INTERVIEW / The white wounded of Africa: Fiammetta Rocco meets a trailblazer of modern literature whose latest work marks the end of a lonely exile; Doris Lessing

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DORIS LESSING does not come to the door when you ring the bell. She prods a buzzer high up in her north London house and, like a grande dame, stands waiting at the top of the stairs. People say she has the face of an American Indian chief, but all you see at first are two tiny feet on the top step.

Yet you would expect the owner of a voice this big to walk on coracles. For half a century Lessing's face - framed by flat parted hair in a Quaker's bun - has stared reproachfully at the world. She has been one of our strongest, fiercest voices, railing against injustice, racism and sexual hypocrisy.

She has written more than 40 books - novels, poetry, short stories and non-fiction - ranging across three continents. Now 73, she is slowing. She says her feet hurt. But she hasn't stopped yet.

In Lessing's latest work, to be published this week, she is once again on the move. African Laughter is the journal of four trips made over the past decade to the homeland she knew as Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. These are crucial journeys, for Lessing was banned in 1957, and for 25 years she never went back. The first visit she recounts was in 1982, two years after the start of black majority rule, while Zimbabwe was still bleeding from the bush war. The last trip was in February this year, when she saw the worst drought the country can remember. 'One man told me, 'It will never rain again. We've seen the end of rain. God is punishing us. He wants us to suffer.' '

Lessing's own original sin, or so the authorities told her back in 1957, was 'upsetting the natives'. So it is ironic that she writes so much in this book about the white man's pain. She visited her brother and found him a broken man - a real unbending old Rhodie who was unable to adapt to the changes in his world. And she ached at the changed landscape of her parents' farm, where the top of a local hill had been sliced off in the building of a dam.

Colonial guilt and the recent politics of Africa proscribe acknowledgement of the white man's wounds. That's no surprise. Why should the whites, who had it so good for so long in Africa, get anyone to listen now to how much it hurts? Yet so many are crippled by it. It is a measure of Lessing's talent that she succeeds in forcing us to examine something so politically unfashionable.

The pain she writes about is not the liberals' discomfort at being white, nor is it the pain of the eternal exile who remains an outsider everywhere. 'I think people make too much of this,' she says. Her voice is higher, softer, older than you'd expect, yet never sentimental. 'I seldom meet someone who isn't in exile in one way or another.' Lessing's pain is the raw hurt of being torn from the very thing that makes you what you are. 'Night after night I wept in my sleep' she writes of learning she must leave Southern Rhodesia all those years ago, 'and woke knowing I was unjustly excluded from my own best self.'

DORIS LESSING was born in Persia in 1919, and raised in Southern Rhodesia. She married twice, the second time to an East German named Godfrey Lessing, and divorced both times. In 1949 she left Salisbury with the manuscript of her first novel in her bag and has lived in London ever since. She left behind a son and daughter from her first marriage, but went into exile with her third child, Peter Lessing, with whom she still shares her house.

Published in 1950, The Grass is Singing focused on the blighted life of a woman whose spirit was destroyed by a disastrous marriage and by an environment to which she couldn't respond. The book was set in Africa. More than any white African writer of her generation, she is aware of the seductive cruelty of colonialism. Lessing had been a member of the Communist Party in Southern Rhodesia and the authorities punished her for rocking their boat. The Grass is Singing questioned many of their accepted truths, and was an immediate success.

Fascinated by the relationship between the individual and the group - a relationship with a special political significance in the 1950s - she began to explore new ideas about Communism and feminism. But she is too intelligent to be trapped by conventions that make strict (and easy) distinctions. All her characters are part good, part bad, both truthful and treacherous.

And she is impossible to pigeonhole. No sooner had she been identified as a realist writer than, in 1962, she published The Golden Notebook. Its open acknowledgement of female sexuality, and its account of a woman under stress - powerfully autobiographical - led Anita Brookner to describe her as a 'pioneer of feminist self-consciousness in its raw state'.

