Eyeing the North Star:
Directions in African-Canadian Literature

by George E. Clarke,
ISBN: 0771021259

Genealogy of Resistance:

by M. Nourbese Philip,
ISBN: 1551280477

Black Like Who?

by Rinaldo Walcott,
ISBN: 1895837073

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In-Between Language
by Ted Whittaker

To read black Canadian literature is a heady adventure-the texts, and the writers' careers, in some instances their apparent tenure in this country, are so recent-and it's true, they themselves are so thin on the ground-that the works can still be looked at critically without much recourse to specialization. Almost everything remains to be said about these poets and novelists, fiercely independent but commonly concerned about the minute particulars of various "black experiences" above north 44° or 49°.

George Elliott Clarke's anthology is a splended eye-opener that deserves wide acceptance on CanLit curricula from universities right down into high schools. The quality of the submissions, fiction and poetry alike, is high and much less uneven than one would expect from so wide a selection of authors, many of whom have been labouring long in the obscurity of smallpressdom. Twenty-one writers are represented here, including two in translation.

In his introduction, Clarke throws up a flag. He claims that too many critics of black-he uses the term African-Canadian-writing haven't done the requisite research. There have been black writers working here, if not publishing, before 1960-buried, but waiting to be unearthed. The difficulty continues, changed in form. As he says, "Race, per se, is not everything for African Canadians. No, it is the struggle against erasure that is everything." Story after story, poem after poem, stands straight, variously empowered, against this continuing threat.

Claire Harris's furious prose poem "Policeman Cleared in Jaywalking Case" tells the old tale clearly. "In the black community to signify indicates an act of acknowledgement of sharing, of identifying with." A black girl third-degreed for crossing an Edmonton street in the middle of the block reminds the poet of her own similar experience when young in Trinidad. The big point, though, is the racist abuse in Canada, against which the poet, unlike the dumbstruck, frightened girl (and for her) will speak: "...here black and female bright black on the edge of this white world and I will not blend in nor will I fade into the midget shades peopling your dream...Look you child, I signify".

Most of Clarke's writers take as their subject black lives-here, in Africa, in the Caribbean, or in the in-between physical or psychic space that some of these authors unhappily consider to be the (im)migrant's most important possession. Racial conflict great and small, mortally devastating or just gnat-bothersome, is an important secondary subject that in some works does not even appear.

I guess Clarke has to use the term African-Canadian to describe his contributors; he needs to be general, since, though many of them are of Caribbean origin, and several are immigrants, several are members of families or communities who have been in this country for up to two hundred years. He claims, sensibly enough, "Canada is an assembly point for all African peoples...." His introduction to this book begins with an autobiographical anecdote. A Nova Scotia native, he traces his family's residence there to 1813 on one side, 1898 on the other. Such roots are less apparent, certainly, in central Canada. Though black people have populated southern Ontario since Loyalist times at least, their collective presence has been somewhat overshadowed by that of the most recent wave of black immigrants, from the Caribbean, in addition to the longstanding ignorance, indifference, or malice displayed by white Canadians.

Clarke's subjects, given his specific nationality, are different from those of many of the other contributors to his anthology. He allows the inclusion of several of his own poems, the best of which is an arresting homage to Ezra Pound. Playing it absolutely straight, he daringly and with admirable success resets in rural Nova Scotia Pound's great amorous declaration, "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter" (itself a translation of a Chinese lyric), at times line for line.

Extended allusions or imitations are the sincerest form of flattery. "The River Pilgrim: A Letter" is one of them. The wanderer, full of the juice of youth, writes back to his left-behind love, reversing Pound's narrative stance. He's sentimental, but luckily the poem isn't. It's just treading that old Pound-and-Dowson groove (EP might approve). The long-lonely river-merchant's wife concludes, "If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,/ Please let me know beforehand,/ And I will come out to meet you/ As far as Cho-fu-sa." Clarke's narrator echoes her: "Shelley, I am coming down through the narrows/ Of the Sixhiboux River. I will write/ Beforehand. Please, please come out to meet me/ As far as Gilbert's Cove."

