New Dawn: The Journal of Black Canadian Studies

http://aries.oise.utoronto.ca/dawn/journal/

 

We Have Historically Been “Rooted” in/ Routed to This Place, and we are Here to Stay: Women’s Voices in Black Canadian Literature.

 

Andrea Davis

York University

 

 

The difficulty of, or slowness in, articulating a black Canadian literature comes from the assumption that blackness has no national relevance in Canada.  Literature, like history, has a deep political function. When a body of literature comes to be defined in relationship to a region (Caribbean Literature) or a nation state (African American Literature), it has claimed the right to represent the particular social, cultural and political consciousness of the space from or about which it writes. For Black literatures in the Americas, this claim to representation, which is also a claim to “authenticity” and ownership I have historically been “rooted” in/ routed to this place, and I am here to stay demands the negotiation of an intensely conflictual relationship between African diasporic writers and the region or nation(s) they claim to represent. Written from a place that has already been positioned on the margins, these literatures are forced into an oppositional role; they are called upon to represent national consciousness at the same time as they are required to critique it. The problem in defining a black Canadian literature is compounded not only by an official erasure of blackness as part of Canada’s national consciousness blacks are not “rooted” here but by a discourse of multiculturalism that reinforces blackness as a recent migratory experience originating from and loyal to competing national cultures located elsewhere blacks have only been accidentally “routed” here.

 

George Elliott Clarke in Odysseys Home: Mapping African Canadian Literature (2002) describes the difficulty of conceptualizing this literature precisely in terms of an inability to articulate a coherent black Canadian identity. African Canadian Literature, he argues, is “a project(ion) of the imagination. Never spoken of before the 1970s, it was not conceived as any coherent articulation of national culture(s)”.[1] Held as the standard against which to measure African Canadian Literature are other African diasporic literatures, which seemingly have less difficulty expressing more stable national identities. The literature of the English-speaking Caribbean, responding to the post-colonial independence euphoria of the 1950s and 1960s, for example, seemed self-consciously preoccupied with a discussion of political nationalism and cultural autonomy, even if these nationalisms were often competing ones.

 

 In the middle of the twentieth century, African American Literature was also busy (re)defining itself within an American canon according to black nationalist and black aesthetic traditions. The project was to delineate an African American literary form and style that could critique Euro-American values while establishing an African cultural tradition as part of an American reality. If we use the Caribbean and African American models, then, to argue that black literatures in the Americas must, of necessity, not only engage questions of cultural identity but be called upon (because of their oppositional stance) to represent these identities within coherent national narratives, then black Canadian literature might, indeed, be a “project(ion) of the imagination”.[2] “African Canada,” as Clarke maintains is

 

a fragmented collective, one fissured by religious, ethnic, class and length-of-residency differences. And few African Canadians express black nationalism that is not merely a nostalgic yearning for homelands in Africa, the Caribbean, or the Southern United States.[3]

 

While Clarke does go on in Odysseys Home to register black Canada’s heterogeneity as a valuable point of difference — an expression of what he calls African-Canadianité,[4] he always remains slightly suspicious of this potential and never quite discards his assumption that a clearly defined nationalism is essential to any black literary project.

 

I want to argue for a need to reconceptualize black Canadian literature in a way that can move us beyond a nationalist imperative. Black Canadian literature cannot be usefully read, as Clarke has already proven, as an attempt to define a unified black identity around which all black Canadian identities can cohere and, thus, assume a stance of opposition and resistance. What black Canadian literature offers is the convergence of multiple African diasporic voices, coming from different ethno-cultural, linguistic and national spaces, but together articulating a deliberately transgressive Canadianness that not only takes cultural differences into account but also positions the lived experiences of black Canadians as an essential part of a wider discussion about what it means to live and be in this country. Rather than trying to fit black Canadian literature into a mid-twentieth century Caribbean or African American model, I believe that there is another way of approaching this literature that accepts its plurality and heterogeneity, the very signs of its incoherence, as essential to the definition of a black Canadian literary project. Within Canada’s national discourse of multiculturalism, this plural and heterogeneous blackness functions contradictorily both as a sign of national obedience and disobedience. Thus, instead of articulating a black national identity that can function outside of (or even alongside) a canonized and revered white Canadian identity, black Canadian literature might be more interested in disrupting easy understandings of Canadianness to make space for other performances of cultural identity and belonging.

 

I want to argue further that the works of black women writers in Canada offer us, perhaps, the most critical tools in the reconceptualizing of what constitutes a black Canadian literature and in the articulation of (an)other kind of Canadianness that can account for both multiple black and multiple Canadian identities. To read these women writers in this way is to position them first as part of a cross-cultural dialogue that situates the work of black women writers in the Americas within a shared diasporic literary tradition. Since most of the black women writing in Canada represent multiple diasporic identities, understanding their work as part of a shared literary tradition is particularly useful. Writing from within this shared tradition, black women writers in the Americas after the 1970s made critical interventions into the nationalist projects that seemed to frame the largely male-centered literary discourses they entered.

