||Words for Survival
by Olive Senior
A MIXED BAG OF FICTION, poetry, and testimony, Fiery Spirits brings together the work of 20 authors born in Africa, the Caribbean, and Canada. What resonates throughout the book is not so much fire as the transformative power of words forged from fire and the equally formidable weapon of silence. Especially vulnerable are those exiled or in transit (as many of the protagonists in this collection are).
In Yvonne Vera's "A Woman Is a Child" a young African girl comes to Canada and does the unspeakable, shattering an ancient taboo. Her audacity leaves her father (whose authoritarian words had become stones) literally speechless. Pauline Peters ("Dryland: In My Village") is more explicit in recounting a mythic ancestral past where the collectivity ("And there was no word for I") is first empowered, then shattered, by the coming of the Word. Kuwee Kumsaa in "Lamentations: A Letter to My Mother" recounts how her people, the Oromo, are erased not just by conquest but by the conquerors inscribing their own version of history by renaming everything.
The power of names and naming reveberates in this book. In Paul Tiyambe Zeleza's "Foggy Seasons," the white Canadian teacher of the African child Shanisa refuses to learn to pronounce her name the very first day of school and rechristens her: " 'Would you mind if I called you Shany?' she said as she tried to smile." Soon, the children convert this to "Shiny" and the girl, identifying naming with power, creates a shell to hide in by rechristening herself as the westernized "Shelly."
Yet those who immigrate to Canada carry within themselves the flame of hope and a belief injustice. This, after all, is the meeting place. To the newly arrived Shanisa/Shelly, Toronto "looked as if the whole world was there." Also there, as she and others discover, in this land of "many solitudes," is death, racism, and cold indifference. Politeness is sometimes perceived as nothing more than a failure to communicate. As Shelly (who marries a white Canadian) discovers when they move to her husband's small Ontario town, "It was all so polite, so cold, this silence that greeted their visibility."
Silence -- and silencing -- is a feature in many of the pieces, such as Kumsaa's multi-layered lament for the lost Mother/Motherland, in which the pain of the Ethiopian refugee suddenly implodes into the Canadian silence, into "the land where there is freedom to scream when you are in pain." But she, too, finds it is not to be, for ... They say they want silence, perfect silence, over here. Their peace is not to be disturbed as ours was." She cries out to tell her story but nobody listens. Perhaps submerged in the noise of TV versions, "Yours is a very marginal scream, for them. Very trivial."
Even if the home left behind is peaceful (and many are described as Edenic), the very crossing itself opens one up to dangerous new knowledge. But there isn't much in this multicultural Canada, it seems, to assist one to take that final step across the cultural divide; to "become Canadian" (as in Archibald J. Crail's "Affirmative Action"). The loss of one's shadow, or its ominous erasure by winter darkness, is used more than once as a metaphor for the loss of one's soul in Canada. And yet many undoubtedly bring their solitudes with them, and in learning new languages, shifting into new spaces, they deliberately try to sever themselves from the past, perpetuating a silence about origins. This applies not just to Black people. In Zeleza's story, the immigrant gains insight into her own past and her children's present pain when she observes a similarity between her own parents who came from Kenya and her white husband's parents who came from Germany during the war. Neither couple had explained to their children their true reasons for leaving home, thus failing to assuage a psychic yearning that is passed on generationally. As the heroine (and others in these stories and poems) finds, one can only break free of the past by embracing it.
Words, then, also function as a tool for survival. Many writers in this book bravely confront other types of silence and the need to verbalize. One can at least maintain one's dignity by open acknowledgement of one's true condition, whether it is imminent death (in Minister Faust's "The Brown Moth") or being HIV positive (Stafan Collins's "Why"). There are also those who choose to affirm themselves by being outrageously, highly visible and loudly heard, as gays, drag queens, or feisty women (in, for example, the contributions from Collins, Courtnay McFarlane, and Sylvia Henderson). It is by learning to strike the spark between words and silence and breathing it into life that "fiery spirits" empower themselves and others, especially those suffering from multiple marginalizations due to race, ethnicity, gender, poverty, illness, or the loss of one's country/tongue. Dionne Brand eloquently expresses this in "Three Passages for Elizaet":
... I see this woman talking, talking like she know what she is saying and everyone around listening. I walk past because I have no time for no woman talking. It don't mean nothing. It don't matter what woman say in the world
-- until one day she hears this revolutionary young woman breathe a magical word into life.
The quality of Fiery Spirits is uneven, but even those pieces that come across as cliche-ridden or shrill still have something to say about the search for place, for affirmation of selfhood in the world. What comes across is the power of the storyteller to move between magical flights and a prosaic reality, like the stuff of which this book is made. Here the artist is not separated from life. Tiny Little Reed in one of the Nandi tales of Jane Tapsubei Creider tells a wonderful story. "That was too short," says one of her listeners, "Can you tell another?" "No," replies the little storyteller, "I have to sleep. I'm getting up at dawn to go help my grandmother milk." On the whole, the protagonists of Fiery Spirits remain ever hopeful of new beginnings, wanting always to "make a new history." If carefully read, this book will be seen to reveal people grappling not just with a failure of language, of the tongue, but also with a failure of the ear, a failure of the Other to listen to them, to truly hear. Ayanna Black is to be commended for her industry in bringing these voices together and giving us all another opportunity to listen.