Gordimer: Author, But Also Activist

News Profile

At first glance, Nadine Gordimer did not look like a powerful person.

As she sat on the stage of Sanders Theatre in a throne-like chair big enough to hold two of her, she looked delicate, almost fragile.

But as Gordimer, this year's Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard, has reminded her audiences repeatedly, contradictions are the stuff of life.

In her apartment, on a couch that's on the same scale as the South African Nobel literature laureate, the authority and energy in her words and manner dispel any illusions of weakness.

"We didn't have anyone from the United Nations, we didn't bring in the Americans-nobody," Gordimer declares, recalling the negotiations and the writing of a new constitution for South Africa.

"We did it ourselves," she says. "I think that is a great strength."


Gordimer, who won the Nobel Prize for literature 1991, has also been a crusader in her country.

In the midst of the fight over apartheid, Gordimer was asked "very nastily" in a South African courtroom if the army of the then-outlawed African National Congress was her army. She replied, "Yes."

As a Writer

Nadine Gordimer's books and short stories, each set in South Africa, form a picture of apartheid and the South African society that Gordimer calls "extremely volatile."

Professor of English Robert J. Kiely says the political aspect of Gordimer's writing is what makes it remarkable.

"She's written more than any single person about the political situation in South Africa," Kiely says. "She has been a voice for freedom and equal rights for all races."

Even without the political element of her works, Gordimer is an exceptional writer, Kiely says. "She is as good at short stories as [she is at] novels. She has great consistency and range."

When she speaks about her own writing, Gordimer says her novels The Conservationist and The Burger's Daughter have satisfied her, but she can't be sure if None to Accompany Me, her latest novel, is also on the list.

"The last one you've written, you're too close to it somehow," she says. "You can't really see. You come back later and think, 'Did I really do what I wanted to do?'"

Gordimer says the only opinion of her writing that has ever really mattered is her own. She says she never considered any career other than writing, except a brief flirtation with ballet dancing at the age of four.