- Margaret Laurence Writes Africa and Canada by Laura K. Davis
This book presents an incisive reading of Margaret Laurence's writings about Africa and Canada "in relation to the history and politics within which [they are] embedded." Among several distinguishing marks of the book, Laura K. Davis includes in the book's conclusion what is arguably the first critical discussion of Laurence's published and unpublished letters in order to make a "connection between [Laurence's] imagined characters in the letters and some of her characters in her [stories]." Margaret Laurence Writes Africa and Canada contains two sections. The first section, "Writing about Africa," which contains two chapters, provides fresh and compelling insight into Laurence's writing about Africa. Davis examines Laurence's complicated feminist and anti-imperialist vision in these works in order to delineate the writer's artistic commitments in her early writings of the 1950s and 1960s. Davis contends that these writings underscore Laurence's commitment to building "cross-cultural understanding" between the West and Africa. In her "Africa" stories, as Davis's reading shows, tension borders on "the difficulties in communication between … European and African cultures" as well as between European and African characters who "are not at home in the place where they reside" (Africa).
The second section, "Writing about Canada," equally contains two chapters, each dealing with Laurence's work about Canada. Davis links Laurence's work about Canada to her "Africa" writing, arguing that Laurence's [End Page 226] ethical commitments and artistic vision in her work about Canada is significantly shaped by her experiences in colonized African contexts as demonstrated in her writings about Africa. Underpinning Laurence's writing about Canada, as Davis further contends, is what must be considered a "radical" [multicultural] re-envisioning of the [Canadian] nation," which, as with the writing about Africa, works towards cross-cultural understanding between European settlers and Aboriginal peoples in Canada. Davis proves adept at discussing Laurence's work as offering a profoundly sustained feminist critique of imperialism. The anti-imperialist vision in Laurence's work, according to Davis, was fundamentally shaped by the writer's experience as a Canadian woman, a feminine experience that endowed her with "sympathy" for oppressed groups. For Davis, Laurence in her work about Africa and Canada often conflates imperial violence with Western patriarchal violence in order to expose the complicity of one in the other and thus to critique both.
Yet, as Davis contends throughout Margaret Laurence Writes Africa and Canada, Laurence was aware of her own position of privilege in the two colonial contexts of Africa and Canada, an awareness that makes her include characters in her stories whom Davis describes as "divided subjects." Divided subjects are characters who, like Laurence herself, have to confront situations of their ambivalent positions as enablers and detractors of imperialism or characters having to negotiate their ambivalent and complicated relationship with their ancestral imperial nation against their identities within the colonized nation of their settlement. Through such depictions of ambivalence, as Davis argues, Laurence critiques imperialism while, at the same time, envisioning prospects for cross-cultural understanding between colonizing and colonized peoples.
Margaret Laurence Writes Africa and Canada is not without significant problems of its own. Besides Davis's overly congratulatory reading of Laurence's work, which sometimes sacrifices critical perception for claims that at best remain sentimental, the critic appears in several instances to make undue excuses for what evidently are problematic (if not racist) representations of the colonized world, especially Africa, in Laurence's work. For example, Davis reads Laurence's staging of Africa in her work as a site where Europeans go to learn about themselves. Granted that Davis tries to explain the implications of such representations of Africa in Laurence's work, yet her overall attitude to this representation betrays her acceptance of it as ultimately a radical critique of imperialism since, invariably, she concludes that Laurence's European characters' "attempts to understand the Africa in which they reside are also attempts to know the self." Throughout Margaret Laurence Writes Africa and Canada, the...