by SANDY ENGLISH
“Sailors gag on stinking meat, children refuse to go to school. No one knows where the end of suffering will begin.” – Burger’s Daughter
South African writer Nadine Gordimer, winner of the 1991 Nobel Prize for Literature, died on July 13 at the age of 90. She was a remarkable figure in many ways and a writer whose works, created under the police repression and state surveillance of the apartheid regime, conveyed to readers an indelible hatred of oppression and injustice.
Gordimer was born into a middle-class Jewish household in 1923. Her father had emigrated from Lithuania and opened up a watch repair shop in a gold-mining town near the capital of Johannesburg. Her mother was born in London and emigrated to South Africa with her family.
Nadine’s upbringing was secular, and there appears to have been liberal dissent in the household about the conditions for blacks in South Africa, especially on the part of her mother, who founded a nursery school for black children. Gordimer later remarked that her father had “whole Jewish pogrom syndrome,” and this too may have played a role in her opposition to the oppression she saw around her as she grew up. She was to write movingly about the plight of Jews under tsarist rule.
Because her mother suspected (wrongly) that her daughter had a heart condition, Gordimer was educated in a convent and by private tutors, and kept away from physical exertion of any kind. As a result, she read voluminously, and published her first fiction as a teenager. She attended the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg for a year, during which time she first met and socialized with blacks. This “was more or less the beginning of my political consciousness,” she told an interviewer many years later.
In 1949, her short-story collection Face to Face was published, and her first novel, The Lying Days, an examination of her own upbringing, appeared in 1953. She achieved international prominence early on with the publication of her short stories in the New Yorker magazine.
The postwar period was a time of intensifying social and political crisis in South Africa. Racial segregation and the disenfranchisement of blacks and other non-whites became codified as apartheid in 1948 under the National Party government. The apartheid regime successfully bid, with US support, to become a bulwark of anti-communism on the African content.
In 1960 the arrest of a close friend and the Sharpeville massacre, in which police killed 69 blacks during a mass protest against the discriminatory pass system, prompted Gordimer to draw closer to the banned African National Congress (ANC).
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