Gordimer, Nadine

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Gordimer, Nadine

Gordimer, Nadine (1923- ) South African fiction writer

A freedom fighter for native civil rights, Nadine Gordimer won the 1991 Nobel Prize in literature for a collection of humanitarian writings that three times incurred authoritarian censorship. Born of Lithuanian-Jewish and English parentage in Springs, Transvaal, a mining hamlet on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa, Gordimer gained a perspective on the “otherness” fostered by imperialism from her father, Isidore Gordimer, a jeweler and watchmaker who left Lithuania in a self-imposed exile from the Russian Empire. Self-educated, she read the fiction of Russian authors Anton Chekhov and FYODOR DOSTOYEVSKY. After two semesters at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, she advanced from juvenilia to publishing stories in the Guardian, New Statesman, New Yorker, and New York Times. Between 1961 and 1991, Gordimer won international regard for her denunciation of British depersonalization of blacks and of post-colonial obstacles to free speech and civil rights in South Africa.

Gordimer began examining motivations for activism with an autobiographical novel, The Lying Days (1953), a forerunner of her antiapartheid novel Burger’s Daughter (1979), which captures the explosive emotions of the Soweto uprising, a series of riots of blacks in 1976. A decade later, she challenged the legality of antimiscegenation laws with Occasion for Loving (1963). Her regard for Zulu culture undergirds The Conservationist (1974), a Booker Prize winner that critics compare to OLIVE SCHREINER’S settler novel The Story of an African Farm (1883). Gordimer’s work expanded from village pettiness to compassion for the alien, the subject of The Pickup (2002). By placing South African cosmopolite Julie Summers in a bicultural relationship with Abdu-Ibrahim ibn Musa, an Afro- Arab immigrant, and resettling the couple in his unspecified homeland, the narrative examines from opposing angles the dilemmas and choices of a woman who experiences displacement.

Gordimer gripped readers’ attention with her reversal of ethnic and cultural roles. The conflict in July’s People (1981), a novel on human interdependence, prophesies the ultimate end to racism reminiscent of colonial times and the debunking of a master-servant relationship, symbolized by the possession of car keys. By following a white family to the village of the title character and examining their verbal exchanges, Gordimer replaces white pride with reliance on a petty chief for shelter. Maureen Smales, the white female protagonist, accepts the reversal of roles in appealing to a black authority figure: “It’s a question of courtesy, apparently. I don’t think there’s anything sinister. Paying respects to the chief—” (Gordimer 1982, 102). Her hesitance stimulates a shift in white perspective from their position as a privileged ethnic group to respect for a different race. Like her contemporary novelist Doris Lessing, Gordimer dramatized anticolonial struggle as a crusade for national identity.


Barnard, Rita. Apartheid and Beyond: South African Writers and the Politics of Place. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Gordimer, Nadine. Burger’s Daughter. London: Penguin, 1980.

------- . July’s People. London: Penguin, 1982. . The Pickup. London: Penguin, 2002.

Yelin, Rouise. From the Margins of Empire. Ithaca, N.Y.:

Cornell University Press, 1998.