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

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

Chapter 18 Writing a Woman's Life: Celebration,
Sorrow, and Pathos in Margaret Laurence's Memoir Dance on the Earth Alexandra Pett

The writing of the story of a woman's life is not the same as the story itself, nor is remembering that story the same as living it. Paul de Man, in a well-known essay called "Autobiography as De-facement," raises an important theoretical issue in the form of a rhetorical question: "We assume that life produces the autobiography as an act produces its consequences, but can we not suggest, with equal justice, that the autobiographical project may itself produce and determine the life and that whatever the writer does is in fact governed by the technical demands of self- portraiture and thus determined, in all its aspects, by the resources of his medium?" (920) The metaphors used in enacting this autobiographical process vary, I believe, as the writer changes with the writing. Despite the flood of books about women's life writing, we are still in the infancy of our search for understanding of ways in which women have inscribed the self in their writing. As Sidonie Smith has explained, writing from the margins presents the woman autobiographer with many difficulties: "she resists participation in the fictions at the center of culture. Or, if she does not reject them, she self-reflexively appropriates bits and pieces of those fictions for her own purposes" (58). This description of the process of composing a woman's life story suggests a combining of disparate images to redesign what has at first seemed shapeless. In the case of Margaret Laurence autobiography, Dance on the Earth, published posthumously in 1989, the design and reweaving of past experiences could be described as quilting; in fact, she tells us that she regrets a childhood rejection of her grandmother's quilts but feels her grandmother's artistry as a continuing part of her inheritance: "My grandmother's quilt may be irretrievably lost, but the patterns and colours are clear in my mind" (13). Writing autobiography can be a powerful tool in connecting with seemingly lost ancestral roots, what has been called "the continuum of ancestors, those who dance on the earth" ( Coger270). Since dancing is also an art form, the process of recovery involves reinventing the past. As a realist writer and careful researcher, Laurence distinguishes between fiction and autobiography in her memoir, providing readers

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