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Nadine Gordimer

Author

Author

Born November 20, 1923; Died July 13, 2014.

Nadine Gordimer, who has died aged 90, was a Nobel Prize-winning author, indelibly associated with her home country of South Africa after becoming one of its most powerful voices against the injustice of apartheid.

An uncompromising moralist, Gordimer's novels and short stories reflected the drama of human life and emotion in a society warped by decades of white minority rule. She received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991.

"She cared most deeply about South Africa, its culture, its people and its on-going struggle to realize its new democracy," her family said in a statement confirming she had died peacefully at her Johannesburg home on Sunday evening in the presence of her children Hugo and Oriane.

A member of Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) - banned under apartheid - Gordimer used her pen to battle against the inequality of white rule for decades, earning her the enmity of sections of the establishment.

Many of her stories dealt with the themes of love, hate and friendship under the pressures of the racially segregated system that ended in 1994, when Mandela became South Africa's first black president.

Some of her novels, such as A World of Strangers and a Burger's Daughter, were banned by the apartheid authorities. But Gordimer, a petite figure with a crystal-clear gaze, did not restrict her writing to a damning indictment of apartheid, cutting through the web of human hypocrisy and deceit wherever she found it.

"I cannot simply damn apartheid when there is human injustice to be found everywhere else," she said shortly before winning her Nobel prize.

Gordimer wrote 15 novels as well as several volumes of short stories, non-fiction and other works, and was published in 40 languages around the world.

The daughter of a Lithuanian Jewish watchmaker, she started writing in earnest at the age of nine.

A lonely childhood triggered an intense study of the ordinary people around her, especially the customers in her father's jewellery shop and the migrant black workers in her native East Rand outside Johannesburg.

Gordimer said her first "adult story", published in a literary magazine when she was 15, grew out of her reaction as a young child to watching the casual humiliation of blacks. She recalled black people at the shops of the mining town near Johannesburg where she grew up being barred from touching clothes before buying, and police searching the maid's quarters at the Gordimer home for alcohol, which blacks were not allowed to possess.

A teenage naivety was eventually replaced by a sense of rebellion and as her talent and reading public grew, her liberal leanings earned her the reputation of a radical.

Eventually the government censors clamped down and banned three of her works in the 1960s and 1970s, despite her growing prestige abroad and her acceptance as one of the foremost authors in the English language.

A World of Strangers, her first book to be banned, was the story of an apolitical Briton drifting into friendships with black South Africans and uncovering the schizophrenia of living in segregated Johannesburg in the 1950s.

In 1979, Burger's Daughter was also banished from the shelves for its portrayal of a woman's attempt to establish her own identity after her father's death in jail makes him a political hero.

During the apartheid years, she praised Mandela, the prisoner who later became president, and accepted the decision of the ANC to use violence against South Africa's white-led government.

"Having lived here for 65 years," she said, "I am well aware for how long black people refrained from violence. We white people are responsible for it."

She said she resisted autobiography, asserting that journalistic research played no part in her creative process.

Telling Times, a 2010 collection of her non-fiction writing dating to 1950, offers some glimpses of her own experience. She wrote in a 1963 essay of a meeting with a poet giving her an idea of a life beyond her small home town and her then aimless existence.

Gordimer's first novel The Lying Days appeared in 1953 and she acknowledged it had autobiographical elements. A New York Times reviewer compared it to Alan Paton's Cry The Beloved Country, saying Gordimer's work "is the longer, the richer, intellectually the more exciting".

She won the Booker Prize in 1974 for The Conservationist, a novel about a white South African who loses everything.

In later years, she became a vocal campaigner in the HIV/AIDS movement, lobbying and fund-raising on behalf of the Treatment Action Campaign, a group pushing for the South African government to provide free, life-saving drugs to sufferers.

Nor did she shy away from criticising the ANC under President Jacob Zuma, expressing her opposition to a proposed law which limits the publication of information deemed sensitive by the government.

"The reintroduction of censorship is unthinkable when you think how people suffered to get rid of censorship in all its forms," she said in an interview last month.

Despite Gordimer's place in the international elite, she maintained a passionate concern for those struggling at the bottom of South Africa's literary heap. "It humbles me to see someone sitting in the corner of a township shack he shares with 10 others, trying to write in the most impossible of conditions," she said. Despite her hatred of apartheid, Gordimer remained proud of her heritage and said she only once considered emigrating - to nearby Zambia.

"Then I discovered the truth, which was that in Zambia I was regarded by black friends as a European, a stranger," she said. "It is only here that I can be what I am: a white African."

Gordimer was married twice, to dentist Gerald Gavron and to art dealer Reinhold Cassirer, who predeceased her. She is survived by two children and five grandchildren.

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