Op-ed: Doris Lessing, the Patron Saint of Outsider Writing
Oh, how I loved Doris Lessing.
It seemed like some huge rock of world feminism had been shattered when she died Sunday. When writers live so long and detail so much over so many years, they take on an aspect of immortality, leading us to believe they will live on forever. At 94, after having lived on three continents — she was born in Iran, was raised in Zimbabwe, and lived most of her adult life in the U.K. — how would we not think she would live on and on? She wrote 55 books of every sort as well as libretti, and her work traversed genre and spectacle and politics.
Lessing was that magical thing we call far too many — an icon.
Her publisher, HarperCollins, issued a statement that she had “passed away peacefully at her London home.” Charles Redmayne, CEO of HarperCollins UK, noted, “Doris Lessing was one of the great writers of our age. She was a compelling storyteller with a fierce intellect and a warm heart who was not afraid to fight for what she believed in.”
For much of the first half of her life what she believed in was the equitability she thought communism would bring the world. (She fell out of love with communism in the 1960s.) For her whole life she believed that women should be granted the same freedoms as men to choose everything they wanted. Her mother, a nurse who tended the wounded in World War I, where she met and married Lessing’s father, who had lost a leg to the war, seemed to Lessing to have been ruined by the stultifying nature of marriage and motherhood.
It was, more than anything, Lessing’s fraught relationship with her mother, which caused her to leave school and home by 15, that influenced how she wrote about women’s lives. Lessing found her mother cold and removed from her and her brother. The writer remained angry with her mother for her whole life, and in one of her last books tried to explore and explain what had happened between them.
I discovered Lessing in college, when her famous 1962 novel, The Golden Notebook, was assigned in one of my women’s studies courses. A generation of women had already been influenced by that book when I first read it, my professor among them. As she taught it to us, I could see how it had altered her perspective on what women could and should do. She wanted it to alter another generation of women — ours — as well.
A subsequent course with the same professor handed me Martha Quest. But it was in my own search for more of Lessing’s work that I was introduced to the short story “To Room Nineteen,” which has stayed with me ever since.
Had I never read another thing by Lessing, I would have been content to have read that brilliant, amazing, haunting story of a woman, Susan Rawlings, and her descent into madness as she tries to find a place for herself within herself. I can think of few pieces of writing that have influenced me more. I’ve carried that story with me since college. When I first heard of Lessing’s death via BBC World News in early Monday morning, I felt that story creep back into my consciousness.
Most people talk about Lessing’s novels — they are massive and prodigious and full of political and social musings that are deeply emotional as well as deeply intellectual. But for me, her short stories were brief, dark bites of women’s lives that were underwritten with a harsh sensuality and overlaid with questions about where we women fit in a world run by men.
Lessing eschewed the label of feminist, even as she lived a provocatively feminist life. She would later say that she felt feminism was taken too much like religion — as being black-and-white and simplistic, when the roles assigned to women and men were anything but. She was, she said, altered by her father’s obsession with the war that took his leg and most of his generation. It had made her see war as the worst thing that could happen, and so she felt the war between the sexes didn’t have the same weight.
Lessing was forever an outsider, even in her own life. Growing up a British subject in Iran (then Persia) and Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia) in a family that aspired to a class level they could never attain taught her about colonialism, racism, feminism (whether she eschewed its embrace or not) and communism. Her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, published in 1950 and set in Southern Rhodesia, was about the oppressive impact of colonialism and racism on women and men. It was an immediate critical hit and sold well. Lessing was suddenly, at 32, a voice to be reckoned with. And at 32, having already been married and divorced twice and borne three children, two of whom she’d left behind in Africa with her first husband, she had already lived several lives.
Margaret Atwood, herself one of the great feminist writers of our time, wrote a reminiscence of Lessing for the U.K. newspaper The Guardian, in which she talked about how influential Lessing’s work was to her in 1962, when The Golden Notebook was first published. But what Atwood was most affected by was Lessing’s outsider status: the unmarried, unchattled woman in an era when women still married safely, regardless of love or their sexual orientation, because it was what women did.
Atwood also said that Lessing’s writing allowed women like Lessing and herself — displaced British subjects (Atwood is Canadian) — a place in the world.
For me, Lessing opened a door to female experience that wasn’t like any other door any other woman writer had shown me. It’s impossible to explain how, as a 17-year-old college girl reading Lessing for the first time — Lessing, who was born a year before my grandmother yet had some keen entree into the world of women that my grandmother, who was a handmaiden to my grandfather, never, ever saw — I was so entranced, so taken into a different place.
But Lessing’s outsider, outlier status showed me that women could take a different path. That we could be on our own, that we could be intellectuals and have myriad partners and have full control over our sexuality. More than any lesbian writer I had read to that time, it was Lessing who told me there was a place in the world where women could be their own sexual selves.
I’m not sure what drove Lessing. She was, as she explained, a true autodidact: self-taught (she gave her mother credit for sending her cartons of books after she left home) from the age of 15 yet one of the most deeply intellectual writers of her or any era.
In 2007, Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature — the 11th woman and the oldest writer to ever receive the award. The Nobel came 53 years after her first literary award, the Somerset Maugham, in 1954. She won numerous other literary awards before receiving the David Cohen Award for Lifetime Achievement in British Literature in 2001. The year after the Nobel, The Times of London placed her fifth on the list of the 50 greatest postwar British writers.
She famously said, as reporters congregated outside her West Hempstead home as she returned with her son, ill from diabetes, on the day the Nobel was announced, “Oh, Christ!” and noted she’d already gotten “every bloody award.”
Later she was more gracious. She published her Nobel speech, titled “On Not Winning the Nobel Prize,” in a special edition, the proceeds of which were to raise money for children in Africa threatened by HIV and AIDS.
It was a moving speech, which in so many ways explains her own life, while also explaining what it was she hoped her work would do for the rest of us. The speech ends with these paragraphs:
“Ask any modern storyteller and they will say there is always a moment when they are touched with fire, with what we like to call inspiration, and this goes back and back to the beginning of our race, to the great winds that shaped us and our world.
“The storyteller is deep inside every one of us. The story-maker is always with us. Let us suppose our world is ravaged by war, by the horrors that we all of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise. But the storyteller will be there, for it is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us — for good and for ill. It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative.
“That poor girl trudging through the dust, dreaming of an education for her children, do we think that we are better than she is — we, stuffed full of food, our cupboards full of clothes, stifling in our superfluities?
“I think it is that girl, and the women who were talking about books and an education when they had not eaten for three days, that may yet define us.”
It is this Doris Lessing who changed my life at 17, when I first read her, one of another generation of girls and women moved by her brilliance and her heart. Fay Weldon said Lessing’s “concern for humanity, her sense of the sweep of history, and her ability to place human beings in it” was her abiding legacy as a writer.
Lessing was a true visionary, a woman whose work really did change the lives of millions. We are so fortunate that her work, her words, and the experience those have brought us live on, ready to change yet another generation of readers.
VICTORIA A. BROWNWORTH is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer. Her work has been recognized by the NLGJA, the Society of Professional Journalists, and Lambda Literary Award, and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Nation, among others. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for The Huffington Post, and a contributing editor for Curve magazine. Her most recent book is From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth, winner of the Moonbeam Award for Cultural/Historical Fiction 2012. Her novella Ordinary Mayhem won Honorable Mention in Best Horror 2012. She is editor in chief of Tiny Satchel Press. Her novel After It Happened will be published in fall 2014. Follow her @VABVOX.