Black Canadian writers share the power — and burden — of making art with language

What kinds of responsibility does a Black writer have? Is it enough to just write whatever inspires you, or is there an obligation to take on the big questions of culture, class, colour? In this two-part series, we hear from Black Canadian writers about the politics of everyday life and art.

In our two-part series, Black Canadian writers talk about the politics of everyday life and art

From left to right: writers Nigel Thomas, Canisia Lubrin and Téa Mutonji — all featured guests in our series, Behind the Lines. (Submitted by Nigel Thomas/Anna Keenan/Sarah Bodri)

This is the first of a two-part series called Behind the Lines.

What kinds of responsibility does a Black writer have? 

Is there an obligation to take on culture, class, colour, or is it enough to write based on one's own inspiration?

These are some of the questions host Nahlah Ayed explores with Black Canadian writers in a two-part series, Behind the Lines. In this episode, panelists Canisia Lubrin, Nigel Thomas and Téa Mutonji discuss why they write and how they deal with the power — and the burdens —  of making art with language.

Here are some experts from their discussion.

Canisia Lubrin

Canisia Lubrin is a writer, poet, professor and editor. She was born in St. Lucia and lives in Whitby, Ontario. The Dyzgraphxst is her second collection of poetry.

I'm wondering, in your opinion, whether you believe a writer has responsibilities to society that a non-writer or non-artist doesn't?

I think there's certainly a responsibility that writers have that is distinct, simply because we work in the materials of language and language is located in a very central and ubiquitous form of power. This is where we imagine through the gateway of language. 

And so I think there's a huge responsibility that writers have that is unique. But I don't think that it is somehow removed from what non-writers themselves are up to, because in a sense what we do is try to show the way that things are connected, try to bring into focus difference — and the way that difference operates in a sort of shared ecosphere. 

Do you think of it as a responsibility or an obligation? Is it a must?

I think at this point in our development, let's say as a species, we need it because the world that we have, the history that has brought us to this place, this place of racial unrest, of economic and ecological disaster, the various forms of power that are instituted to control the way we live and the way we relate to one another.

And so for me, I'm always committed to a sense of futurity, to a sense of looking beyond the present that makes the future seem achievable and seem like something we can all be in together equitably — those for me are the stakes. And if I can help, if I can be a small part of what is imagined toward that future, I think my art is where I'm more clearly coming to a kind of communion with that.

Crowds of children skipped school to join a global strike against climate change, September 20, 2019 in New York City. (Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images)

You've mentioned responsibility and the need to play an active role, if you put that aside for one second or if you could give me a sense of proportion, what does just being a writer mean to you personally?

Writing is part of the rhythm of my life. It's part of how I live. So it is not something that could be extricated from the other parts of me and from the other functions that I perform from day-to-day. Everything eventually leads me to the page. And so I don't feel the need to make those kinds of decisions.

I live in the world as a Black woman, as a writer, as a teacher, as a friend, as a daughter — all of the matrix is entirely what makes me who I am. And so the function of the writer for me comes from my own deep love for language, for the imagination, for story, for the textures of experience that I find in the works that compel me to see the world in its complexity, to see the mystery and the awe. 

What is the role of language in doing what you do?

Language, that is the prism through which everything has sort of found their structure, their lasting power. Language is about power. And so I think language is very deeply tied to not just who we are as a species, but our ability to imagine and to make that imagined thing actual depends on it coming through the prism of language, because that's how ultimately we become familiarized with a particular kind of expression, that is somehow standardized, while at the same time differentiated enough that we bring something, each of us that is unique to that exchange. 

So I think language is fundamental to how the world works.

Nigel Thomas

Nigel Thomas has has been living in Canada for over 50 years, mostly in the province of Quebec. He is a poet, a writer of short stories and the author of eight books, including three novels. His latest book is Fate's Instruments.

"I write first and foremost because the human condition mystifies me. I see my objective as a writer or the issues that drive me to write to be no different from writers like W.B. Yeats or Henry David Thoreau or (Percy) Shelley or W.H. Auden or Theodore Roethke, who would say 'I bleed my bones, their marrow to bestowUpon that God who knows what I would know.'"

Many Black writers that I've spoken to describe a complicated relationship with Canada and I wonder if the writing you do on that topic is consolation or is it analysis?

I would say it's both. A statement of mine that I sometimes use, I mean it's quite banal, is the purpose of adversity is to overcome it. Something that I point out, particularly in my immigrant characters, is the fact that we bring with us skills that enable us to cope with the issues, the adversity that we meet in the society. It's still is a burden because one has to deal with it. The energy that one spends dealing with it could be used for other things. But then again, adversity comes from all sorts of different angles.

Do you feel as a writer that you have more of a responsibility to society than a non-writer or non-artist?

I think it goes with the territory. Very few of us are gifted as artists and certainly writing is a social art. Since we spend a great deal of our time thinking, it's incumbent on us to share those thoughts, I was shaped by Christianity, specifically Methodism, and one of the watchwords of Methodism is the call to serve, so to speak. One ought to be there for one's fellow human beings. It's modeled on Christ's statement that those who are gifted among you must indeed share your gifts. So insofar as I spend a lot of time thinking about these issues, I think it's a good thing that I share them admittedly via the imagination, but I share them nonetheless.

What about a gifted Black writer? Is there an added responsibility in that sense, I mean, there are some who say that art has to always kind of say something, and as a writer from of Caribbean descent, is there an approach that you take, or responsibility that you have than perhaps someone who isn't of that background?

