstinate, just kept on writing. In a time when so many authors talk so much about sales and self-promotion, when certain groups talk so lightly of banning books, it is humbling to remember that courage and persistence.
Three of Ms. Gordimer’s books were banned in her own country at some point during the apartheid era — 1948 to 1994 — starting with her second novel, “A World of Strangers,” published in 1958. It concerns a young British man, newly arrived in South Africa, who discovers two distinct social planes that he cannot bridge: one in the black townships, to which one group of friends is relegated; the other in the white world of privilege, enjoyed by a handful of others he knows.
“A World of Strangers” was banned for 12 years and another novel, “The Late Bourgeois World” (1966), for 10: long enough to be fatal to most books, Ms. Gordimer noted. “The Late Bourgeois World” deals with a woman who faces a difficult choice when her ex-husband, a traitor to the anti-apartheid resistance, commits suicide.
The third banned novel was one of her best known, “Burger’s Daughter,” the story of the child of a family of revolutionaries who seeks her own way after her father becomes a martyr to the cause. It was unavailable in South Africa for only months rather than years after it was published in 1979, in part because by then its author was internationally known.
Gordimer: ‘Truth isn’t always beauty, but the hunger for it is’