DORIS LESSING observant eye & fearless fighter against racism and war


Doris Lessing was a British-Rhodesian (Zimbabwean) novelist, essayist, and playwright who won the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature, with the Swedish Academy particularly recognizing her epic work in writing about “the female experience” with “skepticism, fire, and visionary power.” Lessing, for her part, when previously under attack as “unfeminine” for having expressed female anger and aggression, responded, “Apparently what many women were thinking, feeling, [and] experiencing came as a surprise.” She explored the politics of race as well as gender in her writing and examined the role of the family and the individual in society in new ways.

Doris May Lessing (née Tayler) was born in 1919 in Persia, now known as
Iran, to British parents; her father, who had lost a leg during military service in World War I, had met her mother, a nurse, at the hospital where he recuperated from the amputation. Her family moved to the south of Africa, and Doris grew up on her parents’ farm in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Her mother was very strict and eventually sent her to a convent school, then an all-girl high school, from which Doris, age thirteen, soon dropped out, ending her formal education. But she read, and then read some more: Kipling, Stevenson, Scott, and Dickens; then Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Stendhal, and D.H. Lawrence. To free herself from her hidebound mother’s sphere of influence, she left home at fifteen, taking a job as a nursemaid and reading further in sociology and politics. She also began to write and sold two stories to South African magazines that year. In 1937, she moved to Salisbury (now Harare), where she worked
as a telephone operator for a year. Then at nineteen, she married and had two children; but feeling trapped, she left her new family in 1943. Doris joined a local leftist reading club, a group of people “who read everything, and who did not think it remarkable to read.” She was drawn to Gottfried Lessing, one of its central members; they soon married, and in 1946, had one child.

When her second marriage ended in 1949, Lessing was done with colonial Africa. She moved to London with her young son; her first novel, The Grass is Singing, was published there in 1950. The novel established Lessing’s reputation: it explores the shallowness, complacency, and contradictions of white colonialist society in Southern Africa. Her Children of Violence novel series (1952–1969) was majorly influenced by her involvement with communism and rejection of the wifely domestic role; like many of her fiction works, the five novels were influenced by her own life experiences to the
point of being semiautobiographical. She was banned from South Africa and Rhodesia in 1956 due to her frank writing about the dispossession of Black Africans by white settlers and her anti-apartheid activist work. She also actively campaigned against nuclear arms.

In 1962, she broke new ground with The Golden Notebook; according to Natasha Walter of The Independent, it “rip[ped] off the masks that women were accustomed to wearing, and…show[ed] up the dangers and difficulties that many women encounter if they try to live a free life in a man’s world.” The protagonist, Anna, eventually goes through a nervous breakdown. Only through disintegrating is she is able to come to a new and more authentic wholeness. Lessing returned to the theme of pressures to socially conform in her next two novels, Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971), an amnesia story, and The Summer Before the Dark (1973); Kate, its heroine, comes to a degree of enlightenment through another breakdown process. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, she further explored the role of the family and the individual in society in her five-volume Canopus in Argos series of “space fiction.” The fourth of these speculative fiction works was adapted as an opera by noted composer Philip Glass, with Lessing writing the libretto. They later collaborated again on a 1997 opera adaptation of the second Canopus in Argos novel.

She returned to realistic fiction with Diary of a Good Neighbour (1983) and If the Old Could… (1984); but in a twist, submitted them for publication under the name Jane Somers. After numbers of rejections, they were printed, but only in small runs that did not receive much reviewer attention. Naturally, when their true authorship was revealed, the books were reissued and much more warmly received. In 1985’s The Good Terrorist, Lessing returned to politics with the story of a group of political activists who set up a squat in London. 1988’s The Fifth Child carried on her themes of alienation and the dangers of a closed social group.

In 1995, she received an honorary degree from Harvard, and that year, she visited her daughter and grandchildren in South Africa, the first time she had been there in four decades; in an ironic twist, she was acclaimed there as a writer on the very topics for which she had been banished in 1956. She also collaborated with Charlie Allard on an early SF graphic novel, 1995’s Playing the Game. Her autobiography was published in two parts: Under My Skin (1994), followed by Walking in the Shade: Volume II of My Autobiography 1949–1962 (1997). In 2007, Doris Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The entire lecture she gave to the Swedish Academy when accepting the prize was published under the title On Not Winning the Nobel Prize (2008). She also produced a book of essays based on her life experiences and the novel Alfred and Emily (2008), which explored the lives of her parents. She lived to be ninety-four, publishing more than fifty novels in total.

There [was] a whole generation of women, and it was as if their lives came to a stop when they had children. Most of them got pretty neurotic—because, I think, of the contrast between what they were taught at school they were capable of being and what actually happened to them.

