By Harriet P. Gross
As this year ends, I’m remembering several remarkable Jews who left us for good in 2014, leaving behind them many and varied accomplishments. Last week I talked about Alice Kober, who provided the key to understanding an ancient language. Today I honor Nadine Gordimer, a fearless activist for social equality in South Africa, and the first ever of her native country to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, when it was said of her that “through her magnificent epic writing, she has — in the words of Alfred Nobel — been of very great benefit to humanity.” She was 90 when she died in July of this year.
Was it because of her Jewish background that Gordimer identified so closely with the oppressed blacks of her country in their fight against apartheid? Her father, the only one in the Gordimer family who actively practiced Judaism, came to the Johannesburg area as a refugee from tsarist Russia, where he had known unequal treatment firsthand, but was never a social activist. Her mother, born to an assimilated Jewish family in London, actively fought discrimination, but religious Judaism was virtually nonexistent in her personal life. Nadine, who never graduated from college, was the product of Catholic school education. She identified herself as “a Jew by birth,” but her personal “religion” was atheistic Communism.
Writing began early for Gordimer. She was 15 when her work first appeared in a South African children’s magazine; only a year later her adult fiction began to find publication. In 1951, she became known to United States readers when the New Yorker published one of her stories, beginning a long relationship with that magazine. Although Nadine produced some book-length works, she preferred short stories, which she called “the literary form for our age.” Her first book was actually a collection of her early short pieces.
She remembered a time in her childhood when police raided her family’s home to search the belongings of a black servant, but it was the arrest of a friend in 1960 that pulled Nadine Gordimer into anti-apartheid politics. She became a close friend of Nelson Mandela, helped him by editing his speeches and was one of the first people he asked to see after his release from prison in 1990.
For years, her own writing was censored and some of it totally banned in South Africa. One of her books was even removed from school reading lists. We can all relate to this today, with the recent Highland Park high school flap over books some parents think are too mature for their teenage children, plus the current controversy about proposed content of U.S. history books up for formal adoption for use in all Texas schools. The Gordimer-removal action occurred in 1991, the same year she achieved international recognition with the awarding of the Nobel Prize.
Nadine Gordimer was acclaimed for fiction that melded the themes of love, politics and tensions in a racially divided country. Her very first published novel, 1953’s “The Lying Days,” is a thinly veiled autobiography; it recounts a young white woman’s growing awareness of what she finds unacceptable in her own hometown.
I’m especially thinking of Gordimer today as our own country comes face-to-face with the unresolved political and racial tensions seen most pointedly in Missouri, Cleveland and New York City, bringing us all to the inescapable truth that we have not at all cohered in that great “melting pot” dream of earlier America. Perhaps some fine writers (perhaps Jewish?) will come forth here and now to take on the task of making these problems understandable through fiction. I remember that William Lederer and Eugene Burdick first wrote their esteemed 1958 book “The Ugly American” as a document of political reality, but converted it to novel form when they faced this vital truth — as did Nadine Gordimer: people as a whole can often handle troubling truths more easily when they are fictionalized.