Revival: An Anthology of Black Canadian Writing

Reviewed By Patrick Lohier

Being black in North America in general, and in Canada specifically, is a confounding experience. The rigours of immigration and integration (for we black people are still arriving, and we are still trying find our way in) have and continue to transform us. These facets of the human condition -- these movings and becomings -- broaden our consciousness, weaken and strengthen us in ways both petty and profound, destroy us and, also, occasionally, guide (or force) us to transformative epiphanies.

Literary critic Donna Bailey Nurse's new book, Revival: An Anthology of Black Canadian Writing, includes 55 poems, short stories and excerpts from novels and memoirs by 29 black Canadian poets and writers. Included are works by well known authors such as Claire Harris, M. NourbeSe Philip, Lawrence Hill, André Alexis and Dany Laferrière, as well as works by emerging voices such as Kim Barry Brunhuber, Wayde Compton, Motion and Shane Book.

Arranged in order of the birth dates of its contributors, the anthology's resulting sequence of genres, voices and perspectives evokes mutability bordering on chaos (which may be the smartest and most sophisticated way to confront such themes as race and identity). It transports us across time and geography, from lands of origin (Jamaica, Antigua, Haiti, Nigeria and elsewhere), through various diasporas, all the way to the immediate challenges faced by black Canadians as they struggle to fit into contemporary Canadian society and create new, individuated identities. The anthology is, in sum, about immigration and integration, race and place.

Revival," Nurse writes in her introduction, "constitutes a conversation about the relevance of black Canadian writing like no other, and celebrates the coming of age of a black Canadian literature." Further on, she writes that black Canadians are "sometimes said to occupy an in-between space in that they are from neither here nor there, and belong fully to neither this nor that culture. But in fact, black Canadians are both this and that: two things (at least) at once. To be black and Canadian is to engage in the ongoing interaction between primarily African and European elements."

That parenthetical "at least" is Nurse's modest hint at just how formidable and necessary a mission she embarked on. For when literature most aspires and best succeeds, it reminds us of our common humanity and of the breadth and depth of the human experience. In her careful selection of the pieces in Revival, Nurse -- along with all the contributors -- accomplishes her mission with resounding success. She gives us, as she promises, cause to celebrate.

Revival abounds with expressions of hope for, or failure at, finding a sense of place and purpose. This seems the case even and perhaps especially among those born and raised in Canada. Some of the voices here yearn for a place where blackness and difference will not be constantly noticed or besieged or manipulated. The poet Motion writes, in I-Land, of a longing for "the night/ warm winds bring the ease from the pain and strife/ I'm at one with my surroundings/ bring me back to life." And poet Wayde Compton writes in his dizzyingly ambitious Declaration of the Halfafrican Nation: "sometimes I feel like frantz fanon's ghost/ is kickin back with a coke and rum having/ a good chuckle at all this, stirring in the tears, his work/ done, lounging with the spirits."

Kim Barry Brunhuber's excerpt from Kameleon Man tells of a young man from the Ottawa suburb of Nepean, who navigates new friendships and the strange and unfamiliar terrain of the modelling industry. He's eager for success, but half fears he may be used as some exotic token.

 

Some of the works reveal the potential pitfalls of the black Canadian experience. Esi Edugyan's excerpt from The Second Life of Samuel Tyne offers a down-at-heel eponymous protagonist, an immigrant from the Gold Coast (now Ghana) who lives in Calgary. Oxford-educated, Samuel once planned to "lead a country or win the Nobel Prize for economics." But he finds himself locked in an unhappy marriage and a dreary civil-service job. He is even wary of his young twin daughters. ("It was impossible not to notice their strangeness.") He bemoans his failed expectations: "In old age, when asked what he'd made of his life, Samuel realized he could only say he'd made it to the end." The punchline is that Samuel is only 40.

And what of those left behind when loved ones leave for Canada? They may hold the privilege of staying at home in a known world, but find themselves diminished by separation. An excerpt from Makeda Silvera's novel The Heart Does Not Bend describes a mother's grief the day her son emigrates from Jamaica. At first seemingly calm, her words -- "Yuh mark my word, when him reach foreign all will be forgotten" -- reveal her resentment and suspicion that he will never look back. But that night, her denial gives way to tears as she lies in bed. She sings to her young granddaughter, the narrator Molly, snuggled beside her, "My Bonnie lies over de ocean/ My Bonnie lies over de sea."

In an excerpt from Suzette Mayr's novel The Widows, we see Canada's dizzying multicultural blend through the eyes of Hannelore, a German woman whose son Dieter has moved to "Kanada" after marrying a "half Mexican, half African, half Chinese, half Kanadian" artist named Rosario. Hannelore visits Canada, and as she observes her son's "little family" closely, and wrestles with her young granddaughter's "fine, frizzy hair," she tries to make sense of the unexpected detours her expectations have taken. All the while, she is closely observed by Rosario, who, at the story's end, decides she will make her German mother-in-law the subject of her next painting. The observer, we discover, has been closely observed.

 

Excerpts from memoirs by Ken Wiwa and Rachel Manley testify to the force of charismatic personalities in black Canadian and immigrant Canadian life. In her memoir Drumblair, Manley, daughter of Jamaica's three-term prime minister Michael Manley, sets her gaze on her grandfather, Norman Washington Manley, who was Jamaica's chief minister and premier in the late 1950s and early '60s. The excerpted preface to Ken Wiwa's In the Shadow of a Saint focuses on his father, Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian author and environmental activist who was executed by the military government in 1995. Pained in the wake of his father's death, and racked by memories of their difficult relationship and the tenacious grip of his father's legacy, Wiwa asks, "So where does Ken Saro-Wiwa end and Ken Wiwa begin?"

Although Revival is an anthology of black Canadian writing, it blasts out of any confinements of race and nationality (as successful literature always does, and as some of the characters within Revival wish they could). With its myriad reflections on home, family, place and identity, Revival will remind readers that we are all in some way moving and becoming, that we are all two things (at least) at once, and that we are not alone.

Novelist Patrick Lohier’s review first appeared in the Globe and Mail. Follow him @patricklohier .