Exploring black Canadian literature

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 first post, she explains how she came to love reading and mentions some of the writers who have inspired her most.

donna-bailey-headshot.jpgIn this year's Canada Reads debates, the outrageous shenanigans of Anne-France Goldwater could not overshadow the impressive performance of fellow panelists actor Alan Thicke and rapper Shad. Thicke discussed The Game like a seasoned critic, highlighting Dryden's exploration of everything from national pride to separatism to our Canadian discomfort with fame. However, I disagreed with his contention that The Game should win because it unfolds on Canadian soil. That argument seemed to me to miss both the point of reading and the point of Canada. I preferred, instead, Shad's winning defence of Carmen Aguirre's Something Fierce. Shad reminded the audience that the experiences of Canadians often transcend our borders. Of course, so does the act of reading.

I am a literary critic, which will come as a surprise to no one who knew me when I was seven. If anything drew me to books back then, it was their ability to carry me beyond borders. I was a little black girl growing up in Pickering, Ontario, in the 1960s, content within the four or five blocks on the west shore of Frenchman's Bay that contained my home, school and friends. My comfort zone extended to the local library, the church in the village and the community spaces where I attended Brownies and ballet. But I dreaded travelling beyond my immediate neighbourhood and certainly my hometown. I was tormented by a fear of racists. Naturally, I hated to go anywhere I might be pelted by names or sticks and stones, or be branded as if by an iron by the white, hot stares of grown-ups.

donna-mermaid.jpgBooks meant freedom to me. In my imagination I could travel anywhere -- everywhere -- minus the nagging anxiety; though I don't want to give the impression I never journeyed outside my head. My family regularly flew to Jamaica to visit relatives. Besides that, my magical mother was always devising schemes to realize my bookish dreams: When I became obsessed with a story about Denmark`s Little Mermaid, for instance, she took me to Copenhagen to see it.

Books forced me out into the world. What mattered more, however, was that they brought the world to me. I felt the world belonged to me, as much as anybody else. Identifying with the main character in a novel taught me I was the heroine of my own life. And these were crucial lessons for a black Canadian girl.

Why am I telling you this? Because for the next four weeks I am going to be talking to you about black Canadian literature, and I wanted you to know at least part of what reading has meant to me; and why I think black Canadian literature is important and why it feels necessary to share that.

It is exciting to be holding this conversation in the wake of Esi Edugyan's Giller Prize win for Half-Blood Blues. Her book is a superb example of the unique, eloquent, multifarious ways black Canadian writers employ race. They represent the issue intimately and idiosyncratically in the lives of characters and communities; at the same time, their depiction captures the complexities of the human condition in the modern world.

My plan over the coming weeks is to talk about black Canadian literature's Caribbean connection and about the predominance and significance of bi-racial heritage. I want to discuss the black Canadian writers who have produced watershed works -- those who changed the game, so to speak -- and those apparently poised for break-out. I am going to try to make some space to talk about Canadian takes on slavery. And, I am going to try to fit in a short, sensible conversation about cultural appropriation (Wish me luck with that). This tentative outline may not work out perfectly, but I'll try my best.

At the end I will post a list of titles -- mostly novels -- that I consider classics. Here are just a few of the writers I plan to at least touch on in the upcoming blog; some you will be familiar with and others perhaps not: Edem Awumey, Kim Brunhuber, David Chariandy, Austin Clarke, Esi Edugyan, Cheryl Foggo, Lawrence Hill, Nalo Hopkinson, Stephens Gerard Malone, Suzette Mayr, Olive Senior and many others.

I want to hear from both readers and writers: What black Canadian books are you reading? What subjects are you interested in reading or writing about? What aspects of black Canadian experience am I overlooking? I especially want to know the titles of your favourite black Canadian works, including novels, poetry, criticism and plays.

Looking forward, Donna

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.