The New Black: African Canadian Writing
The day after the Giller Awards I had breakfast with a friend at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto. The ceremony had been held there the night before and as I savoured my bagel and lox we discussed Esi Edugyan’s thrilling win for Half-Blood Blues.
“She seemed genuinely surprised,” said my friend, who was describing the event, for she had attended the gala and I had not. “She looked gorgeous. Her dress was amazing. Oh look,” she broke off, “there she is!”
I turned in my chair to see Edugyan and her husband, Steven Price, being seated at the table behind me. What good luck. I had been hoping to catch up with her at some point to congratulate her in person. Happily, here she was.
We both jumped up.
“I’m ecstatic for you,” I said.
“Me too,” she replied. Her heart-shaped face was glowing.
Back at our table, I felt the embarrassing prick of tears.
“Everything OK?” my friend asked.
I wasn’t sure.
I guess Edugyan’s win meant more to me than I realized. It had been quite a ride. I’d received galleys of Half-Blood Blues the year before, and was captivated by the account of an inter-racial jazz band in Europe during the Third Reich. The story lingered in my mind, especially the passages about the Afro-German trumpeter who is arrested by the Nazis. I was taken by the dizzying originality of Edugyan’s plot and the aplomb of her execution. In February, she had joined me for an onstage interview at the Toronto Public Library. I was upset to learn that the collapse of Key Porter Books jeopardized the novel’s release, and was relieved when Patrick Crean of Thomas Allen eventually picked it up.
I was particularly thrilled that a black Canadian had taken home the Giller Prize. Austin Clarke won for The Polished Hoe in 2002, but that felt different to me. Clarke had been slaving away at his craft for 40 years. Long embraced by the literary establishment, his win was an acknowledgement of talent and a lifetime’s achievement.
Edugyan, on the other hand, exploded out of nowhere. She was black, female and a virtual unknown, in no way beholden to the academic movers and shakers who preside over black Canadian letters. We’d hardly heard from her since 2004, when Knopf published her debut novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne. Her win confirmed to me that tokenism in black Canadian letters was dying, or even dead, and that a literature I believe in was finally free to flourish.
Half-Blood Blues, like Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, has become a bestseller. Some critics are surprised by the wide appeal of these two books, but it makes sense to me. Black stories are popular because they touch on two concerns close to every human heart: the desire for acceptance, to feel as though we belong; and the desire to be free to be who we are meant to be. Black Canadian stories feel quintessentially Canadian. The early novels of Austin Clarke, for example, started a vigorous discussion of hyphenated identities — the idea that we are either Irish-Canadian or Italian-Canadian or black-Canadian or Asian-Canadian, and that being Canadian means being two things (at least) at once.
As a literature of the diaspora, black Canadian novels are destined to make their mark: They articulate a language for black experience in an ostensibly post-racial world. Currently, African-American writers and black British writers — and black writers practically everywhere — are attempting to express what it means to be black in a world that claims race doesn’t matter. In this, black Canadian writers have been given a huge head start: Canada has always professed colour blindness.
Like the imaginary railroad slaves travelled to freedom, Canada’s racial issues remain largely underground. Mentioning “blackness” or especially “whiteness” still feels like plain bad manners. Our delicate sensibilities have deemed the word “racist” too harsh: “Racists” are now “people who are struggling with diversity.” Against a silence as weighty as gravity, and as naked to the human eye, black Canadian writers have strived to articulate their racial reality. The challenge is finding the words, playwright Djanet Sears says, “when the words just aren’t out there.”
Just how do black Canadian novels represent the modern vicissitudes of race? Well, first of all, they exhibit a nervous energy. These stories are often peripatetic: Their characters are restless and their plots are, too. There is no place like home, these novels seem to say, but where exactly is that? In Half-Blood Blues, Sid and Chip flee Baltimore’s racism for Berlin’s breezy jazz scene. For a time they enjoy the privileges of African-American musicians, but under Hitler their special status dissolves. In The Book of Negroes, Aminata’s life circles the globe: She goes from Africa, to America, to Canada and back to Africa, but finds she can’t go home again.
The hero of Kim Brunhuber’s Kameleon Man is Stacey, a small-town model who tries his luck in Toronto but winds up on a seedy path through Europe. Stacey, who is of mixed race, is never sure how people will respond to his brown complexion. In black Canadian literature, the fear of certain oppression has been replaced by the anxiety of uncertain treatment.
Bi-racial heritage is emerging as this literature’s dominant theme. Half-Blood Blues, Lawrence Hill’s Any Known Blood and Kameleon Man are all titles that allude to its significance. Even The Polished Hoe concerns a heroine that is black but looks white. Nearly every major character in Half-Blood Blues is mixed race; not only Afro-German Heiro, but also Sid, who is undoubtedly descended from a slave woman and her master. Chip, as it turns out, may possess Native-American blood.
Mixed heritage proves a wonderfully fruitful symbol. It is sometimes used to scrutinize the bi-racial dilemma of being caught between duelling cultures. Or it may address the anxiety fair-skinned blacks may feel about whether or not to pass for white. It can symbolize the struggle of black Canadians to reconcile the African and European aspects of their culture. A turbulent interracial romance may represent the overall challenges of race relations. Bi-racial anxiety and alienation lie at the heart of Half-Blood Blues. Altogether, the title refers to a song the band records, the characters themselves, and a world where few accept that we are all at least two things at once.
If this is a post-racial world, then, according to black Canadian novels, it is a strange one indeed. It’s a world where the level of racial comfort depends on where you go, who you meet and what you do. It’s a world where black may be beautiful but is still considered far from the norm, and where bi-racial individuals still feel trapped between cultures. Racial violence may be rare, but racial silence, not so much. Black characters encounter blank white stares or malicious titters. In a diner in David Chariandy’s novel Soucouyant, customers snicker at a black woman who orders pie.
The protagonists of black Canadian novels so often appear strangely lonely. But connecting with their community offers intermittent kinship. Sermons, storytelling and verbal contests resurrect the spirit. In addition, characters read, write, paint, dance, sing or play an instrument. They affirm the healing properties of culture, tradition and art.
There may be nothing new under the sun, but black Canadian novels often feel original to me; like Edugyan’s The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, for instance, which is set in a prairie enclave once inhabited by former slaves; and Half-Blood Blues, which she culled from histories about Afro-Germans. Former slaves on the prairie! Black Germans in the Holocaust! These are stories few of us have ever heard before. Unearthing them requires an archaeological inclination, which I think, is a hallmark of black Canadian novelists. However, they are not picky about location. They dig up stories wherever they are.