The Next Chapter

Sarah Raughley recommends 3 historical books that centre Black characters

The author and columnist reviews Everfair by Nisi Shawl, They Call Me George by Cecil Foster and No Crystal Stair by Mairuth Sarsfield.
Sarah Raughley is an author of fantasy novels. (Melanie Gillis)

Sarah Raughley is a fantasy novelist from Southern Ontario. Raughley is the author of the novel The Bones of Ruin and the YA series Effigies, which includes the books Fate of FlamesSiege of Shadows and Legacy of Light. Raughley's stories typically feature elements of magic, otherworldly powers and the fantastical.

Raughley spoke with Shelagh Rogers about three historical books that centre Black characters: Everfair by Nisi Shawl, They Call Me George by Cecil Foster and No Crystal Stair by Mairuth Sarsfield.

Everfair by Nisi Shawl 

Everfair is Nisi Shawl's debut novel. (Caren Corley, Tom Doherty Associates)

"Nisi Shawl is an accomplished science fiction writer and I love her work. Much like The Bones of Ruin, it presents Victorian history with a bit of fantasy and a twist. Whereas my book is looking at England, Shawl is looking at  this alternate history of Congo in this imaginary steampunk land called Everfair. 

"The steampunk genre is very rich. But over the past few decades there have been discussions about how white steampunk is. This book ponders what if we decentred whiteness and what if we even decentred Europe and looked at other countries in steampunk.

Shawl is looking at  this alternate history of Congo in this imaginary steampunk land called Everfair.

"Everfair is this neo-Victorian alternate history book that asks 'What if the Congolese had discovered steam technology earlier — and how would Belgians' colonization of the country have gone?' It's about nation building and about the difficulties of nation building."

They Call Me George by Cecil Foster

Cecil Foster is a Canadian novelist, essayist, journalist and scholar. (Sharon Beckford-Foster, Michael Vrana & Biblioasis)

"This nonfiction book by Cecil Foster chronicles the lives of Black railway porters. This was when Canada was starting to build out its cross-country railways. In the 19th century, Canada's railway system helped to define Canada as a nation because it was able to connect people from different parts of the country. 

"The Canadian Pacific Railway would employ the Pullman Corporation, who would then provide these Black porters who would take care of the comfort of the privileged passengers. 

They were integral to shaping race relations in Canada.

"The porters had all of these strict rules in terms of the conduct, in terms of keeping things clean, taking care of rodents and infestations, even down to their behaviour, their uniforms, all to reinforce that luxurious bourgeois experience. 

"What I quickly found when I read this book is that these porters weren't passive. They were integral to shaping race relations in Canada."

No Crystal Stair by Mairuth Sarsfield

Mairuth Sarsfield was a Canadian author, activist journalist, researcher and television personality. (Ron Fanfair, Canadian Scholars' Press)

"Mairuth Sarsfield was a Canadian writer dedicated to social justice. She was a broadcaster, activist and curator. She was very passionate about the African Canadian experience, which is one of the reasons why I wanted to pick this book up. It's so important for African Canadian authors and African Canadian voices to be uplifted and for our histories to be uplifted.

The book was part of Canada Reads in 2005. Before that, despite all of her accolades, her work wasn't well known to the populace. It pushes the point that we need to do the work in uplifting and putting these important Black Canadian voices out there.

It's so important for African Canadian authors and African Canadian voices to be uplifted and for our histories to be uplifted.

"No Crystal Stair is set in Montreal, particularly the very rich, multicultural Black communities in Montreal in the 1940s. You've got the jazz era, you've got the Second World War, you've got prohibition. It's all revolving around these characters in the little Burgundy district. And you have the main character, Marion, who's dealing with racism. She's working two jobs and she wants to make sure that her girls can live. 

"She's dealing with Quebec's subtle racism at the same time that Quebec is fighting for equality, in relation to British Canada."

Sarah Raughley's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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.

(CBC)

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