Some of the works by other authors that Clarke has collected point backward at "home", take for focus an existence before the passage here. Others represent the arrived life, no matter how tenuous the touchdown may be.

The forms employed are hugely various: verse drama, lyric, narrative poetry, prose poetry. The unmixed prose fiction comes at us in several guises too, or call them several musicalities: from Archibald Crail's straight-ahead, almost magazine-article account of the grim effects of guerrilla warfare in a quiet South African setting; to the small subtleties of "Purella Munificance", Frederick Ward's semi-phonetic, bittersweet, star-crossed lovers' tale, told in demotic by the town drunk, Mr. Makin It. There never was a chance for the Bible salesman and the too-free girl, in this narrative; but just perhaps not for the most obvious (racial) reasons. The church women are quick to get their guiding, taming hands on him, though, to get him baptized, to make up for the private loss with a public, cold comfort. "I likes to thinks on Mama Fuchsia's face brown and beaming bright. `Just like the Lord would say it; bless you, Honey/ I buys one of them with the pictures.'"

There are many other instances that could be cited of the use of the several species or intensities of black English-it can even be most simply called dialect or patois, especially when applied to Caribbean speech. All three books reviewed in this article defend the selective use of patois as opposed to standard English. To write the island demotic is a political decision, tied to an acknowledgement by the writers of their primary audience. Clarke, reflecting on a statement by Ayanna Black, says that her "recognition of the centrality of orality to African diasporic literatures is correct, for New World African audiences demand an attendance to the sound and the rhythm of our texts. They crave signifying speech that moves body and soul." Lots of buzzwords in that citation; and it's a sturdy bridge to a brief discussion of the latest collection of essays by M. (formerly Marlene) NourbeSe Philip-who's represented, interestingly, in Eyeing the North Star, by a brief erotic narrative in ever-so-standard English.

A Genealogy of Resistance is a stylistic and formal mutt. Philip calls what she presents essays. She's accurate there; they are attempts, forays, thrusts. Her prose is typical at times of much outré criticism, a rhetoric thinned of verbs. Sometimes there is no effort to just calmly state truth, as the prose breaks, pace Pound or Olson, into line fragments and even into poetry. Rhetoric is not seized, nor is its neck wrung. It is in the saddle, and it rides. Philip's text possesses everywhere a considerable urgency. It will persuade, hammer you into agreement. (George Elliott Clarke opines that "rhetorical analyses of New World African literatures should demonstrate, I dare say, our heightened usage of such techniques as anaphora, paroimion, chleuasmos, litotes etc., in contrast to European diasporic literatures.") And then the fierceness will mute itself a little, ducking back behind the mask of standard English. Philip used to be a lawyer, a professional arguer-not for nothing.

This, I suppose, is what she calls "the language helpless to describe our usness", in action. The rhythm, the ferocious cadenced pounding and testimonial repetition of phrases and images in the title essay, Philip's lacunaed family history back into slavery in Tobago, won me over. "I will give an account of the descent. Resist the command to `speak in a certain manner,' so as to excise the `badenglish', recognizing in it the resistance of the people. The ancestors coming alive in the stories, the loving lies, and the i-maging."

There at the end of that sentence was the rub against my ears, that in-groupy falsifying of, not only orthography, but also etymology. When I first read Philip's (what seemed to me) defensive special pleadings for doing this-it's a Rastafarian practice, she tells us-I thought tiredly of Toni Morrison's splendid line, "The nutwagon do anything." Philip's argument goes this way. If the only language most conveniently available to you is that imposed upon you from without, bend it to your purposes, by any means. Philip devotes a very straitlaced piece to the tactics of taking possession of the language. The i-mage gambit, that selective "privileging of the I", as she puts it, is just one. A less hermetic set of alterations to the whole verbal cloth to make a garment is Philip's rendering of Caribbean demotic. In the history of this dialect, she says, "nouns became strangers to verbs and vice versa, tonal accentuation took the place of several words at a time; rhythms held sway."

