Doris Lessing

Women's Impact Report: Grande Dames

Though she rarely grants interviews and has declared her latest novel her last, 88-year-old British author Doris Lessing remains as vital a voice today as she was 46 years ago when her groundbreaking novel “The Golden Notebook” was embraced as a feminist manifesto.

Lessing’s capacity for truth-telling never fails to spawn controversy. Upon learning from a TV crew that she’d won the 2007 Nobel Prize for literature, she responded, “Oh, Christ.” The comment had less to do with Lessing’s attitude toward literary prizes (she has called the publishing industry overly prissy and commercial) than with the realization that she’d have to endure the ensuing pomp and publicity.

Bloggers viewing the clip lauded her for not kowtowing to the media. Kowtow she does not.

She famously rejected being made a Dame of the British Empire, noting, “There is no British Empire,” but finally agreed to become a Companion of Honour in 1999 for “conspicuous national service.” She has repeatedly rejected radical feminism, claiming women cannot make progress if they fail to engage men in their fight.

Born to Word War I-ravaged British parents who relocated to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Lessing grew up thirsting for freedom from the suffocating domesticity of her childhood household and the inequalities of colonial Africa. She dropped out of school at 14 and learned to write by reading. Two failed marriages and three children later, she fled to England, where she embraced communism, and writing.

Since the 1950 publication of “The Grass Is Singing,” Lessing’s work has married the personal and the political, illuminating issues of racism, feminism, communism, environmentalism and terrorism in novels, plays, short stories, essays and episodic TV. Zimbabwe and South Africa named her a “prohibited alien.” Despite the ban, she remains one of their most influential authors.

With the recent publication of “Alfred and Emily,” a dual exploration of her parents’ lives, she returns to the source that gave birth to an amazing literary life.

Role model: “I was formed by… Central Africa, the legacy of World War I, and by literature, especially the Russian writers Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky,” she told the Progressive’s Johan Raskin.

If not Hillary, then who? “The best thing would be if they (Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama) were to run together,” she said to Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyhgeter.

Career mantra: “Use (talent) while you’ve got it, because it’ll go. It’s sliding away like water down a plughole,” she told BBC Radio 4.

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