North of the Border: Black Canadians Share Diverse Stories

By Brown, DeNeen L. | The Crisis, May/June 2006 | Go to article overview

North of the Border: Black Canadians Share Diverse Stories


Brown, DeNeen L., The Crisis


North of the Border: Black Canadians Share Diverse Stories Revival: An Anthology of Black Canadian Writing Edited by Donna Bailey Nurse (McClelland & Stewart, $21.95)

Any work of writing - whether poetry, prose or a short story - should move its reader to a deeper understanding of a world. By the end of a piece, the reader should be left richer, as if each word held within it wealth and insight into the conscience of a people.

Revival: an Anthology of Black Canadian Writing, edited by Donna Bailey Nurse, does just that. It is a collective wealth of words, stories, poems - a rich compilation written by Black Canadians or Canadians who happen to be Black. Told with such force, Revival promises to be a work that will stand as a testament to the diverse experience Black Canadian life.

The short stories and poems in Revival are brought into the collection in much the same way Black people immigrated into Canada. Each entry is a kind of mosaic that defines Canada, each different from the others in their roots and what they say, each trying to explain that "inbetween world" that Black Canadians must transverse. These are stories from a Black Diaspora, stories told in the way people speak in the old country and the new country, stories trying to explain what it means to be Black in Canada.

Though a range of voices is included, the themes throughout the anthology are constant, asking and trying to answer questions: How do they fit into this new land? How do they bend to colonizers? Which customs do they incorporate and which must they resist? What happens when they arrive in Canada and how do they adapt? Or not.

Nurse opens the anthology by recounting her own story of growing up in Ontario. She writes about her Jamaican grandmother, Miss Iris, who "fixed us Ovaltine, then sat with her sisters in the back room, mending clothes and talking 'big people business,' while a pot of pigs' tail sputtered on the stove."

It was a good, peaceful childhood, only to be betrayed by a question about her brown skin. "A little girl asked: 'Are you a ghost?' but she was the one who was white. I was a little girl, too, but I knew that much. Skin colour was no big deal, until suddenly, without warning, it was. The ambush comment or question, the backhanded compriment, the acts of emotional violence meant to remind me of what I was not, which was not white and not from here."

Nurse's story sets the tone for what the reader can expect to witness within the pages of this anthology: "They were right and wrong. I'm not white, but I am from here. Black and Canadian: equal parts race and place."

Nurse argues that the anthology is an attempt to meet the need for a dialogue about what it means to be Black and Canadian in a country that suffers from its own agonizing national self-esteem issue, as it sits in the vast shadow cast by the United States.

"Revival constitutes a conversation about the relevance of black Canadian writing like no other," Nurse writes, "and celebrates the coming of age of a black Canadian literature."

A celebration indeed. I am consistently amazed by the quality of the writing, literature and poetry Canada produces. This anthology captures that enormous literary gift in a country of about 32 million people, most of whom live along its southern border. The anthology includes writers born in Africa and the Caribbean and Black writers born in Canada. The stories told are deep and resonant. The literature is riveting. The short stories could be classics. The poetry is exquisite.

Poet Afua Cooper, for example, presents a memorable ode to her grandmother in a language that is broken and beautiful: "Say she old now her brains gathering water / but she remember / that she liked dancing as a young woman / and yellow was her favourite colour. …

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