Doris Lessing

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women Writers by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Claudia Rankine confronting the injustice of racism

poe Author photo of Claudia Rankine taken by John Lucas

Claudia Rankine, born in Kingston, Jamaica, earned a bachelor’s degree at Williams College and an MFA at Columbia University. She has published several collections of poetry, beginning with Nothing in Nature is Private (1994), which won the Cleveland State Poetry Prize, followed by Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric (2004). In 2014, Citizen: An American Lyric won the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, the PEN Center USA Poetry Award, and the Forward poetry prize.

Her work crosses genres; as critic Calvin Bedient observed, “Hers is an art neither of epiphany nor story…. Rankine’s style is the sanity, but just barely, of the insanity; the grace, but just barely, of the grotesqueness.” Her poems also appear in the anthologies Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present (2003), Best American Poetry (2001), and The Garden Thrives: Twentieth Century African-American Poetry (1996). Her play “Detour/South Bronx” premiered in 2009 at the Foundry Theater in New York. Rankine also coedited American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language (2002), American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics (2007), and The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind (2014). Rankine has received fellowships from the MacArthur Foundation, the Academy of American Poets, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Lannan Foundation, and the Guggenheim Foundation. She was elected a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2013, and in 2014, she won a Lannan Literary Award. She has taught at Barnard College, Case Western Reserve University, Pomona College, and the University of Houston.

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women Writers by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Nannie Helen Burroughs: The Practical Prophet

By The Rotograph Co. – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs divisionunder the digital ID cph.3b46093, Public Domain.

NAACP pioneer William Picken described Nannie Burroughs this way: “No other person in America has so large a hold on the loyalty and esteem of the colored masses as Nannie H. Burroughs. She is regarded all over the broad land as combination of brains, courage, and incorruptibleness.” Born in the Gilded Age in 1879, Nannie Burroughs was fortunate to be born into a family of ex-slaves who were able to establish a comfortable existence in Virginia, affording young Nannie a good education. Nannie applied for a job as a domestic science teacher and wasn’t hired because she was “too dark.” Later, she was turned down for a job as a government clerk because she was a black woman.

Nannie began dreaming of a way to prepare black women for careers that freed them from the traps of gender and bias. Nannie worked for the national Baptist Alliance for fifty years, starting as a bookkeeper and secretary. In her spare time, she organized the Women’s Industrial Club, providing practical clerical courses for women. Through the school she founded in 1909, the National Training School for Women and Girls, she educated thousand of black American women as well as Haitians, Puerto Ricans, and South Africans to send them into the world with the tools for successful careers. Her program emphasized what she called the three Bs: the Bible, the Bath, and the Broom, representing “clean lives, clean bodies, and clean homes.”

An advocate of racial self-help, Nannie worked all her life to provide a solid foundation for poor black women so they could work and gain independence and equality. She practiced what she preached. At one point, she wrote to John D. Rockefeller for a donation to her cause. He sent her one dollar with a note asking what a business-woman like her would do with the money. She purchased a dollar’s worth of peanuts and sent them to him with a note asking him to autograph each one and return them to her. She would then sell each one for a dollar.

She founded the Harriet Beecher literary society as a vehicle for literary expression and was also active in the antilynching campaigns. She gave Sojourner Truth a run for her money with dramatic speech-making and stirring lectures such as her headline-making speech in 1932: “Chloroform your Uncle Toms! What must the Negro do to be saved? The Negro must unload the leeches and parasitic leaders who are absolutely eating the life out of the struggling, frightened mass of people.”

One of her students once said that Nannie considered “everybody God’s nugget.” Nannie Burroughs’ pragmatic “grab your own bootstraps” approach to racial equality offered that chance to everyone who came into her purview.

“The training of Negro women is absolutely necessary, not only for their own salvation and the salvation of the race, but because of the hour in which we live demands it. If we lose sight of the demands of the hour we blight our hope of progress. The subject of domestic science has crowded itself upon us, and unless we receive it, master it and be wise, the next ten years will so revolutionize things that we will find our women without the wherewithal to support themselves.”
 — Nannie Helen Burroughs
This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

Florence Matomelo

By Dewet – Derived from Aprt.jpg on, corrected perspective and lighting somewhat. Permission from photographer here., Public Domain.

Florence Matomelo was a soldier in the anti-apartheid resistance movement. In 1965, she was arrested for her role in the African National Congress (Pro Azanian or black South African rebel government) and confined to solitary where she was starved, beaten, interrogated, and deprived of the insulin she needed for her diabetes. She died after five years of this abuse, leaving behind several children. She had led a life of constant courage, defying and protesting the unfair practices of apartheid laws, and she died for her cause, having made invaluable contributions to the changes that finally freed black South Africans from the racist rule set up by colonial whites.

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.