In Memory of PEN Vice President and Nobel Laureate, Nadine Gordimer, 1923 -2014

PEN International is deeply saddened by the death of its Vice President, the South African Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer. She was greatly loved by the PEN community and universally admired as a writer and activist.

John Ralston Saul, PEN International President, said she was, ‘a great writer imbued with great courage.  Nadine Gordimer was one of the defining voices of PEN in the modern era, combining creativity, ethics and the resolve necessary to stand up to racism and authoritarianism’.


by Per Wästberg: close friend of Nadine Gordimer for over half a century; President of the Swedish Academy’s Nobel Committee for Literature; former President of PEN International

Nadine Gordimer´s great themes were love and politics.  Behind the most intimate relations and the most public there is the same search for an identity, a self-confirmation, a wish to belong and exist.  For Gordimer the novel and the short story were instruments to penetrate a society which defends itself against scrutiny, hides in censorship and hypocrisy, refuses to recognize its unknown history and thus produces a grammar of lies where capitalism, liberalism, marxism are seen to mean the same thing: an onslaught on the Volk.

She gave much personal support to individual writers…She was so involved in the struggle that one wonders how she managed to keep her integrity and observe society with such a discerning eye in her stories…She endured bleak decades, refusing to move abroad as so many others did; her husband, Reinhold Cassirer, is a refugee from Nazi Germany who served in the British Army in World War II. Her daughter settled in France, her son in New York; but she kept her lines open inside South Africa, out of commitment to black liberation, both for the sake of her own creativity and that of black South African writers who were silenced, and for whom she had to speak.

The writer´s task is to transform experience, enter into the existence of others, whether they be black or white, men or women, and to use the fruitful tension in both belonging and standing at the side. With her restless energy and prodigious discipline, Gordimer was able to put herself not only in the mind but in the body of criminal and saint, male or female, black or white. Asked what to write about when apartheid was over, she would reply, ‘Life didn´t end with apartheid; new life began.’ The Nobel Prize to Nadine Gordimer put the search light on a country in painful transition from an oppressive racism to a turbulent democracy…Her work reflects the psychic vibrations in South Africa, the road from passivity and blindness to resistance and struggle, the forbidden friendships, the censored soul, the underground networks.


Thanks to Nadine´s and Reinhold´s hospitality and our friendship of 55 years I have stayed at her house, built around 1910, longer than in anyone´s. It has hardly changed; I know every corner of it, where her books are, the paintings and the African handicraft she and Reinhold collected over the years, the smells, the way to move in the kitchen and in the garden. The house is like the childhood place where I spent my summer holidays. A tree planted just before I visited the house for the first time is now huge…

Nadine Gordimer´s work grew into a profoundly psychological and social chronicle of half a century in South Africa. She was both its archivist and lighthouse keeper. Above her collected experience the light sweeps, illuminating parts which would otherwise have lain in darkness, helping us navigate towards a South Africa which, far from being geographically and politically cut off, is a universal landscape that could bear quite a different name.

Nadine Gordimer: A pen guided by a moral compass to the end

by Margie Orford, President of South African PEN

[...] Her birth and death bracket the establishment and eventual demise of apartheid, the most brutal and dehumanizing period of South Africa’s history. Her voice — at once lyrical and acerbic — is unique, forged by a lifelong engagement with the corrosive effects of a political and economic system founded on inequality and segregation. She claimed that “to be a writer is to enter public life,” a principle to which her career as a writer and an activist bears eloquent testimony. Gordimer observed no boundary between the ethics of living and the aesthetics of writing, which was why the apartheid censorship board banned several of her novels.

“I am interested in human beings in human situations,” she told one interviewer. However, under apartheid, there was very little space in which to be human. Not even the most intimate realms of the body and of the heart, of sex and love, of the everyday pleasures of friendship escaped the invasive prurience of racist legislation. In her great novels of the 1970s — “July’s People,” “Burger’s Daughter” and “The Conservationist” — she explored the intimate spaces within and between South Africans, writing with great eloquence of the damage that was done by the inescapable warping of human relationships by apartheid. [...]

Read the tribute in full here.