New Dawn: The Journal of Black Canadian Studies

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

 

 

Revival: An Anthology of Black Canadian Writing

Donna Bailey Nurse, editor

Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2006

408 Pages ISBN:0771067631

 

Reviewed by: Leslie Sanders, York University

 

 

 

The publication of a new anthology of Black Canadian writing, and from the premier Canadian press, is, indeed, an event of note, and it is apt that it be reviewed in this, the first issue of New Dawn.  Why should such an anthology exist at all, asked reviewer Philip Marchand in the Toronto Star (February 26, 2006)?  Similarly, it might be asked, why this journal?  Why focus on Black Canada?

 

Many answers might be given to this question, each suggestive of a complex politics of race and nation.  First and foremost, of course, the cultural expression of every group has its own richness and complexity, and so one might retort simply “why not”?  That said, as Dionne Brand reflects in Map to the Door of No Return:  “Black experience in any modern city or town in the Americas is a haunting.  One enters a room and history follows, one enters a room and history precedes”.[1]  This too might be said of cultural expression in the Afrospora, as NourbeSe Philip calls it.  Born in struggle and adversity, courage and defiance, Black diasporic cultures continually challenge whatever place they inhabit, recognizing the provisional nature of their arrivals and belonging but recognizing, too, that their struggles against racism and oppression have profound resonance beyond themselves.  History, indeed, accompanies and surrounds the texts in this anthology; thus, it is the editor’s task to contextualize and suggest mappings for the linguistic and thematic commonalities among these works, as well as to clarify the ways in which their various traditions might also be specific and unique.  Further, any editor must justify her choices and describe the snapshot that the anthology she has composed suggests to her readers, both those familiar with what they will encounter and those who take up the anthology to inform themselves.

 

Editor Donna Bailey Nurse sees her project as furthering the work of earlier anthologies, particular the M&S anthology of a decade ago, Eyeing the North Star, edited by George Elliott Clarke.  Her anthology, she asserts, provides a contemporary overview of a literature that has come “of age.”  She immediately claims the literature’s importance in personal terms:  as “the means through which I have learned to understand who I am and who I might be — as a human being, as a woman, and as a person of African descent (xi)”.  Continuing in this personal vein: Bailey Nurse reveals that she became a literary critic to engage in the discussion and to “lead the dialogue” on black literature in Canada.  Yet she refuses an authoritative stance, prefacing her brief historical overview with the comment:  For me, [emphasis added] the seeds of contemporary black literature were sown in the mid-sixties with the novels of Austin Clarke” and the concomitant flowering of a self-consciously nationalist Canadian literature, both in Canada and Quebec (xii).

 

Bailey Nurses’s proposition regarding Austin Clarke is reasonable, although writer and scholar George Elliott Clarke might point out that it obscures the social and political factors which inspired such writers as Maxine Tynes, George Boyd, Walter Gordon, Sylvia Hamilton, and George Elliott Clarke himself. In any event, Austin Clarke’s rise and influence was shaped by a variety of forces that are crucial to the story:  the Civil Rights and Black Arts Movements in the United States, anti-colonial and independence movements in the Caribbean and on the African continent and their accompanying literary renaissance.  Moreover, if his writing “brought the colonial and the post-colonial into the Canadian literary context,” surely it is a racially inflected (post)colonial discussion that he interjects into the (post)colonial mindset of the settler colony (xiv).  Poet Claire Harris, for example, has spoken of her recognition of Canada as a colony, upon emigrating from Trinidad.[2]

 

The selections in Revival, twenty-nine authors, over fifty texts, include writers from the Caribbean and continental Africa as well as writers born in Canada.  Bailey Nurse accounts for the diversity of her authors by reference to Paul Gilroy’s theory of Black Atlantic cultural hybridity, and briefly delineates themes occurring in the texts.  The choice of writers and the selections, however, are puzzling to those familiar with Black Canadian writing of the past forty years. Absent are the two best known, nationally and internationally:  Austin Clarke and Dionne Brand, and without their presence, the anthology cannot claim to represent the most important or best contemporary writing.  Also missing is the voice of the prolific novelist and essayist Cecil Foster.  Some of the writers are among the foremost Caribbean writers, Olive Senior, Pam Mordecai, Rachel Manley and Lorna Goodison, in particular, and it is that landscape that continues to spark their genius. In fact, a third of the writers evoke the Caribbean, and not Canada, an aspect of the anthology that needs some explication beyond the evocation of black cultural hybridity. Some selections by chosen writers also are puzzling.  Although the introduction suggests that the text will contain more recent work by those whom George Elliott Clarke had included in his earlier anthology, Claire Harris, NourbeSe Philip, Dany Laferrière, and Afua Cooper are represented by work from two decades ago.  The Harris choices are especially odd:  Harris has much more provocative work that takes up Canada in challenging ways; these selections do not.  In addition, the second poem, “Travelling to Find a Remedy,” is given a final haiku that is not part of the poem in the original text.  Nalo Hopkinson’s work surely needs some commentary regarding the folklore and Carnival custom on which it draws, and mention of her unique project in the genres of science fiction, fantasy and speculative writing.

 

The writers in Revival give pleasure, of course. However, the anthology will not answer the questions of a Canadian reader unfamiliar with Black Canadian writers who wants to know “what’s going on”; it certainly won’t inform readers from elsewhere, either. It is not particularly useful in the classroom if to be used as representative.  Finally, and perhaps most important, its critical introduction frames the literature in terms of identity within multiculturalism, a problematic that in itself insists on a static mosaic, rather than dialogue, creolization, and change.  Black Canadian literature speaks to the nation and beyond nation; it must be given that platform.  Publication by Canada’s premier press would seem to allow that; however, finally, Revival is a disappointment.

 

 

 

Leslie Sanders is an Associate Professor at the School of Arts and Letters department at York University in Toronto, Ontario. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

Brand, Dionne. A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to

Belonging (Doubleday Canada, 2001), 24.

 

Clarke, George Elliott. Eyeing the North Star: directions

in African-Canadian literature. Toronto McClelland & Stewart, 1997.

 

Harris, Claire. “A Sense of Responsibility:  An Interview

with Claire Harris,” edited by Leslie Sanders and Arun

Mukherjee, West Coast Line 31.1 (Spring/Summer 1997): 26-37.

 

 



[1] Dionne Brand, A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging (Doubleday Canada, 2001), 24.

[2] A Sense of Responsibility:  An Interview with Claire Harris,” edited by Leslie Sanders and Arun Mukherjee, West Coast Line 31.1 (Spring/Summer 1997): 26-37.