Remembering Doris Lessing, 1919-2013

Nobel Prize-winning novelist, short-story writer, poet, playwright, biographer, and librettist Doris Lessing has passed away at the age of 94. She was the author of over 55 published works of both fiction and nonfiction including The Golden Notebook and the Canopus in Argos series, a figure as iconic and inspiring as she was polarizing in some quarters.

Born in Persia (now Iran) and raised in the British colony of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Lessing was a world-traveler, an activist, and a brilliant thinker and cultural critic whose work often examined feminist themes, communism, colonialism and the fall of empire, and concepts drawn from Sufi mysticism—always with a fierce, uncompromising intelligence. When she was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2007 (only the 11th woman to win the Literature Prize in its 106 year history), the Swedish Academy paid tribute to her as “that epicist of the female experience, who with skepticism, fire, and visionary power has subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny.” But perhaps it is not so much the prize itself that will ultimately define Lessing and her career, but rather her response to the honor.

Lessing used the opportunity to deliver a lecture entitled On Not Winning the Nobel Prize that focused on the global culture of inequality, which was later published as a special edition to raise money for children threatened by the spread of HIV/AIDS. Her speech ends on the following note:

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.

As we reflect on these words, let us be grateful for the visionary spirit and energy of one our great storytellers, which will continue to inform, educate, and inspire through her writing and example. May she rest in peace.


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