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What’s a Black Critic to Do? Interviews, Profiles and Reviews of Black Writers

by Donna Bailey Nurse

A key figure in the growing public discourse on race and voice in Canadian letters is Toronto reviewer, literary critic, and journalist Donna Bailey Nurse. Her first book, What’s a Black Critic To Do?, is a collection of 10 years’ worth of reviews, interviews, essays, and profiles, many of which first appeared in The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, and Quill & Quire.

While Canadian figures like Lawrence Hill, Cecil Foster, M.G. Vassanji, André Alexis, and Neil Bissoondath are all represented, she also includes a number of pieces on international writers. As she says in her introduction, with obvious delight, “I can’t think of another profession in which I would be invited to spend the day with Toni Morrison or an hour in dialogue with Carlos Fuentes or breakfast with Jamaica Kincaid.” Nor does she limit herself to “black or West Indian” writers, including pieces about such writers as Richard Wagamese and Shauna Singh Baldwin.

Among the book’s many highlights are a profile of Austin Clarke (first printed in Quill & Quire) following his being awarded the Giller Prize for The Polished Hoe, an examination of documentarian Ken Burns’s treatment of race issues in his films, and lengthy interviews with Toni Morrison and Nalo Hopkinson.

Nurse’s pieces are a pleasure to read, insightful and thought-provoking without being pedantic or alarmist. While race is the unavoidable and recurring leitmotif of her writing, Nurse never panders to easy points or straw dogs, keeping attention firmly focused on the work or author in question, and the concerns they raise. Most significantly, she packs each piece as fully as possible with admirable concision and careful attention to detail, making good use of the limited space allotted for writing on literature in the mainstream press.