British writer Doris Lessing was announced the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in Stockholm Thursday. Just several weeks short of age 88, she is the oldest writer to receive the literature award and only the 11th woman to receive the honor.
Best known for her 1962 novel The Golden Notebook, Lessing's life work spans more than a half century. The Nobel Prize judges said that "with skepticism, fire and visionary power," Lessing "subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny."
Lessing's name had been mentioned as a possible candidate for the Nobel Prize several times before, so she said she was not entirely surprised by Thursday's announcement. Still, she said it was a shock to find a large crowd assembled in front of her north London home.
Lessing was born in Persia, but her father moved his family to Rhodesia — now Zimbabwe — when she was a young child. Growing up in a racist and provincial society, Lessing chafed at the narrow life she was expected to lead.
Her first novel, published in 1950, examined the racial divide that permeated Rhodesia; The Grass Is Singing details a tragic love affair between a white woman and a black servant.
Author Alexandra Fuller said Lessing has had a significant influence on all Zimbabwean writers.
"She was really the godmother," Fuller said, "because she was a truth sayer ... I can't imagine the courage it would have taken to step out of that very small bubble, that isolated bubble of white writers ... and to fly in the face of parochialism, and what was expected of you in Rhodesia at that time."
Lessing's experiences in Rhodesia led her to join the Communist Party, though she later rejected that decision. Her novel The Golden Notebook is frequently regarded as a sort of feminist manifesto, but she fiercely rejects that characterization. In an interview with Terry Gross, Lessing said she never sets out to write political novels.
"I do not think writers ought ever to sit down and think they must write about some cause, or theme, or something," Lessing said. "If they write about their own experiences, something true is going to emerge."
In her novels, essays and works of science fiction over the years, Lessing has explored many of the burning issues of the era, including racism, communism, feminism, environmentalism and terrorism.
Jonathan Burnham of Harper Collins, Lessing's American publisher, believes that her ability to integrate fiction with the profound issues of the day may be one of the reasons she was awarded the Nobel.
"One of the most important aspects of her work is that she showed that you could explore ideas — political ideas, cultural ideas, philosophical ideas — through fiction, in a very persuasive way," Burnham said.
At the age of 87, Lessing is still writing. She is currently working on a novel inspired by the way her parents' lives were profoundly damaged by World War I.
"I've only just sent it to my agent," Lessing said. "He says the second part is almost unbearable. Well, I hope so, because it's my intention to put people off war."