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by Jot Oughton

EARLY BOOKS by authors who later win renown are oftenrepublished for the sake of fans, students of I literature -- and afew dollars for the publisher. But there is another reason for ECW Press, incooperation with McMaster University, to Put Margaret Laurence`s A Tree for Poverty (xxx, 145 pages, $16 paper) back on bookstore shelves: it is apparently thefirst English translation of Somali oral literature. Somalia is known more forstarvation and civil war than literature at the Moment, but it evidently has along and rich tradition of both poetry and stories, a tradition that Laurencewas exposed to when she lived in Somalia for two years in the early 1950s. As Laurence herselfnotes in the book`s preface, her translations are sometimes "amateurish";she struggles with the poetry, and it is also evident that her ear for prosewas not yet fully tuned. But there is little point now to skewering sentencesand phrases that fail to flow. This collection is still worth reading, both forits insights into Laurence`s character, and for the power of the originalstories and poems. Given the currentclimate of literary politics, a white writer might he accused Of unconsciousracism and appropriation in attempting a lengthy introduction to, andtranslations of, a culture so different from her own. It`s a credit toLaurence`s humanity that she approached her task with humility, and was able toacknowledge the dangers of her cross-cultural enterprise while showingsuch love for the literature (and the people) she was attempting to introduceto Western readers. Many of the stories have the kind of perception and charmfound in Sufi stories such as those attributed to Nasrudin Hoja. At their best,these translations remind LIS just how profound an oral literature can be.

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