Nadine Gordimer: Biography, Short Stories & Books

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  • 0:03 Early Life
  • 1:18 Activism
  • 2:51 Distinguished Writing Career
  • 4:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Susan Nagelsen

Susan has directed the writing program in undergraduate colleges, taught in the writing and English departments, and criminal justice departments.

Nadine Gordimer was a South African author and political activist who received many awards for her books and short stories. Learn about the life and writing of this outspoken woman who wrote tirelessly about the effects of apartheid in South Africa.

Early Life

Nadine Gordimer was born in 1923 in the small mining town of Springs outside Johannesburg, South Africa, during the time of apartheid, which was racial segregation mandated by law in South Africa. From an early age she saw black people marginalized and treated poorly by the whites, and watched as the rights of the blacks were continually eroded while those of the whites grew stronger and stronger. She witnessed discrimination personally as a young girl when her family home was raided by the police, who took letters and diaries from a servant's room.

She began her writing career at the age of nine, and when she was fifteen her first short story, a story for children titled, 'The Quest for Seen Gold' was published in Children's Sunday Express. Her first short story for adults was also published when she was 15, in Forum, a Johannesburg magazine that appealed to the more liberal-minded South Africans.

Although Nadine spent some of her youth at a convent school, most of her education took place at home with tutors. This made her feel isolated, so she turned to books for comfort and friendship. Gordimer spent one year at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, but she never received a degree. In 1949, while taking classes at the university, her first collection of short stories, Face to Face was published.

Activism

When her best friend Bettie du Toit was arrested and 69 blacks were killed during the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, Gordimer threw herself into the movement to stop apartheid. Nelson Mandela, while in prison, read all of her books that were not banned, and he believed the underclass in South Africa were well represented by her powerful voice. She was friends with Nelson Mandela's defense attorneys and helped to edit Mandela's famous speech, 'I Am Prepared to Die.' This was the speech he gave when he was a defendant at his trial. When Mandela was finally released, he wanted to see her as soon as possible.

Gordimer joined the African National Congress, or ANC, believing it was the best chance of reversing South Africa's policy on racial segregation. She hid ANC members in her home to keep the government from arresting them. She said that her greatest moment of pride was when she testified on behalf of anti-apartheid activists at the 1986 Delmas Treason Trial.

Gordimer was also determined to take a stand against censorship, and she refused to let the government-owned South African Broadcasting System use her work. Her voice for change was loud and her actions were strong and consistent. She was an original member of the Congress of South African Writers and served as vice-president of PEN International.

Once apartheid was put to rest, Gordimer found other issues that needed her voice and attention. The HIV/AIDS movement in the 1990s and later years got her full support. In 2004 she gathered a group of twenty major writers to put together a collection of short stories entitled Telling Tales, which was used to raise money for the HIV/AIDS campaign.

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