Sunday, October 09, 2011

Books: The Tomorrow-Tamer

Although Margaret Laurence is best known for penning the Manawaka series (most particularly The Stone Angel), she actually began writing fiction set in Africa, not in small-town Manitoba.

From 1950 until 1957, Margaret Laurence and her husband lived in Somalia and Ghana. She approached this time in Africa with a writer’s curiosity and her keen sense of observation. In Somalia she fostered relationships with locals and expats so as to understand and ultimately translate Somali poetry – which became her first published book: A Tree for Poverty.

The Tomorrow-Tamer is set in Ghana around the time of the country’s independence from British colonialism. In a series of 10 short-stories, Laurence explores the themes of freedom, change, belonging and foreignness. Though aware of the risks she took, she boldly chooses to write not just from the foreign perspective, but from the perspectives of Africans, male and female, young and old.

For those who know the Manawaka series, you probably know how true the characters are. The characters of Hagar and Morag are so vividly real to me when I read about them. Their voices, through Laurence, are hauntingly real.

Not surprisingly, this authenticity doesn’t come through in the Tomorro-Tamer’s short-stories, although there are certainly glimmers of it. Indeed, one can see the development of Laurence as a writer in comparing this early work to her later novels. The vivid descriptions and details are there, but she is not able to fully inhabit her characters the way she did in her later work.

Laurence was aware of these shortcomings. “I actually wonder how I ever had the nerve to attempt to go into the mind of an African man,” she mused in a later essay, “and I suppose if I’d really known how difficult the job I was attempting, I would never have tried it.”

Yet despite some weaknesses, these stories are still valuable – both as insight into Laurence and her young, yet very evident, talent, and to the socio-political context which she describes. Africa was under-going rapid transformations and Laurence, as a keenly observant outsider, offers a rich, if flawed, perspective on these changes and the tension between modernization and tradition, belonging and foreignness, home and away.

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