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

By Greta M. K. McCormick Coger | Go to book overview

Chapter 10
Margaret Laurence of Hargeisa: A Discussion of A Tree for Poverty

Fiona Sparrow

When Mary Renault reviewed This Side Jordan ( Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, New Canadian Library [ 1960] 1989), published by Macmillan of London in 1960, she thought of its author as Miss Laurence, "A scholar and translator of African folklore and poetry" ( On Understanding Africa, Saturday Review 10 December 1960: 24). At this point the compilers of The British Library General Catalogue of Printed Books to 1975, Volume 185, knew little more. They had described the author of A Tree for Poverty, published in 1954, as "Margaret Laurence, of Hargeisa" ( British303). In 1954 Hargeisa was the capital of the British Protectorate of Somaliland, and it was there that the decision was taken to publish Margaret Laurence's first book. Now, of course, Margaret Laurence is known as the first lady of Manawaka, but as Margaret Laurence of Hargeisa she produced a work of scholarship that is still valued by those who study Somali literature in the context of African oral traditions.

In The Prophet's Camel Bell ( Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, New Canadian Library [ 1963, 1988] 1991), Margaret Laurence describes how she began to collect Somali poetry and prose and how A Tree for Poverty ( Nairobi: Eagle, 1954; Dublin: Irish University Press and Hamilton, Ontario: McMaster University Press, 1970; rpt. Toronto: ECW, 1993, designated hereafter as Tree) came to be published. Soon after arrival in the British Protectorate in 1950, she had the good fortune to meet a young Polish poet and his Somali assistant. They had a British research grant to study the Somali language and literature. Much of Margaret Laurence's work was done with their encouragement and help. The poet, B. W. Andrzejewski, Emeritus Professor of the University of London, and the Somali, the late Musa Galaal, became the leading scholars in their field and produced, as Margaret Laurence acknowledges, work "of a much more scholarly and accurate nature" than her own ( Tree19). Hers, however, was the first published collection of Somali literature in English, and the introduction she wrote for it is a fine piece of literary criticism. A passage in this introduction caught the attention of a member

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