In the summer or autumn of 1989, I began to read Doris Lessing, intermittently.
As she is a prolific writer, I got her books from the local library. I read her novels in sequence, as they had been written. I started with her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, then proceeded to the big fat tome, African Stories, then onto the Martha Quest novels, five in all. Amid reading the novels, I purchased a slender, burgundy paperback copy of her essays—entitled A Small Personal Voice—and read all of that.
Tucked in the book of essays was the introduction to The Golden Notebook. A creative manifesto, the introduction explained the thoughts, feelings and ideas that went into the writing of this ground-breaking 1962 novel about Anna, a writer who captures the essence of her life in her notebooks. In addition, Ms. Lessing discussed the novel’s themes, motifs, her inspiration and writing process.
By the following summer, Nelson Mandela was touring the US. "Mandela is in Atlanta," I wrote in my journal, in awe. Everyone was giddy with excitement. "We are at a juncture of history," Mandela said. So I began reading up on South Africa and Mandela, to educate myself.
Also, I wrote : "I have a new idea for a novel. Something stunning and beautiful. I'd have to research the countrysides . . . .—I guess. I read Lessing and she is so specific in her descriptions—nature, leaves, etc. . . ."
It was a Faulknerian summer—long, languid, hot. That July 4th, we sat in the backyard. A turquoise umbrella gave us shade. Fire sparklers lit up the air.
I had purchased my own paperback copy of The Golden Notebook, with its peach-and-black cover and a pencil sketch of Doris Lessing, in profile. And, once I started reading, I knew it was good. I'd known she was a good writer, but this novel confirmed it. I was a bit annoyed, though, that she was so rational, cerebral and analytical.
But most of the time she was on target—not about me personally, but for many women.
I did not like the Free Women section—not enough to read more than once. It's hard to say why. Maybe that it seemed so artificial, so perfect. They did not seem like real women. Or any of the women I knew. But perhaps that was the point: the novel was artifice. Life was raw, messy, shambolic, with a seemingly random pattern that is hard to discern when you’re living it, and more difficult to convey in a work of art.
However, I liked the other sections. In The Golden Notebook, Lessing conjures so many different tones and characters. It's hard not to think of it as a tour de force. During this time, I remembered that she had once been asked why her novels mostly have no black Africans. She answered that she did not wish to portray a character infused with her own white African limitations. For Ms. Lessing, it would have been inauthentic to give the character thoughts and feelings she had no scope of knowing.
Even so, I was fascinated by Africa as she described it. As a young woman with a stubborn artistic sentiment and sensibility, she lived in cloying surroundings she describes as a "backwater." Rebelliously, she dropped out of school as a teenager, then set about, at turns, rambling the African steppes—strewn with kopje trees—and educating herself in The Novel.
Ms. Lessing writes of this time in some of her autobiographical essays. Later, she escaped to the city, got a job as a secretary and began her first novel.
I did not realize it then, but I had claimed Doris Lessing as my literary mentor.
So reading The Golden Notebook changed my life. Thereafter, I regarded the novel and novel-writing in a different way. I learned I could say anything and not make things all neat and pretty in my writings. There was beauty in the truth, to paraphrase Keats and author Anchee Min.
When I began writing my second novel, I felt I could say the unsayable. I could show the verboten, the hidden. I could know the unknowable and share dark nebulous areas of the spirit—the sublime and the subliminal. The consciousness of beauty and the super-consciousness of one woman's life. I sought to get all the tiny details correct—foods, historic details, vernacular. I wanted to create a world for the reader, and re-create a world for myself—on the page and on the pc screen.
--Yolanda A. Reid
For more info about Doris Lessing and her writings, visit www.dorislessing.org and www.thegoldennotebook.org.