Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

Affiliation and Antimodernism in Margaret Laurence's African Writings

Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

Affiliation and Antimodernism in Margaret Laurence's African Writings

Article excerpt

Although they are often acknowledged as worthy and complex entries in Margaret Laurence's body of work, the non-fiction and short stories that grew out of Laurence's time in Somalia and Ghana have not received anywhere near the same amount of critical attention as the author's Manawaka novels.1 And while it is true that works such as This Side Jordan (1960) and The Tomorrow-Tamer (1963b) can be read as earlier manifestations of the themes Laurence addressed throughout her career, I believe that these works are also quite distinct from the author's Canadian writing in that they offer an ideologically loaded conception of development, modernity, and different types of affiliation. What is more, her treatment of these related issues both critiques dominant constructivist (or modernist) theorisations of nationalism and antimodernism that would be formulated decades later and anticipates some alternative theories that have taken issue with the constructivist position. In both challenging and employing a Western narrative of progress, however, Laurence's African works shed light on a Eurocentrism that haunts both constructivist approaches to the nation and their alternatives. In spite of this caveat, Laurence's early work merits re-evaluation not only for its unique engagement with topics that have come to dominate the discussion of twentieth-century Canadian literature, but also because it is an instance of a creative writer anticipating the very terms literary critics have since employed to engage with that writer's work.

Despite the relative neglect of the African writings, a few critics have attempted to focus more closely on these texts' engagements with nationalism and non-European cultures. Gabrielle Collu argues, for instance, that both 'The Drummer of All the World' and This Side Jordan contain 'revisionist' and 'sensitive' yet only 'occasionally empowering representations of the Other' (1997: 20). Karen Macfarlane sees in 'The Rain Child' an 'alternate position' that 'defines "home" as an imaginative construct' and denies postcolonial binaries in its status as 'interstitial and strategically unstable' (2003: 224). Both critics find a degree of empathy in such writings, but they also leave untheorised a more fundamental conflict between the supposedly stable cultural identity of the modern nation and corresponding entities, practices, and attitudes that resist or seek to mitigate the oppressive characteristics of the former. Collu's focus on the way the (modern) self views the Other through its own lens, for instance, suggests that Laurence was drawn to such alterity as a way of 'questioning' and becoming aware of 'the limitations of her knowledge'. In adding that Laurence also engaged with the Other as a way of forming a 'critical portrayal of herself as a young, naive white liberal woman in Africa' (p. 22), however, Collu implicitly recognises that Laurence was also critiquing the self's modernity. In Macfarlane's formulation, meanwhile, plotting a position outside postcolonial binaries also requires reference to these binaries. Accordingly, I believe that the African writings also harness the subject position of a generalised Other as an example of resistance to the modern nation. Laurence's take on the relationship between coloniser and colonised is thus shaped by a dialectic of the modern and the antimodernist, and this dialectic itself relies on very particular notions of development or modernisation.

I elucidate this relationship in Laurence's African stories first by looking at the way ethnicity and nationality are related to concepts of modernity and modernisation in The Prophet's Camel Bell (1963a) and Laurence's other non-fiction. Second, I trace the deployment of antimodernism - defined by TJ. Jackson Lears as a range of practices meant to 'salvage meaning and purpose' by embracing supposedly pre-modern cultures (1981: xiii) - in the short stories of The Tomorrow-Tamer (1963b). My argument is that Laurence views ethnic and national identities in a way that anticipates the work of Anthony Smith, who regards ethnicity as prior to yet persistent within nationality - in a sense, as straddling the line between modernity and a more distant past. …

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