Donna Bailey Nurse: Game changers and ones to watch

From left to right: writers Lawrence Hill, Suzette Mayr and Kim Brunhuber

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.

donna-bailey-headshot.jpgHere we are at the final post. There were so many writers I was hoping to touch on, but I've run out of time. I wanted to talk about Olive Senior's Dancing Lessons. This riveting chronicle of an emotionally damaged Jamaican woman has been nominated for the First Novel Award. I wanted to look at Chasing Freedom, a story about black loyalists by Nova Scotia's Gloria Ann Wesley. Another book from Nova Scotia, Big Town, by Stephens Gerard Malone sits on my desk as well. It is set in and around Africville, a former black community in Halifax, and concerns the vicissitudes of a trio of characters. And I really wanted to talk about Cheryl Foggo's vivid, delightful —- practically musical — memoir Pourin' Down Rain about growing up black in Saskatchewan. I recommend it highly. So many books; so little time.

Okay. This week I promised to name three of black Canadian literature's watershed novels, and three authors ready to burst onto Can Lit's main stage. Without question, Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes (2007) has been the number one game-changer in black Canadian letters, and for the same reason that The Invisible Man and The Color Purple became watershed novels in the United States: because it confirms a widespread, cross-cultural interest in the experiences of black people. Hill burns into our collective consciousness the history of the black loyalists. His virtuosic display of scholarship, craftsmanship, humanity and charm has made The Book of Negroes — a Canada Reads winner — one of the bestselling Canadian novels of all time.

Nalo Hopkinson's Brown Girl in the Ring (1998) is another watershed work, partly because it transforms a Canadian space — where blacks are commonly seen as outsiders — into a neo-Caribbean homeland. Brown Girl conflates African spirituality with futuristic vision to produce an original brand of Caribbean magic. Hopkinson`s arrival irrevocably altered fantasy fiction — in Canada and around the world.

When Dany Laferriére's How to Make Love to a Negro (Without Getting Tired) appeared in 1987 it was a shock to our correct Canadian sensibility. The book frankly considered the intersection between sexual and racial politics, mostly by comically depicting sexual relationships between white women and black men. It was a brave and honest book from which we have yet to recover.

Edem Awumey is the first writer I want to mention as poised for break out. He was born in Togo in 1975 and currently lives in Montreal. His second novel Dirty Feet (2011) concerns an African refugee in Paris. It echoes the mood of Albert Camus and incorporates the spirit of The Famished Road by Ben Okri. Two things especially excite me about Awumey: The influence on his work of French Africa and the French Caribbean, and his apparent inclination to lead us back through the "Door of No Return" to Africa before the advent of the Atlantic slave trade.

One of Canada`s most fascinating and accomplished writers is Calgary's Suzette Mayr. Her novel The Widows tells of three aggravated, adventurous older women who scheme to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. The book, which was published in 1998, was nominated for a Commonwealth Writers' Prize. Her latest novel Monoceros, about the impact of a gay teenager`s suicide, was longlisted for a Giller Prize in 2011. Mayr`s vision is fluid, erudite and highly idiosyncratic. Well known in the west, she is just now bursting onto the national scene.

The writer whose work I am most excited about is Kim Brunhuber. I talk a lot about Brunhuber's novel Kameleon Man, the story of a male model who heads to Toronto to seek his fortune. It's been a while since this book came out but I continue to admire it for its sophisticated development of the theme of biracial experience, although like any strong work, Kameleon Man cannot be boiled down to one idea. Brunhuber stands out for his deft touch with a wide array of literary influences; for his emotional intelligence; and for the low key elegance of his prose. He also demonstrates a subtle ability to affect shifts in tone: Kameleon Man begins as one kind of story and then slyly veers off into another kind of story altogether. I have no idea what Brunhuber does next, but I can hardly wait to find out.

I am going to post a list of 10 books I consider Black Canadian Classics soon. Thanks for indulging me these last few weeks.

Keep on reading,


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.

For more of Donna's posts, visit this page.