Books·My Life in Books

Griffin Poetry Prize finalist Chantal Gibson shares 6 books that shaped her life

With How She Read, the Vancouver-based poet is a finalist for Canada’s biggest poetry honour, the Griffin Poetry Prize.
Chantal Gibson is the author of How She Read. (Caitlin Press, Chantal Gibson)

With her first poetry collection How She Read, Vancouver-based poet Chantal Gibson is a finalist for Canada's biggest poetry honour, the Griffin Poetry Prize. Her collection of genre-blurring poems explores the representation of black women in Canada and brings a holistic, decolonized approach to challenging imperialist ideas in literature, history, art, media and pop culture.

Her fellow Canadian finalists for the $65,000 prize are Doyali Islam for heft and Kaie Kellough for Magnetic Equator.

In honour of Gibson's nomination, she has shared six books that have made a major impact on her life and work.

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination by Toni Morrison

Playing in the Dark is a work of literary criticism by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison. (Vintage, Francois Durand/Getty Images)

"The Bluest Eye was the first book I read with little black girls at the centre. It contained fully realized black female characters who looked like my mom, who were worthy of a reader's love, empathy, contempt, compassion and inquiry. Playing in the Dark helped me understand why I didn't see more characters like Pecola Breedlove, and why I didn't see more books on my school reading lists that focused on blackness without the white gaze. It helped me understand the impact of colonialism and racialized thinking across the Canadian and American literary landscape. It also showed me that a fiction writer, a creative writer, could also be a kickass researcher and academic."

Our Dead Behind Us by Audre Lorde

The poetry collection Our Dead Behind Us by Audre Lorde was published in 1986. (W.W. Norton & Co., Elsa Dorfman)

"I still have my copy of Audre Lorde's Our Dead Behind Us. I found it at Little Sister's Bookstore in Vancouver's West End, one of the few places I could find a book about blackness, queerness, womanhood, motherhood — and cancer. It came out in 1986, the year my mother died, but I didn't find it until grad school 1997, years after Lorde died. When I first read the poem There are no honest poems about dead women, I dogeared the page. I read it again and again and again, until it became a touchstone, a thing of comfort, a familiar friend. Some poems are just like that. Sometimes writers give us the tools we need for introspection, to help us process grief, suffering and loss. That is what Lorde did for me. I'm so grateful her voice opens my book."

Ossuaries by Dionne Brand

The 2010 poetry collection Ossuaries by Dionne Brand won the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2011. (McClelland & Stewart, Jason Chow)

"Dionne Brand is my literary hero. She's the only writer I gush over. (It's embarrassing.) I don't have a favourite book, because works like No Language is Neutral (1990), Inventory (2006) and Ossuaries (2010) feel like an ongoing conversation that keeps informing me about my world here and now. I am interested in the cultural production of knowledge — how we measure it, categorize it, spread it, regulate it. Ossuaries was published in 2010 and won the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2011. If you read the first page the atmospheres were breathless there, you would think we were here now, in the present time of COVID-19. Her attention to detail, to nuance, is unparalleled for me. In a Dionne Brand poem, your world can turn on a single word."

Looking for Livingstone by M. NourbeSe Philip

Looking for Livingstone is a collection of prose and poetry by M. NourbeSe Philip. It was published in 1991. (The Mercury Press, Gail Nyoka)

"The first time I read Looking for Livingstone I was rocked by the line 'silence is a sentence.' It caused me to reflect on another four-word sentence 'Dr. Livingstone I presume?' How did I come to know this historical figure, this famous line? Because Western history, years of schooling and popular culture told me he 'discovered' Africa. Philip's book made me think, 'Hey, what about the people Indigenous to this continent, who don't need discovering?' I was inspired by Philip's protagonist, a woman traveling through time, across Africa, across the Western cultural imagination, searching for knowledge and listening to stories, African voices, Indigenous voices — undoing the silence of historical erasure."

nîtisânak by Lindsay Nixon

nîtisânak is a memoir by Lindsay Nixon. (Metonymy Press, Jackson Ezra/Writers' Trust of Canada)

"I met Lindsay Nixon in 2019 at the Growing Room Literary Festival. They signed the inside cover of my copy of their book 'Stay Weird.' Like my book, How She Read, Nixon's memoir deals with the loss of a mother. Unlike my book, nîtisânak also provides a lens on NDN love, queerness and prairie punk. Their memoir changed me, it's so personal, so vulnerable, so fearless in its treatment of language, so elegant in its storytelling drawn from their Cree, Saulteaux and Métis background. I am a mixed-race, cis gender black woman born and raised on Indigenous lands. As an artist-educator engaged in this decolonial moment, to 'stay weird' means to actively make connections where I can, and to listen and learn about lived experiences other than my own."

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, an exploration of his youth in Harlem and racial injustice in America, was a bestseller when it was published in 1963. (Vintage, Jenkins/Getty Images)

"'To accept one's past — one's history — is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.' If I could have an older brother, I'd pick James Baldwin. Cultural critic, author and activist, he left us with a world of quotes, but this one anchors my creative practice. I live it every day. The Fire Next Time contains an essay, a love letter to his teenage nephew, teaching him about what it means to grow up in segregated America, spelling out the future in elegant prose with heartbreaking candour and unflinching tenderness. Every time I read that book, I feel like he wrote it for me now, for all of us working in the service of women's rights, civil rights, human rights.  He taught me that compassion is a necessary ingredient in constructive cultural criticism."

In 1960, the novelist talks with Nathan Cohen of the CBC about the place of black people in American society. 27:14

Read more in the My Life in Books series here.

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