Doris Lessing – Nobel laureate and TriumphOfTheNow.com favourite (well, her writing is, I never met the woman! (if you did, please tell me about the experience in the comments)) – moved to the UK around 1950 with (so it is said) a completed novel manuscript in her luggage (The Grass is Singing, 1950) and proceeded to publish basically a book a year (including some fucking massive ones) until her death at 90ish (check?) in 2013 (check?).
Starting her career with a bang, Lessing won critical acclaim (and some awards maybe, I dunno) quickly and immediately, to the point that by 1956 she was already a bit of a big deal… certainly enough of a big deal for people she had not seen for a decade or so to all sneeringly state “you’ve done well for yourself” when re-encountering her on her first return trip to the parts of Southern Africa where she grew up, a trip which is documented in this 1957 non-fiction travel memoir, Going Home.
The title is both simple and complex, and this is something that the text does explicitly address: for Lessing, this was “home”, where she lived with her family and where she had a couple of brief, young, marriages (and children, too, though they aren’t mentioned here lol)… but it also wasn’t “home”, because her family was part of the white colonial elite, British in nationality and in “culture”, living in the edges of the (fracturing and very soon to be over, thank any god but the powerless and probably dumb as shit one the C of E prays to) British Empire. So even tho the place and the location – and its indigenous inhabitants! – were coded as others, as not British, but also British possessions, there arises a complexity to a white progressive even suggesting an idea of “home” as a place in Africa.
The land, its resources and its wealth, had been stolen by the British (and the Dutch and the Portuguese at other points), but Lessing didn’t feel “entitled” to it, but she also did live there. It was her home, but she fundamentally understood that morally/ethically (and, eventually, legally/politically) it wasn’t.
Returning to this place after half a decade or so away (I could check when she actually arrived in London, but that sounds like homework and this is a blog, not an article), Lessing is neither surprised (but is disappointed) by how things have changed (not much) nor by how things have stayed the same (often with brand new laws on the statutes that arrest any short term equitable possibilities). She is also directly and intentionally (tho not violently or anything) persecuted by the government and local police, not allowed to cross certain boundaries, visit certain places, meet with certain people, and is also approached by aggressive white supremacists who want to try and intimidate her, one man presenting her in a public bar with a small box containing a single white feather dipped in tar.
Lessing doesn’t shy away from exposing the pretty rampant corruption and bigotry she encounters, and nor does she pull punches when addressing the near-ubiquitous hypocrisy she finds in any of the supposedly progressive individuals and organisations she chats to.
An example that she comes back to – and one feels it is because she feels genuinely disappointed/betrayed – is the trade union movement, who actively campaign for equal pay for equal work (i.e. not racistly underpaying Black people), but simultaneously has a 100% white membership and also actively campaign for very very strict delineations between “skilled” and “unskilled” labour, keeping the best paid (and, often, much easier) work for union members. It’s racists all the way down…
Lessing, in 1956, was still a card -carrying Communist (though – for reasons that she does (helpfully!) explain in a 1967 afterword – she has recently lost faith in the Soviet model of a communist society) and remains extremely progressive compared to the majority of white people she meets on her return to “Southern Rhodesia”.
She witnesses lots of attempts to legislate racism, to finalise land grabs and theft of resources before the – clearly coming (though, especially in South Africa, not for a few decades at that point) inevitable loss of white legislative control in these territories.
Is there hope? Perhaps there is. But how does Lessing feel about the future? I honestly do not know.
Lessing is there to see and to document how the country has changed after her few years away, during which time apartheid has been introduced in South Africa and various forms of nominally helpful (but often very much structured to maintain the status quo with a little bit of a shrugging marketed as a gesture towards inclusivity) policies have been introduced in the neighbouring countries that don’t want to openly lean in on the long term “being a massive racist” thing. (In the time between the text’s writing and its 11-year-on afterword, things have shifted a lot and the British government has much less legal parliamentary control of its now-independent former colonial vassals).
What this means, though, is that
It’s part travel journal of a pretty trad style, with a psychological element as Lessing returns to places she had happily left, but it has (in particular) strange echoes for the reader of the Children of Violence quintet, because the childhood home (its location, its architecture, its general vibe) and one of the long-over marriages (a melancholic sexless thing with a political refugee from Nazi Europe) are both Doris Lessing’s and Martha Quest‘s. Maybe it is particularly striking reading Going Home soon after The Four-Gated City and having seen the majority of Martha Quest’s life diverge impossibly far from Doris Lessing’s, it’s interesting to be reminded that the similarities were not only there, but that they were there and they were major.
Going Home is an interesting read for the Lessing fan, but as a historical document about the end of colonial rule in Southern Africa, it has lost a little clarity in the 65ish years since it was published – the presumed knowledge (knowledge that remains presumed in the 1967 afterword, which does not presume knowledge about politics in Eastern Europe that had been presumed in the text when originally written) is knowledge I don’t have.
Maybe I should go and get it? Maybe it will be found in some of Lessing’s later non-fiction on the same topic, a lot of which I do have, unread, on my bookshelves (and in my book boxes because I have too many books for my shelves).
I enjoyed it a lot – it was pleasant to again meet the directly autobiographical Lessing, who I’ve only ever read befre in The Making of the Representative for Planet 8…
I will continue with some more Lessing non-fiction very soon.
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