clock menu more-arrow no yes

Five short stories you can read right now to appreciate what made Nadine Gordimer great

The author, Nadine Gordimer, in Rome in 2006
The author, Nadine Gordimer, in Rome in 2006
Tiziana Fabi

South African author Nadine Gordimer, one of the world's most powerful anti-apartheid voices, died Sunday, July 13, in her Johannesburg home at the age of 90, according to a statement from her family.

Gordimer, who won the 1991 Nobel Prize for literature, was known for her political work. Many of her novels and short stories focused on the South African apartheid debate, and later on censorship and HIV/AIDS. A prolific writer, Gordimer published 13 novels and 21 collections of short stories, as well as a few books of personal essays.

Whether you are a newcomer to the works of Gordimer or a life-long reader, her death may have inspired you to explore the works that won her a Nobel prize, a place of prominence in the literary canon, and the admiration of millions of readers.

To get you started, here are six must-reads stories from Gordimer. Consider this your guide to developing, or re-discovering, an appreciation for the work of one of the greats.

1)Short Story: "Six Feet of the Country"

This 1953 short story is a wonderful illustration of Gordimer's early ability to weave difficult topics into beautiful, lyrical stories of love and Loss. "Six Feet of Country" is about the death of a young boy, whose family arrives at the morgue to discover the body is not his. It's an engrossing read from the very first paragraph:

During the funeral it was discovered that they were burying the body of a strange man. Petrus complained to his master, who wrangled with the authorities without success. They could not locate the right body & wouldn't pay back the money.

Read it online here.

2) Short Story: "Once Upon a Time"

"Once Upon a Time" is a short story that straddles the line of fiction and reality. The intro begins with Gordimer explaining that someone had asked her to write a fairy tale for a children's collection. What she writes instead is a story about how race and difficulty and love exist in everyone's world:

I have no burglar bars, no gun under the pillow, but I have the same fears as people who do take these precautions, and my windowpanes are thin as rime, could shatter like a wineglass. A woman was murdered (how do they put it) in broad daylight in a house two blocks away, last year, and the fierce dogs who guarded an old widower and his collection of antique clocks were strangled before he was knifed by a casual laborer he had dismissed without pay.

Read it online here.

3) Short Story: "A Beneficiary"

This 2007 short story follows a young South African girl whose dead mother was a famous actress, and her path to understand her mother's past life. Like so many of Gordimer short works, it's spell-binding from the first sentence:

Caches of old papers are like graves; you shouldn't open them. Her mother had been cremated. There was no marble stone incised "Laila de Morne, born, died, actress.

She had always lied about her age; her name, too-the name she used wasn't her natal name, too ethnically limiting to suggest her uniqueness in a cast list. It wasn't her married name, either. She had baptized herself, professionally.

Read it online here.

4) Short Story: "A City of the Dead, A City of the Living"

Published in 1982, "A City of the Dead, A City of the Living" deals with the complex race dynamics that emerge after a light-skinned criminal friend moves in with a black South African family to seek refuge. The story is full of tension between the family's matriarch and this gun-wielding, secret-keeping guest:

The street delves down between two abandoned houses like the abandoned bed of a river that has changed course. The shebeen keeper who lives opposite has a car that sways and churns its way to her fancy wrought-iron gate. Everyone else, including the sheebeen customers walks over the stones, sand, and gulleys home from the bus station.

Read it online here.

5) Short Story: "The Life of the Imagination"

"The Life of the Imagination" is about the rendezvous between racial and sexual fears. Published in 1968, the story follows an unhappily married woman's affair with a small-town doctor:

She and her husband were slightly remote, but content, and the children were happy. One night, when her eldest son was ill, Dr. Usher, the family doctor's substitute, paid a house call. She was intrigued by him, but annoyed by his conventional taste. On his third visit, they began an affair. They met surreptitiously, either at his flat or at his office, and, planning their meetings, they began to know each other's separate lives.

Read online here.

6) Novel: July's People

Once you're done with the short stories, try her most famous novel July's People, which was banned in South Africa after its 1981 publication. The novel put on display the problems inherent in apartheid and highlighted the ways in which white South Africans could take part in changing their nation's future. It also contains some of Gordimer's most beautiful prose:

But the transport of a novel, the false awareness of being within another time, place and life that was the pleasure of reading for her, was not possible. She was in another time, place, consciousness; it pressed in upon her and filled her as someone's breath fills a balloon's shape. She was already not what she was. No fiction could compete with what she was finding she did not know, could not have imagined or discovered through imagination.

They had nothing.