by Maggie Helwig
MARLENE NOURBESE PHILIP`s Frontiers is one of those books that is not likely to get an intelligent reading, with fashionable liberals rushing to endorse everything she says, and fashionable conservatives hastily denouncing her as "strident" or some such thing, and relatively few people actually reading the essays.
This is too bad, because Frontiers really is an intelligent - and not perfect - book, and one that deserves a thoughtful reading.
Nourbese Philip is one of Canada`s finest poets, known internationally but relatively neglected here, for reasons that are unfortunately only too clear; primarily just because she is a Black woman, secondarily because she writes extremely "difficult" poetry and employs non-standard English, including Caribbean demotic. In Frontiers, her first book of essays, she considers exactly this dynamic of "racism and culture" that has excluded non-white artists from "Canadian culture."
Nourbese Philip is uncompromising and acute. Her essay "The Disappearing Debate" contains the best analysis I have seen to date of the great appropriation controversy - she reminds us, quite correctly, that the real issue is not whether white writers are "allowed" to write in the voices of people of colour, but why the voices of real Black and Native writers almost never get heard. She also points out that the outbreak of paranoia from most of the white literary community - who seem seriously to believe that large and powerful people of colour are about to pass laws preventing them from writing whatever they want to - has obscured the real issue, and turned the whole thing into a redherring debate over "censorship."
"Gut Issues in Babylon," another strong piece, is a meticulous examination of how racism - conscious or unconscious - operates in the arts communities, looking particularly at the Women`s Press crisis of 1988; the essay also offers a series of mostly very sound suggestions for anti-racist initiatives for arts councils, arts promoters, and artists. Some are probably unworkable - the idea that publishers should be required to report to arts councils how many books by Black and other minority writers they have "seriously considered" relies entirely on the publishers` idea of what "seriously considered" means, and would almost certainly end up being meaningless in practice. But most are worth real consideration, by the arts councils in particular.
Nourbese Philip, of course, does not represent, and cannot speak for, all the marginalized cultures of Canada, and most of the time she is aware of that and points it out. In particular, she is trying to be responsible to the Native community in not expressing their experiences for them, experiences that parallel those of an African Canadian in some ways, but are in others radically different. She is also somewhat -though less acutely - aware that openly gay artists (particularly lesbians) are also a marginalized group, whose experiences are in many ways very different, but who share the fundamental knowledge of being silenced. She does not, however, make as much of an attempt to remind us of, and point our thinking towards, this minority whose marginalization is not based on race; a more concerted