Phyllis Perrakis: a memorial tribute

The Doris Lessing research community was saddened to learn this week that Phyllis Perrakis, former president of the Society and, until recently, co-editor of our journal, Doris Lessing Studies, has died, after an illness.

Earlier this year, former president Debrah Raschke began editing a collection of commentaries and reminiscences by members upon the occasion of Perrakis’s retirement, and we publish that collection here now as a memorial to her life and work. Below is the text of Raschke’s introduction; it is included along with members’ tributes in this document: Tribute to Phyllis3-14-2018. — Cornelius Collins

A Tribute to Phyllis Sternberg Perrakis

It was during my snowy stay in New York at MLA’s 2018 Convention that I learned Phyllis Perrakis would be stepping down as co-editor of Doris Lessing Studies. As a few Lessing Society members gathered at a local restaurant for the annual business meeting, all present were keenly aware of the impact she has had on the Doris Lessing Society. For those who have not had the opportunity to know her well, her energy, vision, and determination have shaped the Doris Lessing Society as well as Lessing scholarship. She was vice-president of the Society from 1994 to 1995, president from 1995 to 2002, was one of the co-organizers of the First International Doris Lessing Conference in New Orleans in 2004, and has served as co-editor of Doris Lessing Studies for many years.
Without a doubt, Perrakis has deepened Lessing scholarship. Her first two edited collections, Spiritual Explorations in the Works of Doris Lessing (Greenwood, 1999) and Adventures of the Spirit: The Older Woman in the Works of Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, and Other Contemporary Women Writers (Ohio State University Press, 2007), reflect a breadth of vision as well as her own life-long interest in the intersections between writing and spiritual understanding—“a wavelength,” in Lessing’s words, that encourages connections instead of egotism.[1] Traversing the writings of Carl Jung, Levinas, Sufism, Greek mythology, and Baha’i, Perrakis sees in Lessing’s work glimpses that enhance our ability to connect with others, even those who are very different from us.  As Perrakis writes in “Sufism, Jung, and the Myth of Kore,” Al۰Ith in Lessing’s TheMarriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five is transformed by Ben Ata’s vision and he by hers. This emphasis on connection not only infuses her work, but also characterizes her relationships with others—a sentiment reflected in so many of the following comments honoring her. In the ego-ridden arena that frequently characterizes particularly the current American political scene, Perrakis has much to teach us through her work on Lessing and much to teach us about our world. I had the privilege of working with Phyllis and with Sandra Singer on the third edited collection, Doris Lessing: Interrogating the Times (Ohio State UP, 2010). Her insights and her editorial work on this collection were invaluable.
This last December before the MLA Convention, my thoughts gravitated toward Phyllis. It was Phyllis who corralled me into the Doris Lessing Society business meeting at the 1996 MLA and who then encouraged me to become involved in the Society. In part because of Phyllis, MLA—in all of its freneticism—remains a place where I look forward to seeing colleagues and friends. Further, it was Phyllis who inspired me to become a co-organizer of the First International Doris Lessing Conference in New Orleans. I still remember the conclusion of that conference—on a riverboat on the Mississippi with a full moon on the horizon. The energy was sheer joy. This last December, with the 2018 MLA in the offing, I was thinking how different my career would have been without Phyllis as mentor and as a friend.  I was deeply saddened to learn at MLA that Phyllis was gravely ill. My first impulse was to write her a letter conveying how much she has influenced my career and how meaningful my interactions with her have been—both as a scholar and as a friend. It then occurred to me, though, that there are probably many others who feel as I do, so I asked Cornelius Collins, our current Doris Lessing Society President, to place a call to others who might also wish to extend their thoughts to Phyllis. And indeed, there has been an outpouring of wonderful reflections. In reading these, I was struck by how many spoke of Phyllis’s ability to bring us together. Perhaps it is not so odd then that voices I have not heard in years have come together once again in this tribute.
These then are the many tributes to you, Phyllis—to your scholarship, to your editorial insights, and to your generosity and kindness.

Debrah Raschke
March 2018

[1] Quoting Lessing’s discussion of a spiritual “wavelength” in Walking the Shade, Perrakis beautifully traces this phenomenon in Love, Again in her collection Spiritual Exploration in the Works of Doris Lessing.


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