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Sparrow, Fiona
Toronto, ECW Press, 1992. 251pp, paper, $25.00, ISBN 1-55022-169-8. Distributed by General Distribution Services. CIP

Grades 12 and up/Ages 17 and up

Reviewed by Katheryn Broughton

Volume 21 Number 6
1993 November

This critical work encompasses Margaret Laurence's years in Africa: she is introduced as a young writer delighted to have the opportunity to encounter the culture of an area completely foreign to her, and eager to learn from the people she meets. Fiona Sparrow has used her University of Toronto thesis as a basis for her book and divides her criticism into three sections. In part I, entitled "Margaret Laurence of Hargesia," Sparrow delineates Laurence's experiences as an outsider in British Somaliland and her fascination with Somali poets and story-tellers. Laurence developed a deep admiration for these people, who were fated to live out their lives under terrible conditions of poverty in a climate of unbelievable severity.

She was delighted with the stories she heard and "surprised by the literary fertility of an illiterate people." She learned to see their oral tradition as incredibly rich and the designation "illiterate" as inaccurate.

With the help of local story-tellers, Laurence transformed their literal translations of their tales and poetry into literary form. She immersed herself in the writings of other foreigners who had lived in Somaliland as well, and made it her business to understand as well as possible the attitudes and mind-set that lay behind their literary works.

Laurence and her husband went from Somalia to the Gold Coast just as the Gold Coast was about to become the independent state of Ghana. This is the locale for part II of Sparrow's book; here Laurence met local writers and wrote fiction of her own. She was always hard on herself and later thought she had had considerable temerity in attempting to get inside the mind of an African male in her novel This Side Jordan (McClelland & Stewart, 1989).

Sparrow compares Laurence's work favourably with expatriate writers of note (Joyce Cary and Graham Greene) as well as with fellow Canadians Dave Godfrey and Audrey Thomas. Perhaps Laurence's success was due to her reluctance to presume understanding and the fact that the West Africans she knew best were the "been-tos," writers who had been educated abroad and did not wish to live as their ancestors had but were nevertheless poignantly aware of a debt to their past.

Sparrow evaluates Laurence's writing of this time; she also explores the idea of an "African consciousness" while acknowledging the difficulty of doing so in view of the incredible variety of ethnic groups living on the continent.

Part III looks at Laurence's work as a critic, analyzing Long Drums and Cannons (Macmillan, 1968), her book on Nigerian literature. In separate chapters, Sparrow evaluates Laurence's view of the works of Nigerian writers Achebe and Soyinka, as we as minor writers of that time. Achebe felt that Laurence "assessed the African viewpoint with understanding."

Laurence's African works can be evaluated best by referring to Galaal, her collaborator in translating Somali poetry and stories who said years later, "... my people had this vast body of oral poetry, but until the book (A Tree for Poverty [McMaster University Library, 1970]) came out, we never really knew we had a literature."

This scholarly work includes an appendix, notes, "Works Consulted" and a comprehensive index.

Highly recommended for senior students and adults.

Katheryn Broughton is a retired high school teacher-librarian in Thornhill, Ontario
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