Her work expanded into new themes and fresh landscapes. In 1969, the fifth of her celebrated Martha Quest novels, The Four-Gated City, was set in the future, and allowed Lessing to start exploring the world of myth and prophecy.

Not all her books worked, though. In the 1970s she wrote a series of highly experimental space fiction novels that received mixed reviews. Lessing 'came back to earth', as one newspaper put it, in 1985 with the publication of The Good Terrorist, a brilliantly ironic and funny tale of everyday militant folk.

As she grew more famous, she mocked those who took her oh-so-

seriously. She's always had favourite targets: radical feminists, over-comfy Marxists, and the London literary establishment. Her publishers, Jonathan Cape, felt that whiplash in 1984 when they turned down a novel she'd sent them under an assumed name to prove that publishing houses can't recognise good literature, only well known names. Luckily for Cape, The Diary of a Good Neighbour by Jane Somers got rather bad reviews, allowing Cape's chairman Tom Maschler to say smoothly, 'If we thought it was good enough we would have published it.'

Today, Lessing no longer seems so interested in exploring socialism and feminism. 'Half the time I'm plain embarrassed by it. In fact, I find the women's movement embarrassing and ineffectual,' she says. And while she accuses the whites she met in Zimbabwe of being paternalistic, she is not above referring to black Zimbabweans as 'these people' as in 'they're so humorous, these people'.

It is when she talks of the past that Lessing is most interesting. The best of African Laughter charts the return of the exile and her journey into the past, into herself. 'The writers I know, or whose lives I have read about, have one thing in common: a stressed childhood,' she says. 'I don't mean, necessarily, an unhappy one, but children who have had to learn how to watch the grown-ups, assess them, know what they really mean, as distinct from what they say. Children who are continually observing everyone - they have had the best of apprenticeships.'

It is heartening, then, to hear that Lessing is already embarking on her autobiography. It is a task fraught with difficulty. African Laughter is two years late and has been beset with troubles. 'This is the second working of it,' she admits. 'The first version just didn't come together at all.'

Her autobiography is intended to appear in three volumes, the first of which covers the years before her departure from Southern Rhodesia in 1949. 'I had a lot of nightmares when I started that. It's been really bad. You block off so much. There is something in my childhood I can't come to terms with. Perhaps it's all the travelling I did before I was even five. In one way I value it enormously because I remember so much. But in another, I wonder if perhaps it didn't have a bad effect. For a start there were the miseries of homesickness at school. It was really an illness. Why? I don't understand.

'There are a lot of nightmares. And there are people you haven't thought about for years. You begin to understand things you hadn't understood before, just by thinking about them.

'I've been thinking a lot about my second husband, Godfrey Lessing, who was a big shot in East Germany and who I tried not to think about for years because he made me so . . . miserable.

'He was a hardline Communist of the worst kind. . . . He became the East German ambassador to Uganda under Idi Amin. It turned out he was a member of the KGB. He was killed in Uganda when Tanzanian troops invaded in 1979. They threw a flame-thrower at his car. They killed both him and his wife. She was totally unpolitical. It was so unjust. So strange and pointless.'

THE EFFORT of reaching deep into herself for memories of her childhood, her exile and her pain has given certain passages in African Laughter a vividness that is every bit as powerful as the best of Lessing's earlier writing. It is the fount of 'her own best self' from which she was separated, amputated even. And the power of it on the page leaves you hungry for more. But for the moment she is haunted by the suffering of thirsty Zimbabwe.

Ah, the drought. Time and again, as we talked, Lessing returned to it. The country has been months without rain. People are starving and demoralised. Some believe they are being punished for not properly burying many of those who died in the 13-year bush war that preceded black majority rule. 'It is the most terrible catastrophe,' she says.

'If Africa disappeared, we would lose some crucial reservoir of energy and knowledge.' Her worry about the drought is all-encompassing, and she regularly calls friends for news. She is like a concerned mother putting her own needs aside to tend a sick child. It is an admirable anxiety. But for a writer it is a distraction. For an old writer, with an autobiography yet unfinished and tired little feet that hurt, it might be fatal to her work.

(Photograph omitted)