New anthology Griot: Six Writers' Sojourn Into the Dark spotlights work from emerging Black Canadian writers
Toronto’s Nia Centre for the Arts partnered with Penguin Random House to publish stories from writing program
Toronto's Nia Centre for the Arts, a creative hub for the development of Black culture, has partnered with Penguin Random House to publish Griot: Six Writers' Sojourn Into the Dark, an anthology of work from participants of the centre's Black Pen intensive creative writing program.
Featuring fiction and non-fiction by Yvvana Yeboah Duku, Adeola Egbeyemi, Onyka Gairey, Saherla Osman, Kais Padamshi and Omi Rodney, the anthology explores themes of loss and connection, and embracing tradition while pushing the art of storytelling forward.
Launched in 2021, the program aims to break down barriers to entering the Canadian literary sector by offering Black writers access to mentorship and development opportunities.
The chapbook was edited and curated by Whitney French, the founder of the Writing While Black workshop series and co-publisher of Hush Harbour, a Black feminist queer press. French served as Black Pen's coordinator and helped mentor the six selected writers, alongside guest facilitators like Rowan McCandless, Téa Mutonji, Lue Palmer (longlisted for the 2021 CBC Nonfiction Prize) and ECW Press publicist Elham Ali.
"Too often we see that Black writers and artists are limited by the stories someone else wants them to tell. They are subject to assumptions that mainstream literary powers and media have about Black experiences," Alica Hall, Nia Centre executive director, told CBC Books.
"In telling their own stories, Black writers are able to represent the world as they see it, without those limitations. They are able to imagine a different world for themselves and for us."
Before being selected for the Black Pen program, Toronto writer Omi Rodney was trying their hand at journalism, but preferred to write fiction inspired by their own upbringing. Taking part in the writing intensive fostered a sense of community among the participants, Rodney said, adding that French's mentorship helped shape their work and creative direction.
"When I started the program, it was a surprise to me that we were going to be published by Penguin — that was very, very exciting," Rodney said.
"Black Pen was such a great opportunity to meet other writers and sharpen our writing — there are few opportunities in the city specifically for Black writers, so situations where you can work collaboratively in the way that we did are essential."
Rodney spent time in the workshop honing their short story Brother Ellis, which is included in the Griot anthology.
"It's a story from my childhood, growing up in a community in the countryside of Jamaica. It's a horror story about what happens when all the elders in a community start to die," Rodney said.
"I wanted it to kind of mirror what's happening with COVID and how much we lose when we lose our elders — the people who hold knowledge in our communities."
Hall noted that the opportunity to publish the inaugural Black Pen cohort's work with a leading publisher like Penguin Random House bolsters the Nia Centre's mandate to support Black artists and Black Pen's aim to open the door for participants to pursue careers as writers.
I hope that when people read Griot, they are moved by the vastness of voices and types of stories in the Afro-diaspora.- Alica Hall, executive director of Nia Centre for the Arts
"I hope that when people read Griot, they are moved by the vastness of voices and types of stories in the Afro-diaspora. I hope that they take note of how these stories stand in contrast to the mainstream version of Black stories we are sold," Hall said.
"There is such a wealth of talent in our community, and we need readers to tap in and support the unconventional stories we tell about ourselves."
Available in both print (copies are available through select independent bookstores across Canada) and e-book form, the anthology not only introduces emerging Black voices to readers, but also serves as a launchpad for writers.
After taking part in Black Pen, Rodney is currently developing their editing skills as part of ROOM magazine's Growing Room Collective, whose members take part in editing issues of the literary journal.
Stories are one way that we make sense of the world — how we pass the happenings of the present onto next generations, or across time.- Omi Rodney, writer
"Stories are one way that we make sense of the world — how we pass the happenings of the present onto next generations, or across time," Rodney said.
"And so the potential that Black writers have in contributing to a memory that has been historically erased, destroyed and hidden is very valuable, so that we can come to understand where we are at collectively, individually and also within our families and our communities."