 

These women writers have been forced to challenge both the racist and sexist discourse of wider post-colonial societies as well as the definition of black community as a monolithic sign of black, patriarchal identity that assumes a pure black cultural history and a fixed black subject. The women’s use of polyvocality and shifting, multiple perspectives allows them to engage the points at which cultures meet and diverge, understanding the potential for creation and transformation that these tensions make possible. As Carole Boyce Davies argues, Black women writers are involved in a crossing of boundaries and a redefinition of geography.[5] In Canada where many black women writers are of Caribbean or African descent twice or three times diasporized — the acts of boundary crossing are multiple and necessary, transgressing not just geography but also nation, ethnicity, gender, race and sexuality. 

 

I want to conclude finally by drawing on the work of a Canadian writer, Esi Edugyan, a Victoria-based writer of Ghanaian parentage who grew up in Calgary. Esi Edugyan’s novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne (2004), allows us to draw on a definition of black experiences in Canada as cross-cultural negotiation and, thus, to delineate home not so much as a particular geographic space but as a spiritual location of self and multiple identities. In this novel, home is not simply demarcated by specific national or even cultural identities but is the place where multiple experiences converge and sometimes clash, the place where historical memory resides. In this reading of home, homelessness is not just an inability to retrieve historical memory but an inability to reconcile historical memory with the present experience.

 

The novel combines the history of the migration of African Americans from Oklahoma to the Prairies in the early twentieth century with the story of Samuel Tyne, the novel’s main character, who emigrates from Ghana in 1955. A youth of brilliant promise whose colonial education misfits him for life in West Africa, Samuel migrates first to England where he completes a first-class honors degree in Economics and later to Canada, where struggling with the guilt of abandoning his country of birth, he tries desperately, but fails, to accomplish his dreams of greatness. Despite an overriding sense of pessimism that pervades this novel, and the seductive way in which its characters could get read not just as hopeless but also as homeless—emotionally and culturally suspended in a deeply traumatic third space, unable to return to Ghana (or the Gold Coast as it becomes fixed in their memory) and unable to fully inhabit Canada — I want to argue that Esi Edugyan offers a much more radical and redemptive definition of home by critically expanding our understanding of Canadianness.

 

The condition of homelessness and subsequent expressions of psychosis in this novel, Edugyan suggests, are the result of an inability to reconcile historical memory with present experiences. Akosua, Samuel’s neighbor who is also Ghanaian and understands the cultural and spiritual relevance of West African religious traditions, names the cause of his children’s mental and emotional disintegration as Samuel’s refusal to honor tradition and pay respect to the dead and the past. When Samuel inherits his uncle’s house, he refuses to perform the rituals that will honor the memory of his uncle and his ancestors. It is only at his wife’s death that Samuel begins to reconcile the past with the present, to make peace with that past, performing the rituals that can reconnect them both to a severed history, to clear the path into the present and future. As Samuel places his wife’s body in the cemetery, he realizes that “their citizenship had been finalized; their flesh, his kin, cold in the ground, were now inseverable from Alberta”.[6] Home, in this novel, is the place in which historical memories converge, do battle with the present and are finally reconciled.

 

Not only does Edugyan write black Canadian presence as “rooted” in the Prairies (a site of black Canadian identity that was violently contested in the early twentieth century and is now almost entirely ignored), but she also accounts for a black Canadian presence “routed” through many diasporic spaces, joining historical memories and cultural traditions to mark Canada and its Prairies as part of a deeply embedded African diasporic history. We have historically been “rooted” in/ routed to this place, and we are here to stay.

 

 

 

 

Andrea Davis is an Assistant Professor in the Humanities department at York University in Toronto, Ontario.

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

Clarke, George Elliott. Odysseys Home: Mapping African-

Canadian Literature.  Toronto: University of

Toronto Press, 2002.

 

Davies, Carole Boyce. Black Women, Writing and

Identity: Migrations of the Subject. London:

Routledge, 1994.

 

Edugyan, Esi.  The Second Life of Samuel Tyne. 

Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.



[1] George Elliot Clarke, Odysseys Home: Mapping African Canadian Literature. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002), 7.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 15.

[4] Ibid., 48.

[5] Carole Boyce Davies, Black Women, Writing and Identity:

Migrations of the Subject. (London: Routledge, 1994), 23.

[6] Esi Edugyan, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne. (Toronto:

Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), 314.