New Perspectives on Margaret Laurence: Poetic Narrative, Multiculturalism, and Feminism

By Greta M. K. McCormick Coger | Go to book overview
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Chapter 11
Margaret Laurence and the Ancestral Tradition

Cecil Abrahams

The years Margaret Laurence spent in Somaliland and Ghana had a tremendous impact on her creative and critical work (unpublished interview, 1974). In her impressions of Somali society in The Prophet's Camel Bell, and again in her critical reading of West African writing in Long Drums and Cannons, she continually asks questions about the African oral traditions, and she demonstrates an authentic concern for African culture which, hitherto, had not been a mark of most Western writers. This Side Jordan, which deals to a large extent with the European experience in the days preceding Ghana's independence, has been enthusiastically commended by G. D. Killam and Clara Thomas. Killam regards Laurence as "the best expatriate writing about Africa," and, in particular, he contrasts her "objectivity" with the many other renditions of the expatriate experience in Africa. Although Clara Thomas expresses some reservation about the authenticity of the African characters in This Side Jordan, she recognizes the value of this book in the subsequent development of Laurence's fiction, and she goes on to note the "sureness of tone and the success of technique" which Laurence achieves in her first novel" (52). This writer argues that Laurence's authenticity stems from her innate sense of awareness of the ethos of traditional society and that this perception also underlies her vision of Canadian society.

The ethos of traditional society was enshrined in an oral, religious, and literary tradition through which the community transmitted from generation to generation its customs, values, and norms. The poet and the storyteller stood at the center of this tradition, as the community's chroniclers, entertainers, and collective conscience. Their contribution was considered to be of the greatest significance. The oral creative act was a communal one rather than the product of a particular genius. The story was acted out by the villagers in the marketplace or the village square, and this instant feedback from the audience encouraged the artists to give of their best. Because the artistic act was communal, the storyteller emphasized the communal value of art: he was always guided by a broad theme that centered on the

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