For Nadine Gordimer, writing was never enough

Nobel Prize-winning novelist Nadine Gordimer died Sunday.
file 2006/afp/getty images
Nobel Prize-winning novelist Nadine Gordimer died Sunday.

Nadine Gordimer, who died Sunday at 90, was a Nobel Prize-winning novelist, a white South African literary fighter against apartheid, and a champion for writers in developing countries who “search for the concealed side” in a way the privileged world cannot ignore. Gordimer told the story of South Africa with such a critical eye that the apartheid government banned several of her books; had she wanted, she could have convinced herself that she’d done her duty. But she believed, as she once told The New York Times, that “writing is not enough,” and she lived a life that proved it. She was a member of the African National Congress when the organization was still banned. She emphasized in her 1991 Nobel lecture that she might not have become a writer had she been born black.

Still, her most celebrated contribution lay in capturing how apartheid distorted all South Africans’ inner lives. In a 1981 interview, nearly a decade before Nelson Mandela’s release, she told the Times about the difficulty of promoting thoughtful writing in a land where it was “the fashion to say whites can’t write about blacks, and vice versa . . . We must try to see them with equal clarity.” Few other prominent figures in white South Africa worked as tirelessly and fearlessly to bridge that gap between the races. In her Nobel Prize lecture she said, “The writer is of service to humankind only insofar as the writer uses the word even against his or her own loyalties.” Gordimer did so with honor, loyal to the ideal of a free South Africa.