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Doris Lessing, Nobel-Winning Writer on Race, Gender, Dies

British Author Doris Lessing
British author Doris Lessing smiles outside her home in London during October 2007. Lessing, awarded a Nobel Prize in literature, has died at the age of 94. Photographer: Shaun Curry/AFP via Getty Images

Doris Lessing, the British author awarded a Nobel Prize in literature for a lifetime of writing about gender and race, drawing on her own upbringing in Africa, has died. She was 94.

Lessing died yesterday at her home in north London, where she lived for the past two decades, her publisher, HarperCollins, said in an e-mailed statement.

Born to English parents in present-day Iran, and raised in what is now Zimbabwe, Lessing witnessed the demise of the British Empire, race-based governments in Africa and the communist movement she briefly joined after World War II. Her novels and short stories challenged the notion of fixed truths and permanent institutions.

Her best-known work, the largely autobiographical 1962 novel “The Golden Notebook,” tells the story of an independent, modern woman in Africa who records her varied life experiences in four notebooks and tries, in a fifth, to weave them into a coherent picture of a complex life.

The Swedish Academy, in awarding Lessing the Nobel Prize, called her “that epicist of the female experience, who with skepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny.”

Lessing was 87 when the award was announced in October 2007, the oldest recipient of the literature prize. In presenting it, writer Per Wastberg, chairman of the Nobel Committee for Literature, said Lessing “has displayed an almost limitless empathy with odd lives and a freedom from prejudice regarding every form of human behavior.”

Storyteller Inside

In her acceptance speech, read by her publicist because Lessing was unable to travel to the event, she addressed the importance of writing and the “astonishing phenomenon, this hunger for books,” particularly in Africa.

“The storyteller is deep inside every one of us. The story-maker is always with us,” Lessing said. “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.”

Lessing’s early work in the 1950s and 1960s focused on the oppression of Africa’s black population by white colonists. Her first novel, “The Grass is Singing” (1950), revolved around the murder of a white woman by her black servant.

Against Apartheid

An outspoken critic of apartheid, Lessing was banned from South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1956. She made a 1995 visit to post-apartheid South Africa, where her daughter and grandchildren were living.

Though viewed as an early inspiration for 20th-century feminists, she refused to let herself be typecast. In a 1971 introduction to a reissue of “The Golden Notebook,” she said the book “was not a trumpet for Women’s Liberation.”

At the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2001, Lessing seemed to side with men in the gender wars, blaming “nasty women” for “the unthinking and automatic rubbishing of men which is now so part of our culture that it is hardly noticed.”

Lessing’s writing likewise took an unexpected turn in the 1970s, when she began producing works of science fiction.

Doris May Tayler was born Oct. 22, 1919, in Kermanshah, a town in Persia, now part of Iran. Her father, Alfred Cook Tayler, was a bank official and a former captain in the British army during World War I. Her mother, Emily McVeagh Tayler, was formerly a nurse.

‘Mud Hut’

When Lessing was about five years old, her family moved to a farm in Southern Rhodesia, where they grew corn and tobacco. She recalled her home as “virtually a mud hut, thatched” that was “full of books,” many of which her mother ordered from England.

“Books arrived in great brown paper parcels, and they were the joy of my young life,” she said in her Nobel speech.

Lessing left school at 13 and worked as a nursemaid, a chauffeur and a telephone operator, and also wrote short stories. By the time she moved to London in 1949, she also had married and divorced twice and given birth to three children, one of whom moved to England with her.

During her first four years in London she was active in the Communist Party and in the campaign against nuclear weapons. In a 2006 interview with the Associated Press, she said she quit communism “as it became evident that the Soviet Union was a very bad place.”

Breaking Away

After the success of “The Grass is Singing,” Lessing wrote “Children of Violence,” a five-volume series published between 1952 and 1969. The main character, Martha Quest, breaks away from her impoverished African farm to take a job as a typist in a city, awakening both to her womanhood and to a society corroded by racial fears and conflicts.

“The Golden Notebook,” set in Rhodesia, established Lessing as a feminist leader.

“The burgeoning feminist movement saw it as a pioneering work, and it belongs to the handful of books that informed the 20th-century view of the male-female relationship,” the Swedish Academy said.

Lessing said in an interview with the academy: “When I wrote ‘The Golden Notebook,’ I was writing about things in fact I didn’t know anything about, until later. When I read ‘The Golden Notebook’ 10 years later, I said, ‘My God, look what I said then.’”

Inner Space

Lessing used the term “inner-space fiction” to describe the science-fiction novels she began writing in the 1970s. They include “Briefing for a Descent into Hell” (1971), which goes inside the mind of a professor experiencing a mental breakdown.

Her other novels include “The Summer Before the Dark” (1973), “The Good Terrorist” (1985) and “The Fifth Child” (1988).

Lessing was appointed a Companion of Honour in 1999, an order to reward “conspicuous national service” to the U.K. She turned down the offer of becoming a Dame of the British Empire, noting that the empire no longer exists.

Jonathan Clowes, Lessing’s long-time friend and agent, and her editor at HarperCollins, Nicholas Pearson, both paid tribute to her in yesterday’s e-mailed release. “The Golden Notebook” was a handbook to a whole generation, Pearson said. Even in very old age Lessing was always reinventing herself and curious about the world.

Lessing is survived by her daughter Jean and granddaughters Anna and Susannah.

The writer was out shopping for groceries in 2007 when it was announced that she had won the Nobel prize. Lessing returned home to find reporters waiting for her, and she greeted the news with “Oh Christ!” She told reporters that she had won every other prize so was especially pleased to get “a Royal flush.”

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