Thursday, October 11, 2007

Open Letter to Doris Lessing

Photo of Doris Lessing taken by Chris Saunders

Dear Ms. Lessing,
Congratulations on a much deserved Nobel Prize. I would like to share what your book, The Golden Notebook, means to me.

I will begin with London. I am from the United States, however, I moved to London with my New Zealander boyfriend in 1987. We met while living in the greater Los Angeles area, Newport Beach to be exact.

Before we moved to London, I worked as a waitress at an elite restaurant, wore the latest fashions, drank expensive wines, drove a trendy car. However, even through my debauchery and shallow life, I continued to read literature.

While living in London, I read and loved The Guardian newspaper. The Guardian was so very different from the major newspapers in my country. I was also reading Dosteovsky, Gunter Grass, Isak Dineson, Vonnegut, et al. I would think about these books after I read them. One day, while wondering through Covent Garden, I stopped in the General Store and bought a little journal. I began to write little notes about the books in this journal. You see Ms. Lessing, I was pretending I was a literature major at university.

I worked at a cafe on High Holburn called, My Old Dutch, near the West End. At the cafe, I met the most amazing women I have ever encountered in my life to this day. One from Italy, one from Sardinia, and one had an English father and Spanish mother.

Agostina from Sardinia had just returned from a six month journey through South America. Carmen from Italy had many lovers a dozen years younger banging on her door at all hours of the night begging to be let in. The brilliant English/Spanish girl, Glamorous Janice, was working on her law degree and sleeping with a black man who read the tabloid called The Sun...or was it The Standard. It was the tabloid with the half naked woman on page three. Anyway...

All of these women were so strong and adventurous. We spent nearly every afternoon together when our lunch shift ended at 2pm until 6pm when we had to return for the dinner shift.

We walked to Convent Garden/Neal's Yard to have lunch at Food for Thought, a cheap, but good vegetarian cafe.. We shared stories, discussed the cultural differences between our countries, and of course discussed our men.

These women had such amazing stories and lives. So well-traveled. They opened up a whole new world to me. I felt that my life thus far in the culturally vacuous wasteland of Los Angeles was meaningless.

Carmen had coincidentally moved to New Zealand with a boyfriend she met in London who was filthy rich, but tight with his money. She lasted less than a year in Wellington before running back to London. She shared with me countless horror stories of her time there.

My boyfriend also came from a wealthy family and was tight with his money. Carmen kept telling me how New Zealand was like stepping back in time in terms of how they viewed a woman's role. Carmen was a devout feminist and could not tolerate this sort of view.

As a matter of fact, when I began having trouble with my boyfriend, Carmen kept warning me not to go to New Zealand with him. We were planning to move to his home in New Zealand sometime in the fall.

I spent a four hour lunch with Carmen on the day I was to purchase the one way tickets to New Zealand. We consumed two bottles of Pinot Grigio while I listened to Carmen's list of reasons not to go to New Zealand.

At the end of this marathon lunch, I told Carmen that if I did not go, I may wonder the rest of my life if I made the right decision. I told her London may be why we were having problems since my boyfriend and I got along so well in California. Carmen and I walked... more like stumbled and staggered across the street to the travel agent's where I purchased non-refundable one way tickets to New Zealand.

We left London on yet another bone chilling cold and rainy November morning. I was happy to leave the weather behind, but so sad to leave my new friends who had become like sisters to me.

While in New Zealand I was feeling very much like I wanted more from my life than being a wife, country club memberships, tennis with the other wives, etc. I told my boyfriend that I wanted to go back to university. I was 29 at the time. He said I was too old.

To make a long story short, shortly after my boyfriend crushed my dream of a university education, I was home one afternoon escaping my mundane reality with the Gabriel Garcia Marquez book, One Hundred Years of Solitude. This book lifted me out of my house and flew me across oceans to the far away and exotic country of Colombia into the lives of the characters in the story.

I had all the french doors and windows open in our country house outside Wellington on this warm fall day.

