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Revival: An Anthology of Black Canadian Writing

by Donna Bailey Nurse

“Literature has been the means through which I have learned to understand who I am and who I might be,” writes Donna Bailey Nurse in the introduction to this, the first major anthology of black Canadian writing since 1997’s Eyeing the North Star, edited by poet and novelist George Elliott Clarke. As literature did for her, Nurse argues, so it can and does do for others; thus the kind of work included here “represents a crucial voice in the necessary conversation about the black experience in Canada.”

Nurse sees the last decade as a period in which “black Canadian writing has come of age.” Though Nurse includes work from many of the same writers who appeared in earlier anthologies, there are enough new names to bolster her claim – writers like poets Shane Book and Wayne Compton and novelists Kim Barry Brunhuber and Tessa McWatt.

The 50-odd entries from 29 different writers run the gamut from Dany Laferrière’s Henry Millerish bawdiness to Esi Edugyan’s more conventional and muted historical fiction, and from a defiant, Virginia Woolf-baiting poem by Pamela Mordecai to a sad, nearly maudlin novel excerpt by Althea Prince.

One of the more interesting aspects of any anthology is the interplay between the selected pieces: how they clash, complement, or contradict each other; how they group together in the reader’s mind. The theme of continuity runs through much of the work included here – perhaps inevitably, as much black Canadian writing overlaps with the larger literature of immigration, in which the question of continuity – of culture, of tradition, of religion, of language, of self – is crucial.

In some cases, this results in a concern with the experiences of previous generations. Afua Cooper’s poem “Memories Have Tongue” begins “My granny say she had a bad memory/when I ask her to tell/me some of her life.” In the excerpt from Lorna Goodison’s memoir From Harvey River, she writes, “As a child I constantly asked my mother about her life before, as she put it, ‘things changed.’” The narrator of the Althea Prince excerpt, a young woman who emigrates from Antigua to Toronto, notes that after a few years in her adopted country, the “sound of the song of my family moved itself to a more distant place inside me.”

As with most immigration-themed writing – and with most writing in general – this rear-view, longing-for-the-past perspective tends to produce work that is more reflective but less vibrant. The more satisfying pieces in Revival are those that veer away from sentimentality. Olive Senior’s short story “Do Angels Wear Brassieres?” is a sharply funny tale told in jumping, lively vernacular. Both H. Nigel Thomas’s story “How Loud Can the Village Cock Crow?” and the excerpt from George Elliott Clarke’s novel George & Rue are dark, violent, and haunting.

The two most interesting takes on the theme of black identity, especially as it relates to the question of continuity, are also two of the anthology’s most dissimilar pieces. “The Black Speaker,” a poem by Jemeni, a Toronto spoken word artist and radio host, begins with a flurry of hip-hop defiance before shifting abruptly into a more self-deprecating tone as the poem’s speaker attempts in vain to interest a group of black students in their own history. (“Now the guest speaker’s talking about Mumia Abu-Jamal/And the trials that he had./Ain’t he the guy who played Theo on The Cosby Show?”)

Similarly, in the introduction to his memoir of his father, In the Shadow of a Saint, Ken Wiwa confesses to feeling more resentment than pride over his activist father’s legacy. “I used to fantasize about his death,” Wiwa writes, “imagining it as the moment when I would finally be free to be my own man.” Wiwa’s admission, coming only a few years after his father’s brutal execution at the hands of the Nigerian government, is a powerful reminder that the emotional and cultural commerce between generations is not as benign or as pure as some of the other pieces here would suggest.