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  • Doris Lessing and the Ethical African Archive
  • James Arnett (bio)

The first time I visit someone's home, I make a beeline for their bookshelves. I do not bother to do so surreptitiously, either. It was a distinct pleasure, then, to stay at the cottages on the premises of Weaver Press, a long-standing literary press in Zimbabwe run by Irene Staunton. Each cottage has a well-stocked library, great for perusing, a rehearsal for the Harare City Library, which is downtown on Rotten Row, a short but trafficky drive away. I was in Zimbabwe on a Fulbright fellowship to study literary publishing and was also touring places significant to the life and writing of Doris Lessing, who spent most of her childhood and young adulthood in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia). I visited Macheke (Mashopi in Lessing's The Golden Notebook, 1962), Mutare (Umtali of her memoirs), and Harare (known as Salisbury in her youth).

In African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe (1992), Lessing describes several visits she made to newly independent Zimbabwe after her lifetime ban from Rhodesia—on the basis of her political organizing—was canceled by the new government. In this prelude to her memoir work, Lessing is keen on exploring both the Rhodesia she had known and the Zimbabwe that was coming into being. Attempting to explain the contrast to her own Rhodesian reading career, Lessing describes the Zimbabwean libraries from the vantage point of 1989: "Perhaps the idea is, better any books than none at all. … Yet even the big libraries in Harare and Bulawayo are short of funds. If you send them books, you may get a letter: I am sorry, please don't send any more, we cannot afford the Customs duties."1 Lessing further details the eclecticism of Zimbabwean libraries in her monograph Why a Small Black Child in Zimbabwe Stole a Book on Advanced Physics (2004), reporting that they often own pricy textbooks, protected by being uncirculated, as well as

a shelf of many-coloured, many-sized books, paperbacks together with limp hardbacks, many from the Thirties or even earlier, [which] were in demand though one could be forgiven for thinking these were books likely to be more of interest to a sociologist or even an archaeologist.2

On each of her return visits to Zimbabwe in the 1980s and 1990s, Lessing volunteered with the non-governmental organization (NGO) Book Team, which traveled Zimbabwe gathering the common wisdom of the people [End Page 435] on a range of topics such as governance, entrepreneurship, women's rights, agriculture, and land management.3 The compilation of this experiential knowledge into compendiums was an effort to make up for the dearth of affordable or accessible circulating texts in the country.

In keeping with Lessing's political and ideological commitments, her personal library was donated as a circulating collection to the Harare Public Library after her death. As she remarks in African Laughter, "With a library you are free, not confined by certainly temporary political climates. It is the most democratic of institutions because no one—but no one at all—can tell you what to read and when and how."4 The main branch of the Harare City Library sits meekly in the shadow of the towering headquarters of the ruling political party, Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU–PF). The recently renovated library's design is modernist with an internal atrium arrayed with succulents.5 The price of joining the library is a one-time, twenty-dollar fee, and borrowing privileges cost a hundred dollars per year—prices that are substantial in an economy plagued by systemic unemployment.6 The selection of texts is no better or worse than those of its peers in Bulawayo, Gweru, and Mutare. There is a healthy selection of fiction, often bestsellers, and usually a range of edifying classics (the Mutare library boasts a full collection of 1990s Modern Library classics, for instance). These are supplemented by a small children's section and a nonfiction section, whose texts are far out of date.

The Doris Lessing Collection in Zimbabwe is the third point in the constellation of Lessing's archives; other archives of her work and materials are...


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pp. 435-444
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