Nadine Gordimer, the South African writer whose literary ambitions led her into the heart of apartheid to create a body of fiction that brought her a Nobel Prize in 1991, died Monday in Johannesburg. She was 90.
Her family announced her death in a statement.
Ms. Gordimer did not originally choose apartheid as her subject as a young writer, she said, but she found it impossible to dig deeply into South African life without striking repression. And once the Afrikaner nationalists came to power in 1948, the scaffolds of the apartheid system began to rise around her and could not be ignored.
“I am not a political person by nature,” Ms. Gordimer said years later. “I don’t suppose if I had lived elsewhere, my writing would have reflected politics much, if at all.”
But whether by accident of geography or literary searching, she found her themes in the injustices and cruelties of her country’s policies of racial division, and she left no quarter of South African society unexplored – from a hot, crowded cinder-block neighbourhood in a black township to the white colonial world of sundowner cocktails, poolside barbecues and hunting parties.
Critics have described the whole of her work as constituting a social history as told through finely drawn portraits of the characters who peopled it.
About her own life Ms. Gordimer told little, preferring to explore the intricacies of the mind and heart in those of her protagonists. “It is the significance of detail wherein the truth lies,” she once said.
But some critics saw in her fiction a theme of personal as well as political liberation, reflecting her struggles growing up under the possessive, controlling watch of a mother trapped in an unhappy marriage.
Ms. Gordimer was the author of more than two dozen works of fiction, including novels and collections of short stories in addition to personal and political essays and literary criticism. Her first book of stories, Face to Face, appeared in 1949, and her first novel, The Lying Days, in 1953. In 2010, she published Telling Times: Writing and Living, 1954-2008, a weighty volume of her collected non-fiction.
Three of Ms. Gordimer’s books were banned in her own country at some point during the apartheid era – 1948 to 1994 – starting with her second novel, A World of Strangers, published in 1958. It concerns a young British man, newly arrived in South Africa, who discovers two distinct social planes that he cannot bridge: one in the black townships, to which one group of friends is relegated; the other in the white world of privilege, enjoyed by a handful of others he knows.
A World of Strangers was banned for 12 years and another novel, The Late Bourgeois World (1966), for 10 – long enough to be fatal to most books, Ms. Gordimer noted. The Late Bourgeois World deals with a woman who faces a difficult choice when her ex-husband, a traitor to the anti-apartheid resistance, commits suicide.
The third banned novel was one of her best-known, Burger’s Daughter, the story of the child of a family of revolutionaries who seeks her own way after her father becomes a martyr to the cause. It was unavailable in South Africa for only months rather than years after it was published in 1979, in part because by then its author was internationally known.
Ms. Gordimer was never detained or persecuted for her work, though there were always risks to writing openly about the ruling repressive regime. One reason may have been her ability to give voice to perspectives far from her own, such as those of colonial nationalists who had created and thrived on the system of institutionalized oppression that was named the “grand apartheid” (from the Afrikaans word for “apartness”) when it became law.
Her ability to slip inside a life completely different from her own took her beyond the borders of white and black to explore other cultures under the boot of apartheid. In the 1983 short story A Chip of Glass Ruby, she entered an Indian Muslim household, and in the novel My Son’s Story (1990), she wrote of a mixed-race character.
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