By Gwyneth Cumberbatch
| Posted: February 11, 2006
Shortly after the first edition of this newsletter was published, Donna Bailey Nurse was one of the first people to say how much she liked it. CaribbeanTales staff were thrilled. Since then she has remained close, supportive and always interested in everything that CaribbeanTales does.
If only for this reason, CaribbeanTales would feel compelled to bring her book “Revival: An Anthology of Black Writing” published by McClelland & Stewart, 2006 to the attention of our readers. But there are at least two other more important, valid reasons to do so.
First, there is no doubt that her book stands tall as the most recent anthology to showcase the canon of Black Canadian literature that since the mid-nineties has accumulated critical mass and come of age. In Bailey Nurse's words: “Previous anthologies have confirmed the diversity of Black Canada’s literary voices, and Revival acknowledges this multiplicity with contributors originally from Africa and the Caribbean, as well as several born in Canada.”
The anthology contains twenty-nine contributors and over fifty pieces drawn from works of fiction, poetry and memoir. One of the benefits of the way that it is organised is that the contributions move chronologically through the generations – starting with the established, well-recognized work of Claire Harris and ending with an extract from the 2004 novel “The Second Life of Samuel Tyne” by a relative newcomer, Esi Edugyan. This approach will be especially helpful for high school and university students who will want to examine and explore, not simply literary content but also the context, stages and pace of the development of the Black voice in Canadian literature.
Revival should be an ideal companion volume to Caribbean Tales' thirteen episodes in our Literature Alive documentary series that was broadcast last year on BRAVO and is currently available through our e-store. In fact, several of the writers who were involved in that series have contributed to this anthology. They are: Olive Senior, Pamela Mordecai, M. NourbeSe Philip, Honour Ford Smith, Dany Laferrière, André Alexis, Tessa McWatt, Nalo Hopkinson and Jemeni.
The second reason to recommend this anthology is perhaps more significant than the first -- if that’s possible. It has to do with Bailey Nurse’s Introduction to Revival. Because the book has only just been published, staff haven’t been able to devote the time needed to sit down with it and absorb themselves thoroughly in all its promised richness, from cover to cover. Nevertheless, we took the time to read the essay that she has written as her Introduction to the book. And we recommend this essay highly to anyone seeking a relatively accessible entrée into the issues, questions and complexities that inform the work of Black Canadian writers today.
Right from the start, Bailey Nurse engages us directly and speaks straight to the experience of so many when she says: “Literature has been the means through which I have learned to understand who I am and who I might be -- as a human being, as a woman and as a person of African descent.” The context and insights that follow, while they are tied to the anthology’s contributions, clearly articulate a range of significant attributes of Black Canadian literature. In addition, they propose a thoughtful approach to a more comprehensive context within which to understand this literature.
Figuratively, Bailey Nurse looks us dead in the eye immediately. She names her own personal challenge: “I’m not white but I’m from here. Black and Canadian: equal parts race and place.” It's good that she doesn't beat around the bush. She then proceeds to highlight some of the key contradictions inflicted by a colonial heritage and the post-colonial leftovers that are inherent to so many of the stories that are told. She confirms our belief that the Black Canadian’s immigrant story remains central to the larger Canadian narrative and makes this body of writing “quintessentially Canadian literature.” At the same time, she acknowledges that the lack of opportunity and the racial hostility experienced by so many Black writers inexorably challenge the apparent truism cited by the British novelist Caryl Phillips that home is where you feel welcome.
Against all these literary tensions and contradictions, Bailey Nurse introduces the British cultural critic Paul Gilroy’s theory of Black Atlantic hybrid identity. In so doing, she suggests that there is an in-between space that Black Canadians often occupy because they are “from neither here nor there, and belong fully to neither this or that culture." It is impressive to see how easily she puts forward Gilroy’s relatively complex argument that the “exchange of cultural influences that occurred as the slave ships travelled back and forth across the Atlantic culminated in a hybrid culture characterized by an ‘in-between’ identity that transcends national borders and fixed ideas about identity.”
Because of CaribbeanTales' own values, we are buoyed up by her proposition that it is possible for Black Canadians to be “both this and that; two things (at least) at once.” And she cleverly moves from this proposition into a discussion about the dilemma faced by mixed race individuals in a world that insists on cultural polarisation and the political correctness of identifying with one race or the other. But she doesn't stop here. She then leads on from this idea into the conclusion that, in Black Canadian writing, mixed race identity can operate as a metaphor for the larger Black Canadian experience.
Bailey Nurse takes us along in her analysis with fluid grace. She goes on to point out that, in spite of the fact that Black Canadian writing fits into Gilroy’s concept of a hybrid culture that transcends fixed notions of identity and national borders, very few Black Canadian writers appear to wish to transcend borders. And with this observation, she invites us to consider the various ways in which Black Canadian writers deal with our unique and peculiarly Canadian interpretation of “multiculturalism”.
She makes the astute observation that slavery itself has not been a major theme in Black Canadian writing, as distinct from African-American literature where books about slavery “almost constitute a separate genre.” At the same time she notes that the subject of slavery, along with that of conquest, has had a strong presence in Black Canadian poetry. And she moves from this into a discussion about the significance of language in Black Canadian writing and the place of dub poetry in the canon of Black Canadian literature.
Women writers hold a central place in this anthology. CaribbeanTales is particularly pleased to note her acknowledgement of the timeliness and value of the Sister Vision Press intervention into the closed bastion of Canadian publishing. As we do with the excerpts from Stephanie Martin's panel presentation, she formally recognizes the intrepid role that Makeda Silvera and Stephanie Martin played in creating an independent and respectable space for the Black Canadian voice.
CaribbeanTales congratulates Donna Bailey Nurse on this excellent addition to Black literary achievement. We will treasure this anthology on our own bookshelves. It should be in everybody's collection of Black literature. It is a must for every school and university library, not just here in Canada but across the Commonwealth, if not beyond.
It is not everyday I find myself without words, but I was without words when I read your review of my book, Revival. I appreciate so much the time you took to examine and communicate the ideas contained in the anthology. I appreciate, also, the articulateness and elegance with which you expressed your own thoughts. It is particularly gratifying when somebody hones in on the most salient point one is making, which for me is that all Canadians-perhaps all people, everywhere- are two things (at least) at once... and that black Canadian writing depicts this human complexity better than any other literature. I am grateful that you so thoroughly grasped what I was most eager to convey.
I've made no secret of my respect for Caribbean Tales: It is intelligent and beautiful and thought provoking and entertaining. In short, it is excellent. And whenever I read it, I feel like shouting out loud: "These are my people." (To be honest, I sometimes do shout it out loud). To be reviewed so positively by this publication is a very great honor indeed.
Posted by: Donna Bailey Nurse at February 23, 2006 12:19 PM
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