Doris Lessing on how her childhood in Zimbabwe shaped her visionary fiction

Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing was one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. When she won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2007, she was 88 years old — making her the oldest winner in the award’s history.

Lessing had been writing provocative, groundbreaking fiction and autobiography since the 1950s. Her 1962 novel, The Golden Notebook, was an unusual exploration of women’s relationships and choices, published well before the feminist movement of the late 1960s and 1970s.

In novels such as The Summer Before the Dark, Lessing depicted a society that was both recognizable and apocalyptic. She published 16 books in as many years while she was in her 70s and 80s, including African Laughter, a travel memoir set in Zimbabwe, and two compelling volumes of autobiography.

Doris Lessing was born in Iran to English parents in 1919. She grew up in Zimbabwe — what was then Rhodesia — before moving to England in 1949. In 2000, she was appointed a Companion of Honour by the British government.

Doris Lessing died in 2013 at the age of 94. To mark the centenary of her birth, Writers & Company revisits her 2003 conversation with Eleanor Wachtel, recorded at Lessing’s home in London.

Vivid mental images

“Very early in my childhood, I made it a private resolution to remember what I’ve seen and experienced. I remember renewing it throughout my childhood that I was not to succumb to what adults said was true. To preserve what I remembered, I used to have a whole gallery of little mental pictures of events that I, as it were, polished to make sure that was still there.

“This went on until I was in late adolescence. It was so I could say, ‘This is what happened’ and not what adults said what had happened. This was because some children very easily succumb to what their parents say what happened. That, I think, is what most memories are for children. But the real ones I think can be sorted out from the false ones, simply by the quality of physicality: the touch of things, the smell of things, the sound, the taste.

“We’ve lost most of our taste buds when we’re older — well I have by now — but the children taste so strongly. No wonder they complain about food; we’ve forgotten how strongly food tastes. A child’s life is so intense, sensually, that we’ve forgotten it.”

My life in Africa

“I was brought up in the African bush, on the veldt. It was an Africa that has vanished… nothing I remember as a child is still there. The birds and the animals — everything — has diminished or gone. I remember a gone paradise. And then there was a war, which was extraordinary.

“I’m always surprised that nobody remembers it. Britain sent — to Kenya, Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, South Africa, Canada, Australia — vast numbers of air force being trained because the flying conditions were better in these parts of the world. So there were these air force camps and hundreds and thousands of men: the flyers who were only there for a short time and the ground staff that were there for a long time. It was an astonishing feat, you know, of doing it at all. They were there for many years. Of course, they didn’t leave immediately after the war.”

Mind games

“The mind does, however, play tricks on you. Of course it does. If you keep a journal and you look back at things you’ve written sometimes you don’t remember them at all. You remember them differently. Memory plays tricks all right. It’s very creative, memory.

“This is how I started thinking, because when I wrote Under My Skin, it occurred to me I had never, ever thought about the reality of memory before. What was true and what wasn’t. I spent an immense amount of time thinking about it and I concluded that most of childhood memories are put into you by your parents. Their version of events. But I had this other journal running in my memory, which I think was true. If you were very small and the door handles or table is right above your head, that’s likely to be a true memory.”

Perspective & vision

“I have a particular perspective, a double vision, as the daughter of British settlers in Southern Rhodesia. I have this sense of absolute belonging and absolute not-belonging. It is a sense that is very good for a writer. I can absolutely understand the end of the British Raj. People like my parents believed, sincerely, in the virtues of British Empire and its function uplifting and civilizing, and that it was God-inspired. They really did believe that.

“I can understand it very well. I used to meet these people since lot of them came to Rhodesia. They were bitter people. As they had seen it, they had been doing their duty and now nobody valued them. I can see their point of view, but I don’t share it. In then Salisbury, now Harare, I, and half a dozen other people were the only people who celebrated Indian independence. We were regarded as absolute traitors to want to do such a thing.

“It’s hard to believe now, isn’t it?”

Doris Lessing’s comments have been edited for length and clarity. Source: CBA