Nadine Gordimer’s Activist Legacy

With the passing of Nadine Gordimer, the world not only loses a great novelist, a Nobel and Booker Prize winner, and an author of numerous classic works; we’ve also lost a person who spoke up against apartheid and was active in the fight against HIV/AIDS. We’ve lost a writer who, at the height of her career, was totally unafraid to take on injustice and evil, no matter what the cost.

“She has been so deeply involved in the anti-apartheid struggle that one wonders how she managed to keep her integrity and observe South African society with such a discerning eye in her stories,” Per Wästberg wrote for Gordimer’s Nobel Prize page in 2001. A close friend of Nelson Mandela’s, the South African writer made her name on the international literary scene through books informed by her country’s struggle — books, it should be mentioned, that worried those on the side of apartheid so much that Burger’s Daughter and July’s People were banned in South Africa for years.

You don’t really hear of novelists like Gordimer that much these days. Salman Rushdie is a mouthpiece for freedom of speech, Teju Cole uses Twitter to raise awareness of things taking place in parts of Africa and the Middle East that aren’t front-page news, and Jonathan Lethem dedicated his last novel to a family of revolutionaries; but writing a novel that makes a political statement isn’t as popular these days as it once was, especially here in America, where the politically minded novelist is largely a thing of the past.

Gordimer’s political consciousness, stemming from her upbringing as the daughter of Jews who fled czarist Russia, was cemented in the ’60s, as she watched friends get arrested for demonstrating against apartheid, and the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. The South Africa she knew, then, was one that most young Americans couldn’t even fathom, yet the fact remains that while corruption, institutional racism, and constant war affect writers all over the world, many novelists in the US and abroad would rather not address politics through their fiction. As Gordimer’s influential career proved, this isn’t just sad for literature  — it’s sad for the world, whose many and diverse political plights desperately need more voices and more books.

Besides being a great writer, that will be Nadine Gordimer’s lasting legacy: helping to bring change through literature. Here’s hoping that her example will inspire a whole new generation of activist authors.