Celebrating 60 Years of African Literature

Article excerpt


When Doris Lessing was awarded her long-overdue and much-deserved Nobel Prize for Literature in October, the twin topics of communism and feminism dominated the discourse about her. This was understandable, since she had first championed these ideologies, both in life and in her work, and then gone on to see through them, to deconstruct them, and finally to become an informed critic of them in the way that only a former fervent follower can.

A half-century after she wrote "The Golden Notebook," that magnum opus of feminist fiction, Ms. Lessing was championing Britain's "Man's Movement," which viewed contemporary males as victims of feminist excess. And having celebrated the passionate engagement of young people with communism in early novels and short stories, by the 1980s she was writing such fiction as the ironically titled "Good Terrorist," as searing an indictment of radical activism as you could wish for.

Rather forgotten amid all the hoopla about feminism and communism that surrounded the announcement of Ms. Lessing's Nobel was the territory of the books that first established her reputation: The odd world of British Central Africa, where she lived from the age of 5 until, aged 30, she left to settle, as it turned out permanently, in London. But it was the small, landlocked country then known as Southern Rhodesia, and that even smaller sub-state, its white settler oligarchy, that provided the subject for the groundbreaking fiction that first brought her to the attention of the reading public.

So it is fortuitous indeed that this scholarly book, knowledgeably compiled by Adrian Roscoe, should be published at this particular moment to remind us of Ms. Lessing's roots as a writer and to provide so much background for them.

Of the novel sequence, "Children of Violence," which gave gravitas to Ms. Lessing's oeuvre after the splash created by her groundbreaking novel of interracial sex, "The Grass is Singing," Mr. Roscoe writes authoritatively that "The first volume of her autobiography, 'Under My Skin' (1994), acknowledges . . . how faithfully the narrative of the 'Children of Violence' novels reproduces both the public and private events of her life in Rhodesia, and she claims a greater 'truth' for the world of her fiction than can be recovered by the memory on which autobiography depends. . . .The autobiographical elements of 'Children of Violence' are still discernible [in 'The Golden Notebook']. The principle character of 'The Golden Notebook' is Anna Wulf, the author of a successful novel set in Africa; and one of the notebooks that make up the novel, 'The Black Notebook,'is set in what is clearly Rhodesia during the Second World War. …