Remembering a Literary Legend

Doris Lessing (1919–2013)

It’s not every day that Nobel Prize winners for literature come to Sonoma County—and not everyday that one has the opportunity to play host and show them around.

But that’s what I did with Doris Lessing about 10 years ago when she spoke on the campus of SSU. I showed her around Northern California, which reminded her of Southern Rhodesia, where she was raised. When she came here to visit, she hadn’t yet won the Nobel Prize, but she had written more than 40 books, including The Golden Notebook, her big and wonderful novel about political crack-up and emotional crisis. Winning the Nobel didn’t change her one iota. She never wrote for fame, for prizes or for money, but to wake readers to harsh realities, including the reality of global environmental destruction.

To make her messages go down easy, she couched her late narratives as “space fiction.” The books were set on distant planets that had uncanny resemblances to Earth. The fact that Lessing came to Sonoma—and that she traveled relentlessly around the world, meeting readers and talking to her audience—says a lot about her generosity and her curiosity. She came here to find out how we lived in California, and how she might live, too.

From 1950 until her death last week, she lived and wrote in London, but she seriously thought about moving to California.

She never wrote the same book twice, never repeated herself and always urged writers to tell the truth and to be themselves. I don’t know of another writer who is more of an inspiration to aspiring writers. Lessing never attended a college and never graduated from a University. For the most part, she was self-taught. When she spoke at Sonoma State, she spoke from the heart without pretense. I’ll never forget her, her books, or the day we drove into the hills and across the valleys of Northern California. Now I always see the world in which I live through Lessing’s eyes as a strange and a wonderful land of mystery and poetry.

Jonah Raskin is an author and frequent contributor to the Bohemian.

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