These books by Black female authors are turning 20. Here's why they're worth revisiting
Haven't read them yet? Crawl out of your Y2K bunker and get on that
Black Light is a weekly column by Governor General Award-winning writer Amanda Parris that spotlights, champions and challenges art and popular culture that is created by Black people and/or centres Black people.
In the last months of 2019 we were collectively bombarded with listicles. It seemed like every media outlet was in some sort of Hunger Games-like competition to see who could produce the most, the best, the most surprising end-of-decade lists. That massive effort to compile and contrast, to rank and to reify was overwhelming, but it was also striking. The 2010s provided more cultural output than any other decade before it, and in this ever-shrinking world, most of us struggled to keep up, pressured by hashtags and trending topics to stay abreast of what was new.
Now that the mad dash to the finish line has passed, it's left me nostalgic for a slower and more appreciative relationship with culture, particularly literature. When I was growing up, I would read the books that I enjoyed many times over, basking in the language, developing intimate relationships with the characters and finding new insights or critical reminders each time I turned the page. So for the start of the year, I decided to return to some of the literature that has moved me.
There is something magical that happens when you read words, phrases and styles of speech that you've only heard spoken by your family and friends. A wave of recognition, affirmation and euphoria rushes over you. That's what happened when I began reading Midnight Robber, the second novel by award-winning author Nalo Hopkinson. It's one of four books by Black women published in 2000 that expanded my realms of literary possibility, and they are still great 20 years later.
Some of these books won awards, some of them are hard to find in stores and two of these writers are no longer with us. But each deserves a first and second (and third and...you get where I'm going with this) read.
Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson
Midnight Robber begins with the words: "Oho. Like it starting, oui?" Reading it, I immediately hear the voice of my grandmother's consistently melodic Grenadian accent.
Born in Jamaica, Hopkinson spent her childhood living in Trinidad, Guyana and the U.S. before moving to Canada, and her writing speaks to a multifaceted appreciation for the various cultures, sounds and rituals of the Caribbean. Many know Hopkinson for her award-winning book Brown Girl in the Ring, but this lesser-known work was an equally brilliant adventure.
In the book's universe, planets are named after Haitian Revolutionary leaders, and an (almost) all-seeing governing system is inspired by the mythical Anansi's web. It's a richly imagined world, and the story is told through the eyes of a young girl named Tan-Tan. I'm a sucker for coming-of-age stories, and this one is like nothing I've ever experienced.
Soldier: A Poet's Childhood by June Jordan
Childhood memories generally don't exist in our minds as a linear timeline. Rather they are flashes of moments, relationships and feelings. June Jordan's memoir operates like this, composed of little vignettes that give a peek into her foundational years. Jordan was an award-winning poet, journalist, playwright, activist, teacher and essayist who died of breast cancer two years after this book was published. She burst onto the literary scene in the late '60s when freedom and revolution were everyday topics of conversation. Jordan's work often had a global perspective while being unapologetically rooted in African-American vernacular, which she employed through a boldly feminist lens. I was introduced to her writing in university and immediately became obsessed.
In this book we see her politics and literary talents take shape. We also meet a little girl who has the typical joys and woes and tensions with her parents as the rest of us. It's an incomplete memoir, focusing only on those early childhood years — but it's a must-read for Jordan stans or those just curious to know about the career Toni Morrison once described as "40 years of tireless activism coupled with and fuelled by flawless art."
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Zadie Smith is a bona fide literary celebrity now, but it was just 20 years ago that her debut novel (which she'd finished writing while a student at Cambridge) was released to the world. And what a debut it was. White Teeth is an epic novel that spans decades, countries, families and social movements. It is populated with highly flawed yet disturbingly familiar characters who make bad decisions and have the baggage to back up why. It's also funny and unpredictable, with sharp plot turns and divergences in time that are sometimes confusing but always enjoyable. Set in Willesden, this London neighbourhood is teeming with diversity, and the two families at the story's centre — one from Bangladesh and the other from Jamaica — bring us into a world of geneticism, Jehovah's Witnesses, animal rights activists and teenage crushes. I remember enjoying this book thoroughly, but if you ask me to summarize it, I'd definitely be at a loss. It's a richly layered world that begs to be revisited.
Angélique by Lorena Gale
The story of Marie Joseph Angélique is one that every Canadian should know. She was an enslaved Black woman in Montreal who was publicly hung for allegedly setting a fire that spread from her mistress's home, destroying much of the city.
Lorena Gale was a celebrated Canadian actress, playwright and theatre director who won numerous awards for her work. As the former artistic director of Black Theatre Workshop in Montreal, she helped bring numerous stories to the stage before writing Angélique. It had its world premiere in 1998 at Alberta Theatre Projects' playRites Festival and travelled to the U.S. where it was staged in Detroit and New York, and was published as a text in 2000.
The script moves between court transcripts and poetic prose. The stage directions indicate that the costuming should shift too, gradually becoming more contemporary as we realize that the themes continue to be disturbingly resonant today.
I love reading plays (and yes, I do read all the voices aloud), and when I encountered this text I was enthralled by the idea of Canadian Black history being staged in such a dramatic way. However, it wasn't until last year, when Angélique finally received its Toronto premiere (10 years after Gale's death), that I was able to see it live. Until it comes back to the stage, make sure to read the play.