South African author and Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer passed on Sunday, July 13 at the age of 90. Over seven decades Gordimer penned 15 novels and a plethora of short stories, making her one of the most widely recognized writers in the English language. A member of the African National Congress and a friend of Nelson Mandela—she was one of the first people he asked to see after his release from prison—Gordimer was born in South Africa to Jewish parents in 1923.
She did not initially intend to write about apartheid. However, she found it nearly impossible to delve in to South African life and ignore the rampant oppression. Her work addressed the moral and political dilemmas of not only her time, but that of her children. She sought to illuminate a path that would lead South Africa out of the dark forest of apartheid and its trappings of privilege. Her writings dealt with moral and racial issues, particularly apartheid. As a result, the South African government banned several of her works.
In 1991 she had become the first South African – and the third African ever – to win the Nobel Prize for Literature with The Conservationist and Burger’s Daughter singled out as masterpieces. Nearly all of Gordimer’s works deal with love and politics, particularly concerning race in South Africa. She told stories of ordinary people, mired in moral ambiguities and difficult choices. Nuanced characterization is revealed more through the choices her characters make than through their proclaimed identities and ideology.
Later in life, Gordimer became a champion of the HIV/AIDS movement, lobbying and fundraising on behalf of the Treatment Action Campaign, which advocated that the government provide free, life-saving drugs to people suffering from HIV/AIDS.
Known for her ferocity, dedication and fearlessness, she knew the power she was entrusted with as a writer. “Written words still have the amazing power to bring out the best and the worst of human nature,” she wrote to Salman Rushdie in 1998 after Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the writer’s assassination. “We ought to treat words the way we treat nuclear energy or genetic engineering—with courage, caution, vision and precision.”