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Mon November 18, 2013

Fresh Air Remembers 'Golden Notebook' Author Doris Lessing

Originally published on Tue November 19, 2013 10:24 am

Novelist and essayist Doris Lessing died Sunday at the age of 94.

Lessing won the Nobel Prize in 2007. She lived in England most of her life, but she grew up in southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.

Lessing often addressed racism and colonialism in her writing, including in a series of novels about a fictional character named Martha Quest. She was best known for her 1962 book, The Golden Notebook, which was regarded as among the most important feminist novels of its time.

Lessing's obituary in The New York Times describes The Golden Notebook as "daring in its day for its frank exploration of the inner lives of women who, unencumbered by marriage, were free to raise children, or not, and pursue work and their sex lives as they chose."

Fresh Air's Terry Gross interviewed Lessing in 1988 and 1992.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. We're going to listen back to excerpts of two interviews with novelist and essayist Doris Lessing. She died yesterday at the age of 94. Lessing won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007. She lived in England most of her life, but she grew up in Rhodesia. She addressed racism and colonialism in her series of novels about a fictional character named Martha Quest.

Lessing was best known for her 1962 novel "The Golden Notebook," which was republished in 1971 and was regarded as among the most important feminist novels of its time. Lessing's obituary in The New York Times described "The Golden Notebook" as daring for its day for its frank exploration of the inner lives of women, who unencumbered by marriage, were free to raise children or not and pursue work and their sex lives as they chose.

In some of Lessing's books, she departed from realism to write about what she described as inner space, madness and visionary experiences. She also wrote science fiction. Here's an excerpt of my 1988 interview with Doris Lessing.

You know, like a lot of women I think, I discovered your writing from "The Golden Notebook" in the early 1970s right after it was republished. And it was very thrilling to find a book that addressed issues about independence for women...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...and, you know, political women. And I think a lot of your readers at that time - certainly, in the United States - saw you as, you know, one of the first, you know, contemporary feminist novelists. And I wonder if you were comfortable with all of us seeing you that way.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: If you saw yourself that way.

DORIS LESSING: Well, I certainly didn't when I wrote "The Golden Notebook." I mean you ask...

GROSS: But you wrote it 10 years before it had been republished. You wrote it in '62.

LESSING: Yeah.

GROSS: But I think it was in the early '70s that it really started getting a big following in the United States.

LESSING: Well, it had extremely bad reviews when it first came out. People have forgotten this. It had very peevish, bad tempered reviews when it first came out in England and America and I was called all kinds of things in the then-jargon, then like a ball's cutter and things like this. But all that's been forgotten and now it has become a kind of a classic. I just find it so funny; I just have to laugh when I think about it.

But, look. Why did I write it? One of the reasons I wrote it, as I think I said in the preface, that certain novels had never been written about the 19th century political life, which I would like very much to read. And I thought I'd try and write a novel which captured the atmosphere of a time that had just come to an end and I knew it was the end of something.

I was very conscious of the fact that this was the end. And in fact, quite apart from the women's movement, I succeeded because now this book, I am delighted to say, is being set in political and historical quarters and I get letters - just as much from men as from women now - talking about that time.

GROSS: Well, you know, you just mentioned something that you'd said in the introduction to "The Golden Notebook." Something else you wrote in the introduction was that this book was written as if the attitudes that have been created by the women's liberation movement already existed. Now those attitudes didn't exist when you were writing this book.

LESSING: But that's untrue. Absolutely untrue. See, the women's movement of the '60s seemed to feel the need to believe that they were the first. But I had been discussing, and all my friends and comrades had been discussing, all this throughout the '40s and '50s. There was nothing new about it. These ideas were being discussed right throughout the left. In the terms of that time, you understand.

In the terms right for them. Not in the more developed way that they were being discussed later, of course.

GROSS: Were there issues in your life that led to your insistence on independence for yourself, on having an independent life?

LESSING: But I just was independent. I didn't make a decision to be. I left home when I was 14 because I didn't get on with my parents very well.

GROSS: You left home?

LESSING: When I was 14.

GROSS: That's pretty young to leave home.

LESSING: Yeah, it is. I then went off - see, all this is the truth. People don't - they like, they prefer, glamorous facts to the truth. I went off and I became what is in fact a nursemaid for a couple of years. And then I went home for a year to the farm and I wrote a couple of very bad novels and I got on with my poor parents even less. And I'm now desperately sorry for them.

But I had to behave like that, just to survive. Then I went into town and I was a telephone operator, which I very much enjoyed, actually. Because I was living this life where I was a telephone operator having an enormously complicated social life. And I sort of liked dancing most the night and reading. I don't think I ever slept in that year. Just amazing when I look back at the energy.

Then I got married. Which, I got married for the reasons many women get married. You imagine you're marrying into independence. And then I didn't like the life so I left. But, you know, you don't make a decision I am going to be an independent woman. Your character determines what's going to happen to you.

GROSS: So you got married hoping that it would bring you more independence and...

LESSING: No, I think - no. I think I was a bit crazy. Everyone was getting married because war was coming.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

LESSING: Everyone in sight was getting married because biology demands that when a war starts that people should get married and have a lot of sex. As we all know.

