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Yes, the Margaret Laurence whose books they forced you to read in high school, which they really shouldn’t have done. The Margaret Laurence who wandered far from her home in Manitoba to live in Somalia, Ghana, and England before settling in Lakefield near Peterborough. The same one that I wrote about for Paragraph magazine. And that is what I am giving you today — the first part of my essay “Laurence of Africa,” which was published in Paragraph in the Summer 1994 issue.

In a July 1967 letter to Al Purdy written from Elm Cottage in England, Margaret Laurence explains her quandary over whether to move back to Canada. Africa is one of the measures on the scale she weighs: “Then I come back to the thought that in some ways I seem to be committed to a lifelong concern about Africa and African writing, as well as Canadian, and this place is halfway between Africa and Canada.”

Margaret Laurence’s lifelong concern began when she accompanied Jack Laurence in 1950 to what was then the British Protectorate of Somaliland. She was in her early twenties when she arrived — “young and naieve” enough to try collecting and translating poems and stories from Somali oral literature, as she notes in her preface to the 1970 facsimile edition of A Tree for Poverty: Somali Poetry and Prose. This was no mean feat: no such collection had ever been done, and the Somali language had no orthography.

Somaliland Protectorate

In Into Africa with Margaret Laurence, Fiona Sparrow shows us what an achievement Laurence’s translation was. While much of Sparrow’s background information draws heavily on Laurence’s travel memoir, The Prophet’s Camel Bell, she does add some pertinent information, such as the name of “the Administrator” who arranged for the book’s publication. Sparrow’s most valuable contribution, however, is her line comparisons of the literal translations of poems, done by the scholar Bogumil Andrzejewski and the Somali poet Musa H.I. Galaal, with Laurence’s more lyrical versions.

The Laurences lived in Ghana from 1952 to 1957. According to Laurence’s memoir, Dance on the Earth (1989), she wrote her first novel, This Side Jordan, while there, soon after the birth of her second child. She wrote most of the short stories for The Tomorrow-Tamer not in Ghana, however, but in Vancouver, where she also began writing The Stone Angel (1964). She finished both after moving to England. Upon completing the first draft of Stone Angel, she put it away and wrote The Prophet’s Camel Bell. To her African prose Laurence added her study of Nigerian literature, which she finished in 1967: Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists 1952-1966 (first published in London in 1968). Years later, back in Canada, she published some essays on her time in Africa in Heart of a Stranger (1976).

McClelland & Stewart has recently [1990s] reprinted Laurence’s African fiction in the New Canadian Library (when will it publish a hardcover edition of all of Laurence’s work – a memorial edition, if you will?). This Side Jordan parallels a British couple, Johnnie and Miranda, with an African couple, Nathaniel and Aya. The comparison is set up structurally, both in alternating chapters, and through the plot. Similarly, the stories in The Tomorrow-Tamer alternate points of view: the first three are from a European point of view, the fourth, the title story, is in a Ghanaian voice; the next three stories alternate, and the last three stories are from an African point of view. In Dance on the Earth, Laurence refers to “The Voices of Adamo,” as her best short story. While I agree on its excellence, my favourite is the last in the collection, “A Gourdful of Glory.”

Laurence had mixed feelings about her role in Africa and her African prose. The journey she traces in The Prophet’s Camel Bell is not so much her travels in Somaliland as her own development from the newcomer who is as a blank slate, eager to be written upon, to the wiser “sympathetic outsider” (as she refers to herself in the 1978 National Film Board interview, “Margaret Laurence, First Lady of Manawaka”). On the second page of Prophet’s Camel Bell, anticipating her journey, she writes: “And in your excitement at the trip, the last thing in the world that would occur to you is that the strangest glimpses you may have of any creature in the distant lands will be those you catch of yourself.”

Margaret Laurence

8 thoughts on “Margaret Laurence

  1. Pingback: From British Columbia to Ghana « canadian writers abroad

  2. Pingback: Laurence of Africa last « canadian writers abroad

  3. I just looked at an interview on CBC “Retrobytes” – Adrienne Clarkson, in a large bouffant, asking M. Laurence, who was smoking, about her time in Africa. This is making me want to go back to that work of hers. Thanks, Debra!

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  4. Very interesting Debra. I think I’ve read all her stuff but I may have to refresh my memory. Thanks.

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  5. I was never forced to read her in high school – so came to her books completely for pleasure. My son was “forced” to read The Stone Angel in grade 12. I don’t think he was very impressed.

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  6. This is fascinating! Thank you! Now I want to go out and read all the Margaret Laurence that they DIDN’T force me to read in high school… Did she write anything previous to 1950, do you know?

    AND: did you know that there were two Canadian Margaret LAWrences publishing in teh mid-nineteenth century? Makes things confusing for our project, but we are easily able to distinguish between the two Lawrences and Margaret Laurence–despite carelessness in some accounts. The other Margaret Lawrences were far less well known, although between them produced 4 books. We wonder if they (Margaret E. Lawrence and Margaret Isabel Lawrence) are in fact the same person, and typos are responsible for the differentiation.. which has happened more than once…

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