A talk with Doris Lessing: `Everybody ... is a refugee'

October 14, 2007|By John Freeman | John Freeman,Newsday

For 25 years, Doris Lessing has lived in a small row house in a North London neighborhood that abuts the cemetery where Sigmund Freud is buried. Each morning, the 87-year-old author rises at 5 a.m. and feeds several hundred birds. She then returns home, makes breakfast and is usually at her desk by 9, where she writes because, as she puts it in her plain and simple terms, "it is what I do."

Last Thursday, her morning routine was interrupted by the surprising news that she had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. She is known to millions of readers for The Golden Notebook, published in 1962 and still a feminist classic

"The burgeoning feminist movement saw it as a pioneering work, and it belongs to the handful of books that inform the 20th century view of the male-female relationship," the Swedish Academy said in its citation announcing the prize.

Last year, on a bitterly cold afternoon, the beginning of what many meteorologists warned was going to be England's coldest winter in years, Lessing agreed to sit down and speak about her recent novel, The Story of General Dann and Mara's Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog. The book is set in a future ice age and carries its hero forward from Mara & Dann (1999), in which Dann and his sister escaped a terrible drought in Africa. It's tempting to read this novel - as with all speculative fiction - as a parable of our times. But you have resisted this instinct in the past. Do you still feel that way?

Yes. You see, I wrote a book called Mara & Dann, and I really became concerned with poor Dann. Some people hated him. He instigated such violence. But I was interested in Dann, so I wanted to write a sequel. I realized it would have to be in that semi-drowned world. I don't find it hard to imagine landscapes. See, the whole of Mara & Dann takes place during a drought, which I had just been watching in Africa. My son John and a coffee farmer had been there. Have you ever been in a drought? No.

Well, it's hard. People are dying and their water is drying up and the trees are dead, and it's absolutely horrible. I didn't have to imagine that. The descriptions of the refugees Dann encounters reminded me of your book about visiting Afghanistan in the '80s, seeing the refugees fleeing into Peshawar.

You know, it never occurred to me until afterwards that everybody in these books is a refugee. But everyone is running from drought or flood or civil war. I do think a lot about them. You know, not far from here is a road where refugees of all kinds line the roads, and people go there to pick up a plumber or carpenter or something. This isn't an official thing, you know, but there they are. A friend of mine goes there when she wants anything. They are all very skilled people. When you first came to London in 1949, was it like that?

No, what was happening then was everyone I met had been a soldier or in the navy or something like that, so people talked about war all the time. And they talked about the war until somewhere in the mid-'50s. Then what happened, there was a new generation popping up. They were a new generation, and they weren't interested. Suddenly, nobody talked about the war. I found that painful in a way. Now I think you can't spend all your life possessed by a terrible past, can you? It's strange, for it seems like back then some people responded to this devastation by believing in an idea: communism. But now no one has any ideology outside of religion.

No one believes in anything anymore. You know, we've seen several TV films now about the ferment over the Vietnam War. And we look at this and think, this is America. What's happened to it now? Have you ever wanted to write a romance?

Well, you know you can't write them cynically. I know a man who did it. He happened to be a very committed socialist. And he said, "You have to remember, Doris, you can't write these things laughing. Thank God I've got this vein of sentimentality." He did very well out of them. When you began publishing in the 1950s, switching between naturalistic fiction and so-called genre fiction wasn't very common, was it?

No, and now all the boundaries are blurred. When I was starting out, science fiction was a little genre over there, which only a few people read. But now - where are you going to put, for example, Salman Rushdie? Or any of the South American writers? Most people get by calling them magical realists. You've written many novels. Are there any you wish people would read more?

My science fiction books. Canopus in Argos had a great readership way back when, and it even started a religion. Shikasta [the first in the series] was taken literally and they started up a commune in America. They wrote to me and said, "When are we going to be visited by the gods?" And I wrote back, and said, "Look, this is not a cosmology, this is an invention." And they wrote back and said, "Ah, you are just testing us." I can't imagine that happening today.

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