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Nadine Gordimer's short story Once Upon A Time parallels the realities of living in Johannesburg, South Africa in the 1980s. Although modern-day Johannesburg has many serious problems with crime and homes are surrounded by high walls and have sophisticated security systems like those described in the story, there is no segregation as existed in the context of the story.
Gordimer herself is a well-known South African writer who received many literary awards including the Nobel Prize for Literature (1991). Many of her books were banned by the South African authorities as they invited controversy and her political activism brought her close to Nelson Mandela and other prominent anti-apartheid figures. Gordimer is perhaps different from some other South Africans, as revealed in this story, because she was never afraid to speak up and she continued her quest to change the government's stance. Even for those books which were not banned, she would not allow the apartheid government to air her works because of its controls and censorship. As this story reveals, Gordimer will not be dictated to (even though the government of South Africa felt that it was in a position to do so).
In the short story, the narrator who could be Gordimer herself, is a writer who is offended by a request- almost an insistence- that, as a writer, she should make a contribution to an anthology of children's stories despite the fact that she does not want to write stories for children. The suggestion that she "ought" to do so plays on her mind so much that she cannot sleep. Gordimer may be different in how she then reflects the seemingly random story which pops into her head. The story is one that has a symbolic meaning for South Africans as it mirrors the trap that they could so easily fall into as they attempt to protect themselves from an unseen force which is personified in their racism and stereotyping of "people of another color" when the real threat is their own beliefs.
The family's attempts to do what is best result in the son becoming trapped in the barbed wire, ironically placed there for the family's protection. In a scenario which parallels the famous fairy story of Sleeping Beauty, the reader is left wondering whether there will be as pleasant an outcome for this family as the fairy story. There can only be a happy ending if the family recognizes its own ignorance and intolerance. Gordimer is different as she is painfully aware of the vicious cycle within which many South Africans exist.
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