I put a pot of potatoes on to boil for dinner in between chapters. I did not notice or smell that the water had burned down. The potatoes were on the verge of burning when my boyfriend came home. The cross breeze from the open windows and doors kept the smell from reaching me in the living room. He picked up the pot and threw it across the kitchen. He then stomped into the living room and yelled that he was tired of my reading books all the time.

I quickly ran out of the living room for the bedroom and locked the door. My hands were shaking while I called the wife of one of our friends. I asked her to come and get me. He continued banging on the bedroom door and berating me with his verbal insults.

I left New Zealand shortly after that, returned to the greater Los Angeles area, and enrolled in a community college. I had the summer to kill before classes began in the fall. I found a job as a waitress in a cheap diner, shopped at thrift stores, and rode a bicycle for transportation.

I ran across your book, The Golden Notebook, in a bookstore that summer. It was the most perfect book for me to read at this turning point in my life. I could not put it down. I read it every waking moment when I wasn't working until I finished it. Such powerful women characters and stories. I can't tell you how much I loved this book. It had the most profound impact on me.

There were moments, mostly in the evening when I was alone, that I questioned whether I had made a mistake by leaving my boyfriend. After reading your book, I knew I made the right decision. Your book helped me realize that there was more to life than country clubs and tolerating your husband's mistresses.

I graduated from UCLA with a degree in history in 1993. I have worked primarily as an educator in Arizona and California. Internationally, I have taught in Bogota, Colombia and Gumi, S. Korea.

There were many times while I was in Colombia that I thought of my little Sardinian friend Agostina who traveled on her own through South America for six months. Meeting Agostina and listening to her stories on rainy afternoons in London helped give me the courage to move to Colombia.

I have also dabbled in documentary filmmaking and made a film on human rights abuses in Colombia. It made some festival circuits, was nominated for an award, and is still shown nationwide at colleges through Amnesty International groups on campuses.

I want to thank you for writing The Golden Notebook. Your book gave me the strength to forge on through some difficult times and countless obstacles while I was at university.

On an end note, it will be twenty years in November that I left London. I am still in contact with Agostina and Janice. We lost track of Carmen a few years after she returned to Milan. The last time I saw Carmen was in Milan in 1989. She had an Italian boyfriend who was at least a dozen years younger.

Agostina has traveled every continent as a translator on cruise ships. She speaks five languages. Agostina is now building a small hotel on Sardinia. She lives with her boyfriend in London. Janice is a lawyer/solicitor. She works in what we call the DA's office here in the USA. Janice worked in sex crimes for a few years, but the child pornography got to her. She asked and was granted a transfer to homicide. She lives with her boyfriend, also a lawyer/solicitor in her office.

I have heard through the grapevine that my ex-boyfriend owns loads of commercial real estate, boats, jet skis, married a nurse/aerobic instructor, had two kids, and a very public affair with an Argentinian ex-beauty queen which ultimately caused his wife to ask for a divorce. She got a huge house out of the deal.

Again, congratulations on your much deserved Nobel Prize. I still have the copy of The Golden Notebook I bought 20 years ago on my shelf and plan to pull it down tonight to read again.

Mary Cuevas
Los Angeles, California


sas said...

Mary have you not considered writing your own story?

That moment when the potatoes boiled down, when he yelled and you realised that he didn't know you at all, you knew you were going to leave - it always strikes me that but for these moments of clarity our lives would travel along such a radically different path.

What a juicy, full life you are living.

And yes NZ can be backward and provincial. Mostly there are limited opportunities for work, art, culture. We do have good beaches! Helen Clark has been a fantastic role model for women, however, she has sadly been replaced in the last election and we are now governed by a center right politician who is our George Bush. He made lots of money as a forex trader and was known as 'the smiling assassin'.

Bring on London.

Mary Cuevas said...

hi sas,
yes it was the moment i knew i had to leave. i saw him throwing me against the kitchen wall next.

and i wrote a comment on my revolutionary post defending new zealand. please know it was 20 years ago.

and thanks for the encouraging words. my blog is a good creative outlet for me. i just started in mid-november. i put old emails up on my blog to make it look like i had been around for awhile.

if you know who i am talking about, i wish him all the best. and seems he is getting all he wants. it is just we were not meant for each other.