‘What catapulted you into space?’ Asks Professor Christopher Bigsby when interviewing Doris Lessing for the last time at UEA’s Literary Festival in November 2007. He was referring to Lessing’s move from realism into ‘space fiction’ which he identified as beginning with Shikasta. Actually, it began sooner, she says, with Memoirs of a Survivor.
Undergraduate students of the University of East Anglia’s literature module New World: Science Fiction and Beyond have been reading Memoirs of a Survivor, first published in 1974, along with other writers as they investigate different modes of science fiction and their definitions.
They visited the British Archive for Contemporary Writing at the University of East Anglia for part of their seminar on Doris Lessing where they were introduced to archive material including audio and video interviews and private papers deposited by Lessing at UEA in 2008. Amongst the collection is correspondence with fellow writers Kurt Vonnegut and Brian Aldiss. The response of the mainstream literary establishment towards science fiction is a regular subject.
Lessing attended the World Science Fiction Convention in 1987 as Guest of Honour and wrote to the Independent newspaper wondering why such rich discussion did not see any coverage. Amongst the file is her conference badge, a fictional piece on a nudist camp for the programme – welcomed by the publications committee, her speech notes and a long list of writers who influenced the author’s ‘space fiction’.
In a file of correspondence from Octagon Press there is a letter from Sweden where the Swedish translation of Memoirs of a Survivor was influencing social policy in dealing with deprived children.
There are also letters from academics and friends discussing their response to the novel.
The students had identified various political, spiritual and feminist themes in Lessing’s work. In these unique primary sources, they found echoes of the various debates they have been grappling with, together with new insights – such as her use of myth and the influence of Sufism. They enjoyed hearing Lessing’s take on what was happening in publishing and literature.
As one remarked, ‘Lessing clearly had no problem with being identified as a science fiction writer but she did object to the way it was perceived by the establishment.’
The only complaint from students was not having long enough to look at the material.
‘I could loose a few weeks in here…’ one wrote. ‘It’s amazing and a privilege.’
It’s also on their doorstep – so hopefully they’ll be back soon.