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Eyeing the North Star: Directions in African-canadian Literature

by George Elliott Clarke, ed.

How do you create literature in a way that is obviously “African-Canadian”? You simply can’t. African-Canadian writers such as Austin Clarke and Dionne Brand have produced some of the most poignant literature tackling themes of African cultural pride, post-colonial struggles, and slavery. And then there are stories such as “Rocking Chair” by Paul Tiyemba Zeleza, which is about an aging man who relies on his imagination to befriend butterflies and bees to overcome the banalities of his life.

Eyeing the North Star: Directions in African-Canadian Literature is a mixture of poetry and prose compiled by author and literature professor George Elliott Clarke containing writings from Canadian blacks residing throughout the African diaspora: Nova Scotia, Jamaica, Kenya, and South Africa, among other places. The selections include contemporary and historical work, as well as three new, previously unpublished stories.

The cultural diversity and hybridity of the writings in this collection is clearly its strength. Some of the rhetorical writing styles differ greatly based on geographic references and linguistics. For example, Makeda Silvera’s “No Beating Like This One” masterfully uses Jamaican patois vernacular in a fictional account of one child’s most memorable childhood beating. For most Caribbean children, like 11-year-old Elithia, who get in trouble the question isn’t whether they will get beaten or not, but rather what blunt instrument will be used. Silvera’s treatment of this cultural norm is so truthful in its tone it reads like a satirical autobiography.

Gerard Etienne, on the other hand, writes out of the protest tradition – long a standard of black literature – in “La Pacotille,” a story in which Haitian freedom-fighters, members of the “Organization,” are victims of political persecution. The tone is so apocalyptic and surreal that the impending death of the 22-year-old main character, Etienne, is liberating compared to the torture some of her allies face.

The full range of black literary themes in Eyeing the North Star, while praiseworthy, makes for an inconsistent read, however. Dany Laferriere’s comedic “Dining With the Dictator,” for example, which drags us into the menacing world of women who use, abuse, and cast away men as payback for the mistreatment of their mothers, does not have any of the strong African-Canadian nuances or priorities so evident in much of the rest of the book. In a similar vein, Paul Zeleza’s story lacks any specific cultural themes in terms of language or character. Herein lies one of the difficulties in putting together a collection of works with such profound thematic inconsistencies under the African-Canadian umbrella.

Eyeing the North Star is, nevertheless meaningful and a must-have. It gives historical context and forges new paths in a literary marketplace that has, for the most part, ignored work written by and about African-Canadians.


Reviewer: Dalton Higgins

Publisher: McClelland & Stewart


Price: $19.99

Page Count: 312 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 0-7710-2125-9

Released: Mar.

Issue Date: 1997-3

Categories: Anthologies