Sunday, November 20, 2016

Birthday: "There is no moral authority like that of sacrifice."

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Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014)
Author, political activist
Recipient, The Nobel Prize for Literature, 1991

Her parents were Jewish immigrants to South Africa. Her father, whose family had suffered in the tsarist pogroms, was resolutely apolitical. Her mother, whose family had not experienced such things, was an early civil rights advocate who ran a nursery for black children.

Home-schooled, Nadine Gordimer did a year in university, then moved to Johannesburg in 1948. She was a published writer from age fifteen; her short stories found a ready audience. Gordimer believed the short story the ideal form for the times, and produced 22 collections of them over her long career. Her first collection came out in 1949; two years later, The New Yorker published the first of many stories and introduced her to a worldwide audience.

A Gordimer story is one of ordinary people dealing with love and politics, for in apartheid South Africa- which went into effect in 1948- everything was political. The 1956 arrest of Gordimer’s best friend in a roundup of anti-apartheid whites galvanized the writer, who joined the banned African National Congress. She became a confidante of Nelson Mandela; when he went on trial, he edited his “I Am Prepared to Die” closing speech to the court. Though she was not, she said, a particularly political person, her work had a profound effect on the politics of her country, and made hard reading for many of her countrymen.

Her positions posed real risks, and real consequences. She banned South African radio from airing her stories; objecting to the stranglehold the government had on it (there was no television there until 1976; Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd compared television with atomic bombs and poison gas, claiming that "they are modern things, but that does not mean they are desirable. The government has to watch for any dangers to the people, both spiritual and physical." Dr. Albert Hertzog, Minister for Posts and Telegraphs at the time, said that TV would come to South Africa "over [his] dead body,"denouncing it as "a miniature bioscope [cinema] over which parents would have no control." He also argued that "South Africa would have to import films showing race mixing; and advertising would make [non-white] Africans dissatisfied with their lot."The new medium was then regarded as the "devil's own box, for disseminating communism and immorality").

For its part, the government banned a number of Gordimer’s works; two of her novels were suppressed for over a decade. Her growing fame- she won the James Tait Black Prize in 1972; the Booker Prize in 1974, and the Rome Prize in 1984, insulated her from some of the government’s more draconian penalties- Donald Woods, the editor who took up the murder of activist Steve Biko, was banned: forbidden to write, or even sit in the same room with more than one person aside from his family, and eventually fled the country. Her South African audience was small, but in the world outside, it was enormous.

Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990; one of the first people he sought out was Gordimer. Her Nobel Prize the following year secured her role as an anti-apartheid leader, and the system was dismantled after Mandela’s election to the South African presidency in 1994.

The great cause won, Gordimer turned her attention to combating HIV/AIDS, then sweeping the African continent, while continuing to publish. Her output included fifteen novels, 22 short story collections, and six collections of essays. So firm were her views on discrimination, Gordimer declined nomination for The Orange Prize because it was only awarded to women. She died in her sleep, aged 90, in 2014. “She wrote the social history of our nation,” one obituarist wrote. “Through her writing and choices of subject she strengthened the forces of resistance to apartheid and continued to speak  out against any form of  official censorship.”

#HenryBemisBooks #LiteraryBirthdays


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