Well, one needn't do so consciously. Anyone who spends any time contemplating humanity essentially will end up saying or writing something that is of value I hope to  humanity. So without setting out to do it very specifically, and if one does that, one may very well end up writing the sort of stuff that can be considered propaganda. But if one is truly in search of truth, one is going to explore pretty well all the dimensions of whatever issue the fiction that one's writing is able to contain, because no one piece of fiction can contain everything, but it will contain enough to give some sort of meaningful reflection on the theme at hand.

I, for example, bring an additional layer to the Black immigrant experience in my writing, which is to say the perspective of the gay writer. And the challenge that the gay writer or the Black gay person in real life has is the challenge of racism, but he also has the challenge of homophobia — homophobia from within his own community and homophobia from the broader community. And one deals with those challenges as best as one can, hopefully through education. 

Dionne Brand is a Canadian poet, novelist and professor. She's the author of No Language Is Neutral. (Jason Chow)

I wanted to ask you that whether you would agree with a writer like Dionne Brand, for example, who says that no language is neutral.

I will agree that language isn't neutral. In fact, Black people who come from the Caribbean are people who have endured colonialism and the language of colonialism dehumanizes Black and brown people. We are first and foremost deemed to be uncivilized.

To quote (Rudyard) Kipling we were part of the 'white man's burden.' In that sense, the literature that exists that depicts us is a dehumanizing literature. However, those are the languages we have been bequeathed and those are the languages that we employ, and it is our responsibility to debarb that language — and to use it for our own ends. 

For example, you don't have to use words like black sheep or black list and so on. You can simply by your own examples show there are examples. I don't use the word blackmail, I use the word extort. You give people options.

Téa Mutonji

Téa Mutonji is a writer living in Toronto. She was born in Kinshasa, Congo. Her debut book, Shut Up, You're Pretty was published in 2019.

Your first book, Shut Up, Your Pretty is a collection of stories that explores the journey of a young Black girl who's coming into her womanhood. I wonder if you could tell us why this was what you wanted to write about for your debut?

I read a lot, and every single time I finished a book, I always felt a bit of a detachment [between] with myself and a protagonist. I'm thinking particularly of summaries that I was reading, books that are usually a little bit more romantic, and you have your protagonist going through all of these circumstances, having all these life experiences, and then you have your darker literature where they're experiencing these big life changes and still the protagonist there has always been a detachment because they come from a different social, economic and cultural background than I do. And I kind of felt that I was desperate for a bit of representation.

So when I set out to write Shut Up, You're Pretty. I knew that I wanted to write about a girl who looked like me, who came from similar circumstances. So it was really like natural for me to have this young person be Congolese and have grown up in government housing and have a mother that sometimes reminds me of my own mother so that I could create a life for her that I could relate to so that if I were to read this book in like 20 years, I could remember what it was like to be a Black child, and to have the world sort of decide what that means and to fight against that — and so Loli came alive that way.

Please correct me if I'm wrong, but my sense is that your desire to create the story stems partly from the fact that there is a shortage of these kinds of stories. Is that correct?

Absolutely. It's really interesting, I don't think that based on the person that I am today and the experiences I have gained in the last three years that I would write, Shut Up, You're Pretty today. I don't think it's in me anymore. I think it really was sort of like an exorcism.

I always say that I wrote this book out of pure anger because I was extremely mad at the entire world. You read these stories, you watch these movies, there's so much pain in our community. And I was like, how can I write a story that's realistic, that's still picturing what would be the most true-to-form person growing up in Galloway [a neighbourhood in Scarborough, a Toronto suburb], in Canada, based on the politics here, based on the way Blackness is treated here, how can I write a true story, but still giving moments of hope and joy and humanity?

I want to pick up on something you mentioned. You talk about this being an exorcism and that you are angry at the world, may ask you why you're angry at the world?

I had already decided that I was going to write a book that really touches on rape culture and sexual assault at different stages and in different forms, like in a way that is not necessarily obvious. This was sort of an ongoing project I was doing while I was studying at the University of Toronto in my undergrad. I was collecting stories of survivors that they often question, rather, that makes them a survivor, like the very ambiguous moments of sexual discomfort.

Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo campaign, says women of colour have historically always had to push through barriers to have a voice. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)
What I didn't know was that six months into writing my book, the #Metoo Movement was going to start. And that definitely changed the ending. It changed stories because I was absorbing all of these stories from the #MeToo movement, and I was just sharing this collective pain with women in the world, or people in general who have experienced different forms of sexual assault. But more than that, I was also getting so pissed off at the erasure of Black women and their stories of #MeToo. 

I wonder whether you felt an obligation or responsibility as a writer to tackle these issues. Did you feel that?

I wouldn't say as a writer but this is where my race comes along. As a Black writer, I definitely did. If I could just write as a writer, I probably would write about picking strawberries for no reason. But there would be no conflict and there would be no middle, end and beginning. It would just be about the joy of picking strawberries, which is a hobby I sometimes like, even though I hate strawberries.

But as a Black writer, I do have the privilege of making certain decisions like who's my audience and what am I trying to get at. I think it's like a really powerful thing to be able to write for my community, or about my community, or as a tool in order to drive certain conversation.

* This episode was produced by Philip Coulter, Tayo Bero and Nahlah Ayed. The Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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