Donez Xiques’ Margaret Laurence: The Making of a Writer
Dundurn Press, 2005

There are many biographical and critical works about Margaret Laurence. If you’re interested in her writing, you might appreciate the pioneering works of Clara Thomas, her 1969 biography, named for her subject, or The Manawaka World of Margaret Laurence (1975).

Or you might prefer a more modern traditional biography, like James King’s The Life of Margaret Laurence (1998) or Lyall Powers’ Alien Heart: The Life and Work of Margaret Laurence (2004). Or you might prefer to go right to the source and read Margaret Laurence’s autobiographical Dance on the Earth.

But if you are particularly interested in Margaret Laurence’s development as a writer, Donez Xiques’ Margaret Laurence: The Making of a Writer is the perfect place to start.

One of the aspects that I found most interesting is the consideration given to Margaret Laurence’s reading as a young girl and as a young writer. (Much of this is available in other works, like Dance on the Earth and various collections of letters, particularly her correspondence with Adele Wiseman which was published selectively by U of T in 1997, but I appreciate having it all gathered in Xiques’ narrative.)

Books which influenced her included Kidnapped, The White Company, Kim, Anne of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon. Xiques suggests that ML may have been excited and even a little overwhelmed by the uncanny resemblances between the life of L.M. Montgomery’s Emily (whom we meet in Emily of New Moon and follow through Emily Climbs and Emily’s Quest) and her own life.

Not the least of which was Emily’s escape into writing which mirrored ML’s, given that she never found, in small-town Neepawa, any other children who were as interested in language, poetry, and literature as she. “Reading about the life of the fictional Emily must have been a real comfort to Peggy.” Perhaps she owned a copy of that book, but she later recalled borrowing The White Company from the school library at least half a dozen times. (As a chronic re-reader, I found great comfort in that, too!)

“However, a strong desire to write and a talent for writing developed during those same years and, over time, as will be shown in more detail, that desire and talent came to provide her with some degree of control and escape from the pain and frustration that threatened her well-being.” Her published writing, however, was predominantly journalistic to start with, however, first with “The Westerner”, a Communist paper (she thought they just “leaned left” until she started working there, and eventually she was laid off), and, later, “The Winnipeg Citizen”.

Her work in journalism influenced her writing in many ways which Xiques identifies, some of which might be unexpected to those who have focussed more on the biographical elements of Margaret Laurence’s life without considering how various events may have impacted her prose. For instance, Xiques observes that, while ML was reviewing radio programs in her work as a journalist, she trained her ear to the nuances of language, the effectiveness of dialogue, and the subtle rhythms of the spoken word. She also wrote book reviews in that time and it’s interesting to note that Xiques spots a shift in her tone, the early reviews being more confident, emphatic and assertive than the reviews she wrote in later years, which were more sympathetic and less caustic.

One of the most important aspects of Donez Xiques’ work, for me, was the importance she identified in Margaret Laurence’s writing about Africa and the work that she produced while living there with Jack. I, too, (like many readers) am guilty of thinking of the Manawaka works as being “more important”, “more realized” works, but it makes sense, particularly in considering her development as a writer, to take a harder look at these works which are less often read and discussed. She lived in British Somaliland Protectorate for less than two years but it had a radical impact on her, as a person and as a writer.

One of the influences on her writing was developed over the period of time she spent shaping translations (from Somali to English), which sharpened her skills with rhythm and phrasing. Nonetheless, she was aware that her interest in the culture was not akin to that of other wives who had accompanied their husbands to this district, other families who sought primarily to emulate their left-behind lives as closely as possible.

She was fascinated by her surroundings and, simultaneously frustrated by the limitations that her colonial visitor’s status imposed upon her; she knew that she could not truly inhabit this place, and she understood why the locals did not necessarily welcome her presence, did not necessarily recognize that her views differed from many other people’s in the same position. She struggled a great deal with the translations and with her attempts to capture the complexities of Somali life from her perspective as an outsider, but she persisted

Her interest in this culture was not confined to the period of time she spent living in it either; she continued to collect and read books by and about Africans throughout her life. At the time of her death, she had more than 100 such books in her library, with extensive pencil notes and scoring, and yet, despite the influence that these writings would have had on her own work, it’s all-too-easy to overlook the importance of something that

In a chronological biography, it’s quite possible that this brief period of time might be encapsulated in a relatively few number of pages, but in the context of Margaret Laurence’s development as a writer, it makes sense for considerable time to be devoted to these years, her early writing years. It’s interesting to consider how the same events might be presented in Xiques’ work whereas in a traditional biography the emphasis might be different. For instance, the experience of marriage and motherhood is considered here in terms of how marital confluence and discord contributed to (or hindered) ML’s capacity to write, rather than on their own terms.

The book also challenges some commonly held beliefs about ML, for instance, the identity of The Stone Angel. This statue is often presumed to be modelled after one memorial which looks down upon Neepawa from the local cemetery, but it is identified otherwise in this work (and in a way which also affords the African years greater influence). In Xiques’ work, quoting a letter from ML to Clara Thomas, she speaks of rounding Gibraltar and passing into the Mediterranean Sea, and staying in Genoa for several days, saying it was there that she saw The Stone Angel.

It’s interesting to consider how many times we may have assumed (as readers, critics, etc.) that the influences upon this notable writer are those which we can most easily imagine being influential based on her experiences in Canada, but of course her life experience would have informed her writing, and our assumptions might have been more limited than we’ve guessed. At the very least, Donna Xiques has made me want to revisit Margaret Laurence’s “African writings”; I know, now, that I’ve missed a great deal.

I’m usually so spoiler-phobic that it gives me a particular thrill to share the last sentence of Margaret Laurence: The Making of a Writer. It would also have served as a good introduction to this post: “The unfolding of Margaret Laurence’s own early story — her literary apprenticeship and her emergence as a writer — makes the account of her literary beginnings as compelling and vivid a story as any in the world of her own fiction.”

Definitely a compelling and vivid story in my book. Do give it a go if you’re interested in Margaret Laurence or intrigued by The Writing Life.

PS Even the appendices bring another dimension to ML’s life. Included are “Mrs. Cathcart, In and Out of Purdah” (a short story which was never published, which had remained in John Cushman’s NY agency); “A Queen in Thebes” (which was published in Tamarack Review, Summer 1964 but is hard-to-find now); and, A Fable – For the Whaling Fleets (which was published in Whales: A Celebration, Ed. Greg Gatenby, and the fact that she included it in the second half of her memoir suggests its significance to ML).