On October 11, 2007 Iranian born British writer Doris Lessing (DL) won the 2007 Nobel Prize in literature, with the Swedish academy citing her as a person who with skepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny.
In this article the life story and literary works of Doris Lessing as the First Iranian Born Winner of Nobel Prize in Literature will be studied and discussed.
DL was born on 22 October 1919 to British parents in Kermanshah (the capital city of Kermanshah province in the western part of Iran) as Doris May Tayler. She was born to Captain Alfred Tayler and Emily Maude McVeagh. Her father, who had lost a leg during his service in World War I, met his future wife and then nurse at the Royal Free Hospital of London where he was recovering from his amputation.
Alfred Tayler moved his family to Kermanshah in order to take up a job as an office clerk for the Imperial Bank of Iran known mostly as the Kingdom Bank, in Persian: Bank-e Shahi. That bank was founded in 1872 by Paul Julius Baron von Reuter (a Jewish German-born British journalist and media owner, and the founder of Reuter’s news agency), which was among the first banks starting banking operations in Iran up to 1942. It was in Kermanshah that Lessing was born in 1919 when the last king of Qajar dynasty Ahmad Shah was in power (1906-1925).
In 1925 the Tayler family moved to the southern part of Africa and to a corn farm in what was then Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) hoping to improve their income. DL described her childhood on the farm in the first part of her autobiography, Under My Skin (1994). At the age of seven, she was sent to a convent boarding school but later moved to a girls’ school in Salisbury. At 14, she independently ended her formal schooling. In the following years she worked as a young nanny, office worker, stenographer and journalist and had several short stories published. In 1939 she married Frank Charles Wisdom with whom she had a son, John, and a daughter, Jean. The couple divorced in 1943. In 1945 DL married Gottfried Lessing, a German-Jewish immigrant she had met in a Marxist group mainly concerned with the race issue. She became involved with the Southern Rhodesian Labor Party. She and Gottfried had a son, Peter. When the couple divorced in 1949, she took Peter and moved to London, quickly establishing herself as a writer. Between 1952 and 1956 she was a member of the British Communist Party and was active in the campaign against nuclear weapons. Because of her criticism of the South African regime, she was prohibited entry to that country between 1956 and 1995. After a brief visit to Southern Rhodesia in 1956, she was banned there as well for the same reason. In her book of African Laughter Four Visits to Zimbabwe (1992), she described going back in 1982 to the country where she had grown up. She now lives in London.
DL has been the author and co-author to numerous literary works in English, French, German, and Swedish. The list of her works can be viewed on Nobel Prize Foundation. DL made her debut as a novelist with The Grass is Singing (1950), which examines the relationship between a white farmer’s wife and her black servant. The book is both a tragedy based in love-hatred and a study of unbridgeable racial conflicts.
The novel of The Golden Notebook (1962) was DL’s real breakthrough. 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. It used a more complex narrative technique to reveal how political and emotion conflicts are intertwined. The Golden Notebook is also considered a feminist classic by some scholars, but notably not by the author herself, who later wrote that its theme of mental breakdowns as a means of healing and freeing one’s self from illusions had been overlooked by critics. DL does not like the idea of being pigeon-holed as a feminist author. When asked why, she replies: “What the feminists want of me is something they haven’t examined because it comes from religion. They want me to bear witness. What they would really like me to say is that, ‘Ha, sisters, I stand with you side by side in your struggle toward the golden dawn where all those beastly men are no more.’ Do they really want people to make oversimplified statements about men and women? In fact, they do. I have come with great regret to this conclusion”.
When asked about which of her books she considers most important, DL chose the Canopus in Argos series. These books show, from many different perspectives, an advanced society’s efforts at Forced evolution. The Canopus series is based partly on Sufi concepts, to which DL was introduced by Idris Shah, aka Idries Shah. Idris Shah (1924- 1996) was an author in the Naghshbandi Sufi tradition on works ranging from psychology and spirituality to travelogues and culture studies.
DL has also written several short stories about cat, which is her favorite animal.
Doris Lessing is the oldest person to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the second oldest to win any category of Nobel award, according to the Nobel Prize Foundation.
Lessing, D. (1982): On Feminism, Communism, and Space Fiction, the New York Times, 25 July 1982.
Nobel Foundation Website (2007): Online Article on Doris Lessing.
Various Sources (2007): Online Notes on Paul J Reuter, Imperial Bank of Persia, Ahmad Shah Qajar, and Idris Shah.
Wikipedia (2007): Online Articles on Doris Lessing.