British Writer Lessing Wins Nobel Prize for Literature

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British writer Doris Lessing has won the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature. She is the author of dozens of works from short stories to science fiction. She also wrote extensively about gender and various cultures. The award was announced in Sweden.

DEBORAH AMOS, host:

The winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature has been announced in Stockholm. English writer Doris Lessing has won. The Swedish Academy calls her that epicist of the female experience, who with skepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny.

NPR's Lynn Neary joins us to talk about the selection.

Good morning.

LYNN NEARY: Good morning. Good to be here.

AMOS: Not even the London bookies had her on the list. Was anybody expecting that Doris Lessing would win?

NEARY: Well, you know, every year there is a lot of speculation leading up to the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and frequently that speculation is wrong, and once again it was wrong. In fact, as I was reading reports over the last few days, I didn't see Doris Lessing's name mentioned at all.

Having said that, I think it makes complete sense that Doris Lessing would be awarded the Nobel Prize because it's given for a writer's body of work and Lessing has a considerable body of work to look back on. And her books, including her most famous, of course, "The Golden Notebook," all her books explore major issues of the times: racism, feminism, communism, terrorism, the environment. These are the kind of books that really dig into the problems at the core of society and culture and these are the kinds of works that the Nobel committee does like to recognize.

AMOS: And she's had a remarkable long career. She's 87 years old.

NEARY: It's amazing.

AMOS: Tell us about her.

NEARY: All right. She was born in 1919 in what was then Persia, now Iran. And as a child, her father moved the family to what was then Rhodesia. Now, her exposure to apartheid and racism in Rhodesian society had a huge effect on her, influencing not only her writing but her politics. She joined the Communist Party while she was still in Rhodesia.

Her debut novel in 1950, "The Grass Is Singing," examines the relationship between a white farmer's wife and a black servant in Rhodesia. And after it came out, reviewers in Britain called her the finest new novelist since World War II. Remember this was in 1950 - just to show you how long a career she has had in writing. She wrote that novel after moving to London with her son from her second marriage but she left behind two children in Rhodesia from her first marriage and that was a decision which much later in life she would say she regretted.

AMOS: The book that a whole generation knows is "The Golden Notebook."

NEARY: Right.

AMOS: Tell us something about that one because that's the one that's going to ring bells for people when they hear about this award.

NEARY: Right. That's the book everybody was reading, or at least, a lot of women were reading in the 1970's. This is a very complex work. It's seen as one of the great works of feminist literature. It is, as the Nobel committee notes in its official biography, one of a handful of books that informed the 20th-century view of the male-female relationship. And in it, as one reviewer noted, Lessing explores what it means to be a free responsible woman struggling to come to terms with her politics and her writing. It explores both the emotional and the political and the way that intertwines in a woman's life.

Lessing said she split the book into four parts in order to express a split person. And, as we mention, this was a book that many young women considered a must-read when feminism first came on the scene.

AMOS: And she tackles, you know, current events as well with "The Good Terrorist." I mean, her body of work takes in so many topics.

NEARY: And even at a certain point she dipped into science fiction works, one "The Canopus in Argos" archive series in the '70s and '80s. She also wrote the libretto for a Philip Glass opera based on her book "The Making of the Representative for Planet 8." A pretty remarkable woman, a pretty remarkable writer, I think.

AMOS: Thank you very much. NPR's Lynn Neary.

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