PT 2: Black Canadian writers on finding 'home' in their work

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 what inspires them to write

From left to right: writers George Elliott Clarke, Afua Cooper and André Alexis — all featured guests in our two-part series, Behind the Lines. (Submitted by George Elliott Clark/Submitted by Afua Cooper/Hannah Zoe Davison)

This is the second episode in a two-part series called Behind the Lines. Listen to Part One

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 George Elliott Clarke, Afua Cooper and André Alexis 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.

Afua Cooper

Afua Cooper is an educator, historian, performance artist, and poet. She is considered one of the most influential and pioneering voices in the Canadian dub poetry and spoken word movement. She has published five books of poetry, including the critically acclaimed Copper Woman and Other Poems. In addition to being a performance artist, she is also an internationally-renowned historian.

You grew up in Jamaica, where politics is taken very seriously. I understand you write of that period and wrote: "you would find men and women gathering at street corners, playing card games, playing dominoes and talking politics... centered around Black people struggle, Black people struggling in Africa, Black people struggling in Jamaica, Black people struggling in the United States." Is this where your political education began? 

It's exactly where it began, on the street corners in Kingston, Jamaica. The Black Power movement was going on in the sixties and seventies. You know, names like Angela Davis were big names, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and within Jamaica itself, the Rastafari movement. 

Malcolm X reading newspaper stories about himself, circa 1963. (Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

When I was growing up in Kingston, Rastas we're talking about reparations. I heard people say that the Queen owed us £20 million. I didn't quite understand what they meant by that until I went to school and learned that at the end of slavery, the British crown awarded the slave masters £20 million as compensation for the loss of the slave property. But the enslaved people themselves didn't receive anything. So there was this sense that we have been wronged for so many centuries. 

In the 1980s, you moved to Toronto. You started teaching and getting involved with the local arts scene with other Black artists, performing your poetry live and drumming. At the time, you called it a Black cultural renaissance. How did that experience affect your politics and your writing? 

That was a time when you had Albert Johnson being shot down, and Buddy Evans, and just the police shooting of Black men, a lot of political agitation, Black communities' struggle, people demanding equal rights: are we citizens? Are we not citizens? Are we human beings? Are we not human beings? Are we subjects? Are we objects?

So within that, I felt that one of the ways I could contribute was through art, was through music, was through poetry. I think one of the unique things that I've contributed is using the drums. I work a lot with African drums in in my work. 

But you know, we all come from somewhere and we all use what we were gifted, use the legacies, because we all have a legacy. Someone bequeathed us something and we all use that to create something new. 

Does that suggest that the writing process is in some ways always about finding a way home? 

I think so, because why do we write? I think we're always looking for answers to questions that we pose to ourselves. I think at the start, it's always about us because we are also trying individually to liberate ourselves and to come into  greater freedom, personal freedom, spiritual freedom. And so what is the way home? Are we looking for a home? What kind of path are we creating?

It might be something selfish, and not selfish in a bad way, but something that revolves around the self. Because, you know, we are individuals. Of course, we are this discrete entity, but we are connected to every other person. And so it's what we do for ourselves, we're also doing it for other people.

I think I know the answer after everything we've talked about, but do you believe that artists in general — and writers in particular  — have a special responsibility to society, a heavier weight to carry, so to speak? 

I say 'yes' and I say 'yes' because writers and artists put themselves out there as some kind of seers, like we think we belong to this body of wise people and people who have something to say and people who think a lot and reflect a lot and do deep internal work. 

André Alexis

André Alexis was born in Trinidad and grew up in Canada. He has published over a dozen works. His novel Fifteen Dogs, won the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. His debut novel, Childhood, won the Books in Canada First Novel Award, the Trillium Book Award, and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize and the Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. 

In one of your novels, you have the narrator say, "I now think the hardest part of leaving home has been the loss of coherence." I'm wondering, is that true of you? How important is the idea of home? 

Well, it's been the single most important idea for me as a human because I left Trinidad when I was three and a half or so, and it was, as you can imagine, hugely traumatic to come from Trinidad to Canada. And so the notion of home is tied to the notion of belonging, is tied to the notion of accent, is tied to the notion of story. All of those things are very tightly woven together in my mind. 

Home has been one of the crucial thematic things for my work, partly because I'm fascinated by the idea, but partly because there's a necessity within me to think through that idea. 

What do you mean by fascinated by the idea of home?

Home has a bunch of implications. Home has a physical reality to it, like where you are. And I'm very aware that there are some people who, wherever they are, feel at home because there is maybe a kind of completeness in being that they feel, which I don't feel. Home, is also a set of sensual elements, smells that are used to sounds that you're used to, colours that you're used to. All of those things sensually can add up to home. 

But the home is also besides the physical, besides the sensual, a spiritual notion or can be in the sense of finding a belonging, a place where one is comfortable, a place where one feels that, again, to use the word belonging, one belongs. Yeah, you can take a lifetime exploring, as I have.

In a 1998 interview, after your first novel Childhood came out, you said, "I don't feel myself particularly part of any branch of the Canadian literary tradition, but I don't feel myself disconnected from it, either. As to the West. Indian heritage, yes, I'm very much West Indian in the way I grew up." Can you explain the West Indian influence as it contrasts against the Canadian literary tradition? 

