Tuesday, May 01, 2007

THE DIVINERS: Looking at Canada through Margaret Laurence's Eyes


Albert Memmi said: “ Colonial racism is built from three major ideological components: one, the gulf between the culture of the colonist and the colonized; two, the exploitation of these differences for the benefit of the colonialist; three, the use of these supposed differences as standards of absolute fact... racism appears then, not as an incidental detail, but as a consubtantial part of colonialism.” There are a lot of people living in a big, rich country such as Canada, who already face marginalization, poverty, prejudice, abuse, and intolerance, all because of the way of this country was originally shaped by colonialism. As a result there is not a place for people with disadvantage to find support so that they can overcome their own challenges in order to integrate in this developed country.

Margaret Lawrence addresses these problems and she creates characters such as Jules who find ways to overcome those barriers and become the diviners, making their own path and bringing some support to others less fortunate. Margaret Laurence makes the point when she quotes: "In days of yore / From Britain’s shore / Wolfe the donkless hero CAME / And planted firm Britannia’s flag / On Ca-na-da’s fair do-MAIN. / Here may it wave / Our boas’ our pride / And join in LUV together / The THISTLE SHAMROCK ROSE entwine / The MAPLE LEAF FOREVER!"

Margaret Laurence uses these lyrics ironically, talking about the flag of a new land which was established by people achieving ownership by using violence against other, less fortunate, people. As a result, the descendants of these more fortunate people, the Anglo-Saxon community, feel that they are special just for their background and skin color, and because they can have access to some power positions. Meanwhile other people, such as Jules, are deprived of their rights in disadvantage, because they are poor, or they are native or metis, or they are women or children, and then the privileged people justify this subjugation by singing that song.

Margaret Laurence is suggesting that even though Canada at the beginning was created by a bunch of people who killed natives, expelled the French people and used the flu bacteria to kill many aboriginals, now is the time to be a progressive country that can offer to the less fortunate the necessary support to help them to overcome all those “isms” that contributed to making their lives miserable. For example Margaret Lawrence mentions two situations involving injustice, one with Piquette, who ended her life tragically in a fire, and yet many people showed little or no compassion for her. As a result she didn’t even have a decent obituary in the local newspaper, simply because she is a native.

The second example involves the white tourists who Jules thinks were responsible for the death of his brother Paul. The system is set up in such a way that nobody bothers to investigate why one aboriginal did not return from the trip, and as a result Jules never finds who was responsible for the death of his brother. The people who kill (the white tourists) and those who fail to bring them to justice (the Anglo-Saxon system) are the same people who sang in loud voices “The Maple Leaf Forever”, demonstrating the colonialism that exists in this country.

As an immigrant who is reading this book I can see that the central problem of “The Diviners” arises from the clash of the two different perspectives. Those people who originally sang that song when Canada was taking shape may have had to struggle for more power and control; but they were people who knew how to use the system in order to keep their own power and hand it on to their descendants, who continue to sing their own song. Others who lack power, as a result cannot take control of their own lives because the system cannot help them to overcome these barriers. They cannot identify with that song, as happens with Skinner Tonnerre (Jules) and with Morag. “He comes from nowhere. He isn’t anybody. She stops singing, not knowing why. Then she feels silly about stopping, so sings again”. Even though Morag does not know why she stops, she feels innately the injustice of the situation. Thus Margaret Laurence makes her point that this country belongs to those people who sing and can have the power to mould and protect their own interests, but not to those other marginalized people such as Christie and Jules who do not have access to that power.

One might ask why the native or metis victims didn’t fight back. Margaret Lawrence suggests that if people are facing injustice they either give way before that injustice, or they have to become diviners in one form or another in order to overcome emotionally or in material way their own disadvantage. Diviners, including Margaret Laurence herself, are these who “see” things that others cannot see. Margaret Laurence opens demonstrates the enormous opportunities for those who can seize them: we can become diviners if we see things that at the present moment seen invisible, and if we display compassion and find ways to make the difference. Many characters in the novel do in fact become diviners. Christie “reads” the garbage, tells stories and sees clearly his own position within society, which helps him to keep going by despising the hypocrisy of others. Morag uses the letters and words to write her own story and in turn demonstrates within her own writing how others become diviners. Royland divines for water, giving himself a purpose over and beyond his status in society. And Jules and Pique divine through their own songs, thus enabling themselves to overcome their pain. As a result we –the readers- don’t want to be part of the system, and we realize that, like the diviners, we have to find ways to control our own destiny, and therefore be in a position to fight back.

Canada started at the beginning creating those institutionalized abuses against many people. There is a lot of commitment in order to improve the conditions both in the novel and in the real world, but people still have to struggle for their rights and cannot overcome poverty because they do not have enough support. This novel strongly advocates for all people, especially the disadvantaged, who live in this country, and Margaret Laurence makes us reflect that Canada is not a paradise. There are terrible things that we need to clean in order to restore the value of dignity to everybody, because we cannot have a country divided into two kinds of people: those people who can live with dignity and those who cannot have dignity.

Everybody deserves to fully participate in society even if they are poor or native, or women or children. Margaret Laurence shows that everybody deserves respect, and that people can make the difference if they have the strength of conviction to allow them to work together in order to provide mechanisms that people can use to take control of their own lives in this country. When Margaret Laurence raised her voice on behalf of Morag or Jules or Piquette, she in turn was making a difference by talking about not just the problems of being a woman or native or poor, but also by showing that it is wrong that people are treated this way. Her novel shows that it is important that people with disadvantages have supporting systems that help them to take control of their own lives on their own terms so that they can fully participate in their own communities.

REFERENCES Laurence, M. (1988) The Diviners.

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