Donna Bailey Nurse: Caribbean connections

Throughout February and March, literary journalist, teacher and author Donna Bailey Nurse will be blogging for CBC Books about black Canadian writers and their important works. In her second post, she discusses her family history and some of her early literary discoveries.

donna-bailey-headshot.jpgHere is how my mother's family made their way to Canada. In the mid-1950s the Canadian government began to invite black and Caribbean women to work as domestics. My mother settled in Toronto in 1959, shortly after marrying my father in Kingston, Jamaica. She took a job as a nanny for a Jewish family in Forest Hill. My father followed in 1960, enrolling as a student at the University of Guelph. When I was seven or eight, my mother's mother, Iris Levy, came from England to help care for me and my sister. This was bliss! It meant we no longer had to attend daycare; we could head home after school just like our friends.

grandma and aunties-175.jpgOver the next decade a steady stream of relatives immigrated to Canada from Jamaica via England: my grandmother's two sisters, Ivy (Levy) Wilkinson and Ruby Levy. Ivy's grown children, Delroy and Joy Wilkinson, and Ruby's son, Ricky Ballysingh. Each new arrival stayed with us in the house in Pickering, Ont., until they landed a job, rented an apartment and built up confidence in a strange new land.  

About this time I came upon a silver paperback on the bookshelf in our basement. The title When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks spilled garishly across the cover. On the back was a snapshot of the author, Austin Clarke. It was the first time I had ever seen a picture of a black author on a book.

Austin Clarke was born in Barbados in 1934 and settled in Toronto in 1955. In Canadian literary circles he was a complete original. His books were the first to win international attention for their depiction of blacks in Canada. The Survivors of the Crossing and Amongst Thistles and Thorns described the social, economic and psychological hardships Caribbean immigrants to Canada left behind. His Toronto Trilogy charted the discrimination and social isolation -- the occasional opportunity and surprising joy -- these new immigrants experienced. Clarke was busy writing what my family was busy living.

His early works were published at the height of the civil rights movement. They prevented Canadians from becoming too smug about their neighbours to the south; Clarke pointed out that we had problems of our own.

He belonged to an influential circle of writers involved in shaping the country's burgeoning literary culture; far from an afterthought to contemporary Canadian letters, black Canadian literature has been present from the start. Indeed, it was Clarke's work that encouraged a discussion of hyphenated identity: It reminded us that all Canadians are two things (at least) at once.

André Alexis is another significant Caribbean-born author. His preoccupation with the Canadian landscape makes him unique. His offbeat and macabre collection, Despair and Other Stories of Ottawa, depicted the straitlaced capital as possessing an eerie secret life. His play Lambton Kent featured a Nigerian anthropologist fascinated by the folk practices of rural Ontario. Alexis, who was born in Trinidad in 1957, arrived in Ottawa in 1961. In his first novel, Childhood, a Trinidadian boy strives to understand an unfamiliar landscape. Alexis is famous for an article in which he wishes for a black Canadian writing "that is conscious of Canada, writing that speaks not just of situation, or about the earth, but from the earth...."

Some critics argue that Alexis's early work fits into a category known as Southern Ontario Gothic. But the writing of author David Chariandy best epitomizes that term for me. Chariandy's mesmerizing debut novel Soucouyant tells of a Caribbean woman who goes slowly mad in a dilapidated house on the Scarborough Bluffs. Set just east of Toronto, Soucouyant has as much to do with the historical ravages of racism as any Flannery O'Connor story set in the American South.

Finally I want to mention Nalo Hopkinson. While conventional science fiction draws upon European influences, Hopkinson shapes her worlds out of Caribbean and African cultures. Hopkinson was born in Jamaica in 1960 and lived in several island countries before settling in Toronto in the 1970s. Her first novel, Brown Girl in the Ring, conjures the chaos of a future Toronto where the wealthy residents have departed and the municipal services are defunct. The city has become Caribbean in constitution. The community comes together to cultivate parkland and barter goods. Hopkinson says she writes fantastic, futuristic fiction because it realistically depicts the lives of outsiders. What she does for me is make the future feel like home.

See you next week.


Donna's most recent book is What's a Black Critic To Do II. She teaches arts journalism at Toronto's George Brown School of Continuing Studies.