A writer like Nadine Gordimer is rare. She was one of those great ones who challenged the human faculty for reading because her writing never conformed to the norms of the practice but rather was constantly reaching forwards into realms of possibilities. She wrote a lot, thought a lot, suffered a lot. You wouldn’t know it, looking at her—she was the ultimate stoic.

Her writings spanned a range of human interests. She wrote a huge number of short stories, a sheaf of novels and a critical shelf of essays. Her energy far exceeded her slight human frame.

I first met Nadine Gordimer in person on the eve of the celebration of her 88th birthday. I had two of her books with me, ready for her autograph; she obliged with an old woman’s facility for generosity. Her calligraphy was precise, practiced, steady, firm. I left with the books and a feeling that I imagine a man who just found a fat stash of cash must have, finders keepers ringing in the alleys of my mind. That evening, at the Sci-Bono in the heart of Johannesburg, Nadine Gordimer drew attention to the inimical Secrecy Laws that the ruling party sought to embed in South African jurisprudence. She quoted from the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer, to the effect that humanity will defeat Big Brother in the end.

The South African Department of Culture had asked me to come to Johannesburg specifically to deliver a tribute to Nadine Gordimer on the occasion of the celebration of her 88th birthday. The event was jointly hosted by the South African Ministry of Culture and the University of Witwatersrand.

The moment arrived. The first words out of my mouth to the great woman sitting before me were totally unplanned; they belonged entirely to the atmosphere of the moment: ‘Thank you. Thank you.’ If I thanked her in all six thousand of the languages mankind had left, I still wouldn’t have thanked Nadine Gordimer enough. I looked into her eyes and she was all lady; a modest smile lit her otherwise stoic bearing. I knew I had begun fulfilling my task.

It was my chance to remind those at that August gathering about just how special the celebrant was. It was my chance to call to mind the singular fact that the Nobel Prize for Literature had been awarded to a great many deserving writers, 108 in all at the time, but only once have the very words of Alfred Nobel himself been invoked in the award of the prize:

Nadine Gordimer, the writer who “through her magnificent epic writing has—in the words of Alfred Nobel—been of very great benefit to humanity.”

The lady sat modestly through my panegyrics and only allowed herself the occasional smile through it all. At the end, she looked into my eyes, smiled and nodded. It felt like a benediction from heaven, her warrior’s face framed in that beatific moment.

Nadine Gordimer was a witness to many chapters of dark human history as they unfolded in South Africa. ANC to the end, she pitched her tent with enlightened liberalism rather than with the profiteering inner ring of power pimps. I’m glad to say that she maintained her stance for Freedom of Expression to the very end.

The poet Seamus Heaney referred to Nadine Gordimer as a guerilla of the imagination. She was that and much more. She brought a deeper dimension to what our understanding of Apartheid is; her writings provide a roadmap to the future and her thinking constantly underscored the importance of human dignity now and at all times.

Tade Ipadeola is the President of PEN Nigeria Centre and the 2013 winner of the Nigeria Prize for Literature.