Here is the last excerpt from my essay, “Laurence of Africa,” which brings us to the end of it. The focus is on the novel, This Side Jordan, which is structured as a comparison of the lives of two couples: foreigners Johnnie and Miranda, and locals Nathaniel and Aya. The plot turns on a moral dilemma while the novel demonstrates the challenges arising from colonialism (the Gold Coast became Ghana in 1957). Despite his good intentions, Nathaniel accepts a bribe, which causes his humiliation by Johnnie. Johnnie’s good intentions arise solely from self-preservation; his difficult decision is whether to betray the colonials for his own advancement.
After Johnnie and Nathaniel have made the wrong choices, they are able to come to terms with their individual pasts. Once they have confronted themselves, their lives, both personal and public, improve. We see the importance of self-examination in Laurence’s other works. In The Prophet’s Camel Bell, she condemns the imperialists she hated so much, not for their arrogance or condescension, but for their failure to face their own uncertainties: “As long as they could be scornful or fearful of Africa or Africans, they could avoid the possibility of being scornful or fearful of anything within themselves.” Again, of their driver, Abdi, she says that his failing was that he “never knew – and who probably could not have borne to know – that his truest and most terrible battle, like all men’s, was with himself.”
Laurence applies this same standard to the characters she writes about in her study of Nigerian literature. Of the book A Dance of the Forests , for example, she writes “[It] is pertinent not only to Africa and to newly independent countries there, but also to any and every man’s relationship with his past, with his gods and with the concealed parts of his own heart.” Repeatedly Laurence returns to the idea that literature is a means to wisdom, and that wisdom comes from facing one’s inner self, however difficult that may be.
And then there is Miranda in This Side Jordan, whose development follows that of Laurence in The Prophet’s Camel Bell. Miranda is eager to know everything about the culture; she even takes drumming lessons. She forces Nathaniel to take her to the ju-ju part of the market, where he is repelled by her “touching touching touching” of these old things. She tries to befriend Nathaniel and Aya, and is rejected by them. Miranda’s ignorance is best seen in the chapters from Nathaniel’s point of view. By the end of the novel, she withdraws. Prospero’s daughter has no place in Africa, no right to African magic, especially now that the Africans have taken white magic for themselves.
Laurence wrote many of the stories in The Tomorrow-Tamer after she read Prospero and Caliban: A Study in the Psychology of Colonization by O. Mannoni , but finished the draft of This Side Jordan before reading Prospero and Caliban. She acknowledges its influence in The Prophet’s Camel Bell and Dance on the Earth. I’d like to know if Miranda was given her name before or after that reading.
Margaret Laurence was not entirely happy with the alternating chapter structure of This Side Jordan, as she says in “Gadgetry or Growing,” “but I don’t know how else it could have been done.” What was this “it”? What had she set out to do? Perhaps Laurence’s purpose in writing her African fiction is best summed up in her own words, even though she writes them about Nigerian literature, at the beginning of Long Drums and Cannons:
Despite some current fashions to the contrary, the main concern of a writer remains that of somehow creating the individual on the printed page, of catching the tones and accents of human speech, of setting down the conflicts of people who are as real to him as himself. If he does this well, and as truthfully as he can, his writing may sometimes reach out beyond any national boundary.
That’s the end. And to give you the satisfaction of a checked-off list, here is Margaret Laurence’s, according to the French website cited below.
- Margaret Laurence (canadianwritersabroad.com)
- Laurence of Africa 2 (canadianwritersabroad.com)
- Margaret Laurence website in French (nice photos)