For me, I've created in my mind a kind of artificial divide between the literature that comes from stories, stories that you're told, the one to one connection of a parent or grandparent telling you about a speaking Spider, Anansi. And I'm aware of Trinidadian literature as being deeply grounded in a kind of orality. 

Samuel 'Sam' Selvon was a Trinidad-born writer, who moved to London, UK in the 1950s. He's best known for his novels The Lonely Londoners (1956) and Moses Ascending (1975). (Wikimedia)

So my favourite Trinidadian novelist is probably Samuel Selvon, because when I heard him speak and when I read his work, I can hear my parents, I can hear the sounds that I kind of associate, the orality that I associate, with the West Indies. Whereas when I read Margaret Atwood or Margaret Laurence in particular, there's a 'writedness' that I don't connect quite so directly with the oral. And that might be my fault. It might be that I'm not hearing the orality that Margaret Laurence depends on.

What about the broader identification of being Black? How does that shape your writing? 

It annoys the hell out of me because there are two aspects of it, and the one that doesn't annoy me is the sheer fact of my race. I'm Black, I come from Trinidad, so there are implications in the where-I-come-from and how people approach me in my day-to-day life that I'm happy to deal with.

I'm annoyed by the idea that people approach me as a Black writer, not because I'm ashamed of being Black or being a writer, but because I'm trying to create a space in which I play, as I pointed out, in which I create a home. And it's sort of like going into somebody's home and only noticing one aspect of it or looking for that aspect of it first.

People will enter into this kind of space with you and look for certain things, and if they don't find them, then they're either disappointed or they say it doesn't suit the standards, or it doesn't go the way that they would like it to go — given that Blackness is a part of this author's work. And that can be as annoying when Black people say it to you as when white people say it to you.

The expectations that people sometimes have because you are a Black writer are really annoying. 

George Elliott Clarke 

Poet, novelist, playwright, and critic George Elliott Clarke was born near Windsor, Nova Scotia and grew up in Halifax. He is the author of numerous collections of poetry including Saltwater Spirituals and Deeper Blues (1983), The Black Acadian Tragedy of George and Rue (2001), which won the Governor General's Literary Award, and the dramatic poem Trudeau: Long March, Shining Path (2007). He is professor of English at the University of Toronto.

I want to kind of start at the beginning, if I may, and ask you about your mother's ancestors arriving to Canada as American slaves liberated by the British in the War of 1812. Now, you've described Three Mile Plains, the town where your grandparents lived as, "Black Eden" that first inspired you to become a poet. What was it about Three Mile Plains that so inspired you to start writing? 

Oh, my. It's such a great question. And it sends chills down my spine because I was very lucky as a boy, as a child, to feel that I had a luxurious existence because Three Miles Plains, like the Annapolis Valley — Nova Scotia in general  — is a very lush place. And so where my grandparents lived, there were lots of fruit, lots of flowers, lots of vegetation, of course, farm animals. 

They may have been, by statistical analysis, poor or working class, or lower middle class or what have you, but they were rich in the abundance of the nature around them. And they didn't act or behave as if they thought they couldn't be at home or at peace with the landscape around them. The people themselves were a great mix of colours and shades because of our history of intermixing, some of that, of course, was forced, coerced based on assault.

But there's also a history of romance and love and family formation based on love. The result of that, by the time I came along in 1960, is that I grow up in a world that has Black people, brown people, red people, white people. 

I'm still trying to get home. I'm still trying to get there. I really do. I want to get back. 

I just wonder how much of the writing process itself is an attempt at finding home? 

Well, I think that it's a major part of it. I mean, I'm someone who is rooted. I still feel that I have a compass or a homing signal or whatever that is directed back at Nova Scotia, and specifically that landscape, that area which informs who I am and informs my socio-economic, political vision, even my theological or faith perspective. 

When we go back to Three Mile Plains, go back to Africville, go back to Northwest, and go back to Cherrybrook, when we go back to Wamboldt Falls — we're with our people. We can kick back. We're in our own homes. To quote James Brown: "I feel good." I'm not going to apologize to anybody for my existence.

Archival photo of Africville in 1965, a few years before it was demolished by the city of Halifax. Many residents of Africville moved into the North End of Halifax. (Nova Scotia Archives)

In terms of the writer's responsibility to the society that the writer finds themselves in, please correct me if I'm wrong, that you feel at least a double responsibility, maybe multiple times? How do you think of the different objectives of that responsibility? Like how do you deal with them as a writer, knowing that you're not just writing for one audience? 

That's a great question and a difficult one. And I think that all racialized writers, African Canadian writers have different perspectives on it. And I think we should, we have to because we all come from different backgrounds. I don't expect someone who has maybe more of a recent arrival consciousness to look at Canada the same way I do.

One of the great things about African Canadian literature is that it comes from so many multiple perspectives and different types of writing and different types of speaking and different types of accents, for crying out loud. And I think it makes our literature incredibly rich, incredibly rich. 

The great difference between ourselves and African American writers is that African American writers have the comfort of knowing they are speaking from a mass-based community. African Canadian writers do not have that. We do not have a mass of Black readers that we can depend upon easily. No, we are a multicultural group of Black people within a multicultural society.

So we have no choice in a sense, even if we want to write only to other Black people, only to Black readers, there's a very strong chance our words, our works are going to be overheard by others, including the majority white population of Canada. 

* 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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