DORIS LESSING, now living in England could not have imagined that a book that she penned at a young age of 25 years could go on to be the precursor for her being awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 2007.But such are the writings that glean on the reality of life for they tend to have a universal appeal.
It is the realism reflected in “The Grass is Singing” that has made the book such a classic and a must read for every Zimbabwean student pursing literature as an academic study.
It is also a must for every Zimbabwean seeking to have a better understanding of the thinking processes including the prejudices that the pre-independence whites had about the country, their worthiness and their attitudes towards the indigenous people.
What makes Lessing’s book powerful and illuminating is that she was part of the colonial system that she captures in the book and wants us to treat her version as not just noble but also a Damascan truthful narration. Lessing invites us to believe her version of white-black relations that existed in the early 1950s because of her being not just part of the system but some kind of a mole within the white establishment.
In other words, Lessing’s liberalism makes it easier for us to relate to her version and sympathise with her after her expulsion from Rhodesia following the publication of the book then considered subversive in colonial times.
One of the key issues illuminated in the book that could have infuriated the colonial authorities is the constant ridiculing of certain stereotypical beliefs that the whites held on to in order to perpetuate the oppressive system that kept the black man as an inferior being.
In “The Grass is Singing”, Lessing explores the roots of the white man’s alienated consciousness in Rhodesia. She explores and exposes Rhodesia’s white settler myths towards Africans and the ingrained notions they had about the African environment in general.
At earlier age, white children were fed with crude myths that were meant to enhance their superiority complex over black people. Indeed, as highlighted by Mai Jukwa in her recent Political Mondays column in The Herald: “White culture (was) is inherently supremacist to the extent that white children are raised under the assumption of supremacy.”
In a vain attempt to do away with their inherent shame and guilt, they propagated the myth that the African landscape was very rich but habited by savage Africans and animals. They also believed that Africa was the heart of darkness; that given the slightest opportunity, the African man would want to rape a white woman as an act of arriving.
Using the extended flashback technique, Lessing must have infuriated the Rhodesian authorities with her preamble, which is in the form of a sensational hard news story about the murder of a failed white farmer’s wife.
It is this murder case perpetrated by their black “house boy”, Moses, who also happened to have had an intimate relationship with her that must have offended the colonial establishment and made Lessing a persona non-grata in colonial Rhodesia .
Indeed, the killing of Mary Turner, the wife of a failed colonial farmer Dick Turner, is one question that has vexed most readers of “The Grass is Singing” given the fact that the black servant and his madam seemed to have enjoyed a cosy relationship prior to her death.
But closer scrutiny of the book will reveal that even the name Moses has serious connotations in relation to the biblical Moses who led the Israelites from bondage in Egypt to the Promised Land in Canaan. So Moses, the black servant, is a deliberate creation by Lessing and is intended to symbolise a prophetic warning to the white establishment of what was to happen to them if they failed to treat blacks in a humane manner.
The news article reporting the murder case is peculiar in its attempts to obfuscate the real motive behind the killing by simplifying things to fit in the stereotypical defence of settler colonialism and casually dismiss blacks as dishonest, thieves, murderers and daft. Evidence of this prejudice is revealed by the narrator when she says: “The newspaper did not say much.
People all over the country must have glanced at the paragraph with its sensational heading and felt a little spurt of anger mingled with what was almost satisfaction, as if some belief had been confirmed, as if something had happened which could have been expected. When natives steal, murder or rape, that is the feeling white people have.” (pp9)
The article clearly shows whites’ inherent fear of not wanting to upset the white colonial establishment, which seeks to presents a white woman as the paragon of perfection and also to perpetuate certain myths that justify colonial conquest.
Any true revelation of the real motive behind the murder would have been a serious affront to the colonial establishment as it upsets their sense of superiority as they are unable to come to terms with the fact that a black man can have an intimate relationship with a white woman.
In the final analysis, one is forgiven for positing that the murder is a kind of prophetic warning to the white colonial settlers of what was likely to happen if they continued mistreating the natives.
Lessing is indirectly saying that Africans will reach a certain level where they will be unable to continue soaking up all the horrendous treatment meted out to them by colonial repression and the white man needed some introspection about the whole colonial system.
But Lessing is no demi-God. While she finds the settler system abominable, she only advocates for a humane treatment of blacks on the basis that the colonial oppressive is bound to tragically end. Lessing is not fully critical of racism even if she does not conform to the values of settler society.
She constantly negatively refers to blacks as natives, niggers, kaffir, and her narrator is looking at issues through the white man’s point of view and we are never allowed to see things through the black man’s view. She is sympathetic to the blacks but I doubt whether at the time she had started seeing blacks as equal to whites.
Lessing is therefore a typical liberal and not a revolutionary. She confesses to this aspect in her BBC interview (2001) when said her intention was not to change things but merely to write a novel.
Therein lies the futility of one writing against a system that one is part of. While The Grass is Singing is helpful in exposing to us whites’ private prejudices about blacks, Lessing is not the ultimate representative of the black people.
Lovemore Ranga Mataire is a veteran journalist currently studying for a Bachelor of Arts Degree-English at the University of Zimbabwe babwe