GROSS: Let me ask you - I know you grew up in Africa.

LESSING: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And moved to England when you were an adult.

LESSING: Yes. I was just under 30.

GROSS: Now, probably when you moved to England people assumed that you were from England. Do you know what I mean? They probably didn't realize right away that you were from Africa.

LESSING: Oh, instantly, because of my accent.

GROSS: Oh, really? OK.

LESSING: Rhodesian accent.

GROSS: Oh, I see. OK.

LESSING: You can hear it now if you've ever heard the original.

GROSS: Well, I was wondering if you felt like an outside in England when you moved there.

LESSING: If you haven't been brought up in England you will always feel an outsider. Anyone. I mean, there are so many of us, people from everywhere coming back. And none of us - or we're both insiders and outsiders. But you know, about - it only occurred to me recently, before I was just over five I had moved from Kermanshah in what's now called Iran to Tehran, had traveled across the Black Sea and across the Soviet Union.

We were the first family to travel as a family across post-revolutionary Russia to Leningrad and the Baltic States to England. I was six months in England, which I remember as a horrible place, all cold and gray. Then I was on a boat, a German boat, which is interesting in itself, all around Africa to a (unintelligible), stopping at Cape Town.

Traveling up on the slow train, traveling in an ox wagon. It was the kind you now see in Midwest films with a hurricane lamp swinging back and forth, back and forth, behind 16 oxen to the farm. All this before I had got to the age of five and a half. Now, if you've had that childhood, you're never going to belong anywhere. You are free to move anywhere you like and feel happy there.

GROSS: So do you think the sense of not belonging anywhere helped to give you a sense of independence when you got older?

LESSING: Yes. I'm sure of it. Of course. Because you're not bound to the - you're always looking at any country you're in from the outside.

GROSS: And has that helped you as a writer?

LESSING: Very much. Yes.

GROSS: Doris Lessing recorded in 1988. She died yesterday at the age of 94. We'll hear an excerpt of my second interview with her recorded in 1992 after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: We're remembering Nobel Prize winning author Doris Lessing. She died yesterday at the age of 94. The second time I spoke with her was in 1992 after the publication of her memoir "African Laughter." Lessing was born in Persia but when she was five, her family moved to southern Rhodesia which was a British colony in Africa. She came to oppose the white minority government and left Rhodesia just before she turned 30.

She was banned from returning for 25 years. After the Colonial era when Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, she was able to go back. I spoke with her about her early life in Rhodesia. Her father owned a farm there. Your father employed 40 to 60 Africans on the farm, depending on the season. What was your relationship with the workers?

LESSING: Well, it was the relationship of a white minority with a very suppressed black population. You know, obviously, like all the whites, we were - behaved as if we owned the place, which we did for a bit.

GROSS: In one of your first stories, you wrote about a girl growing up on a farm in Africa and she says the black people on the farm were as remote as the trees and the rocks. It was impossible to think of the black people who worked about the house as friends, for if she talked to one of them, her mother would come running, anxiously. Come away, you mustn't talk to natives.

LESSING: That's right. That was true in southern Rhodesia. It was not true in South Africa, interestingly enough, because you meet South Africans brought up, they will always talk about their black nanny, you know, with immense affection. But this didn't happen in southern Rhodesia. I think it's probably because the physical conquest of the place, which was a very brutal one, was quite recent.

It was only in the 1890s.

GROSS: When did you become uncomfortable with that relationship?

LESSING: Oh, much later. You know, people like to romanticize this a bit, you know. They say, oh, how were you able to see the truth when other people did not? Well, I did not see the truth. Being uncomfortable about what you see, which I certainly was, is one thing but knowing what was wrong, you have to have something to compare it with and I had nothing to compare it with.

I didn't have anything. I didn't - no one I ever met had a different perspective. So it wasn't until I was grown up a bit and I met other people that I was able to see the system for what it was. That's when I became an antagonist of the system.

GROSS: What was your awakening to women's status in society? I ask you that because so many women think of your novel "A Golden Notebook" as being the first feminist novel they ever read. And, I mean...

LESSING: Well, I know they do but I never wrote it as a feminist novel.

GROSS: I know you've said that.

LESSING: See, what I was writing was simply out of my own experience, which I think has got a valuable lesson. I do not think writers ought ever to sit down and think they must write about some cause or theme or something.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

LESSING: If they write about their own experiences, something true is going to emerge whether they mean it or not. About the status of women. My mother in her time was a feminist. You know, she fought her father to go off and be a nurse. Now, this is by no means a simple fight because he was in advance of his time and he wanted her to go to university.

No, it wasn't very common for girls to go to university. She said no; I'm going off to be a nurse. And he said, like a bad novel, if you do, never darken my doors again. And she went off, became a nurse, was extremely good at it, and successful. And then he wanted to forgive her and she didn't forgive him. This is a very sad story, in fact.

I'm not saying she never spoke to him but she didn't forgive him because she had such a hard time doing it on her own. And she had all kinds of feminist ideas, which for her time were quite advanced, so I was brought up with them.

GROSS: Doris Lessing recorded in 1992. She died yesterday at the age of 94.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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