Academic journal article International Fiction Review

African Interests: White Liberalism and Resistance in Margaret Laurence's "Pure Diamond Man"

Academic journal article International Fiction Review

African Interests: White Liberalism and Resistance in Margaret Laurence's "Pure Diamond Man"

Article excerpt

In a letter to Mordecai Richler, dated 2 August 1968, Margaret Laurence made an unusual reference to Africa while complimenting Richler for his novel Cocksure: "[I]f you have ever once been a white liberal," she says, "you never forget how it was, way back when, even when you have changed and no longer can imagine yourself agreeing with people, just because the colour of their skin was different than yours (I could write a long weary diatribe on the subject, but why bother?). These days the whole question of Africa etc etc leaves me having no opinions on the subject whatsoever) [sic]." (1) Laurence's tone of disengagement here seems inconsistent with her long-held public stance on Africa, exemplified by her remarks near the beginning of her travelogue The Prophet's Camel Bell (1963): "I had no specific pre-conceived ideas of what the Somalis would be like, or ought to be like," says Laurence, setting her voyage to Somaliland in opposition to Sir Richard Burton's. "My bias lay in another direction. I believed that the overwhelming majority of Englishmen in colonies could properly be classified as imperialists, and my feeling about imperialism was very simple--I was against it." (2) While, in subsequent chapters, Laurence effectively explores the biases inherent in her white liberalism, and problematizes her early conception of imperialists, she does ultimately maintain, though with some ironic self-reflexivity, a "righteous disapproval of the empire-builders" in Africa (PCB 251). And the same stance is reflected in a piece of literary criticism contemporaneous with the letter Long Drums and Cannons (1968), a work that won her one of the few places of honor and approval in Chinua Achebe's essay "Colonialist Criticism." (3) It would seem, therefore, that there is some tension between Laurence's public and private utterances about Africa, between her public manifestation of solidarity, and her private revelations of weariness.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand that tension is to ascribe it to the differences between imperial and postimperial Africa. Certain political events--for instance, the fall of Nkrumah, the failure of the Pan-African movement, and the Biafran war--challenged the optimism Laurence had felt about imperialism's demise in the early 1960s when she had written much of her African work. Her disaffected statement would then seem the obvious result of those events; her public utterances, the residuals of hope and solidarity.

However, I would like to suggest that something more complex is going on here, that the weariness and resulting tension signify a troubled white liberal conscience more than a disaffection with contemporary Africa. What I am concerned with here is not the conscience troubled by a sympathy transformed into condescension, which is how Laurence discusses her white liberalism in her interview with Rosemary Sullivan (4) and her essay "The Very Best Intentions" (1964). Instead, I see the tension signifying a conscience troubled by its neocolonial agency, by its mediation of African signs to a Western readership. And I think we can see signs that Laurence was thus troubled in her African fiction. From her first African short story, "The Drummer of All the World" (1956), to her last, "A Mask of Beaten Gold" (1963), she was continually renegotiating her position in relation to Africa, the position of the white liberal caught between decolonizing and neocolonial impulses. On the decolonizing side of the equation, we see her challenging imperial assumptions about Africa, representing a sophisticated Ashanti culture at odds with imperial constructions of African primitivism. On the neocolonial side, as I have argued elsewhere in reference to This Side Jordan (1963) (5) we see her texts reinscribing problematic Western discourses--in particular the discourses of progress and modernity that Partha Chatterjee has identified as neocolonial in their universalizations of Western epistemological and moral frameworks of judgment. …

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