If you can't understand it in the air or on the page, Philip would state, too bad; this is not for you. What you hear or read is a crucial survival mechanism of many black people in the Caribbean and in North America, just doing its job, splendidly, and as it should. That is fair; but what also should be stressed is the influence of the dominant culture. Black kids born here don't sound like their parents-nor do the children of any other set of immigrants. It is impossible for parents to keep their children away from corrupting dialectal influences. The demotic here has a shelf life. The black demotic may survive, but will flatten out considerably, especially where accent is concerned, depending upon where the speaker lives and upon the intensity of his or her contact with English speakers of various ethnic persuasions.

I want to say more about Philip's pushes against the walls of her chosen genre. The word "essay" is certainly too square, too limiting for her need to be free within it. No more than rough justice can be done in this space, moreover, to the herd of rather large, woolly, earth-pawing notions she's trying to break and harness. The uses of black English; the threatened invisibility of the black female (writer); an imaginative, plausibly historical reconstruction of the origin of the idea for the Middle Passage. (Philip notes laconically in this connection that the Spanish priest Bartolomé de Las Casas, author of a host of famous polemics against his own government's suppression of the native peoples of the New World and who, in a modern liberal sense, could be considered to be on the side of the angels, advised the Spaniards to purchase African slaves to take the load off the Indians. He did that, there's no denying, and greatly helped legitimize the Middle Passage. He also later publicly repented, realizing that to enslave either Africans or Indians was a crime and a sin. This is a fact that Philip does not mention. It doesn't matter, anyway. A soft tongue breaketh the bone.) A few of the essays deal with the writing life, specifically: in Cuba, in a U.S. writer's colony, in Tobago, observing a myth at work in the civic politics of the island. You hear too some of what is going on in Philip's private mind, but the emphasis is usually on the conventionally politically feminist observation and interpretation of others' (sometimes racist) behaviour.

The more important selections-two are "DisPlace-the Space Between" and "African Roots and Continuities: Race, Space and the Poetics of Moving"-concern the use of the demotic in unusual contexts or for unconventional purposes. "DisPlace" (the pun front and centre, literally) meditates upon female sexuality and its ownership, considered from a feminist perspective. Philip uses postmodern and badenglish rhetorical weapons to mark out and advance her position, turning the conventional field of the essay into something altogether else-it is most easily described as a daybook of variformed notes, prose and poetry both. Among these she poses scenes from a play about nineteenth-century Trinidadian street life, more specifically about a jamette, "A `loose' woman, a woman of loose morals, whose habitat is the street. Jamette! A woman possessing both the space between her legs and the space around her." The patois here is some of the liveliest writing in the entire book, writing from the body indeed; even some of the stage directions come onto the page in badenglish:

"`De space between legs is we own to do with as we please, and we not frighten of these streets. Dese streets is we own-we have a right to be here and we beating any man who telling we different-just ask Cutway Rimbeau!' Is clear the men recognizing the name. The women moving faster now and suddenly they charging the men who turning tail and running. The women laughing loud loud like real jamettes. Suddenly the stage black black."

"African Roots and Continuities" is a more ambitiously structured project-ostensibly an account of the Toronto summer festival Caribana, from the inside; in kinepoiesis, in "the Trinidad creole". Except a few words that need and get glossing, Philip's rendering of the dialect is very accessible. It gives, in the main, a sense of the bearable lightness of being, making every verb into a present participle, losing the conjugations and almost all the copulas, especially when they would in standard use complement a present participle.

And Caribana is just the jumping-off point for a history of black carnival and authoritarian attempts to suppress or control it. Two personae, Totoben and Maisie, dance their way through festivals of glee and protest in time and space, "playing marse" throughout the diaspora. Caribana, it turns out, is just one among many such. "Totoben thinking of the jobs he not getting and Maisie of the money she not earning, Totoben thinking of the moving they not doing and so they taking their bodies to the streets, to the crossroads of their minds, and they moving, bearing the sounds of their ancestors on University Avenue, in Notting Hill, in New York, Calgary, in Miami-everywhere."

One of the more pleasant by-products of reading a young literature-that's what black writing amounts to in this country, George Elliott Clarke's archaeological fastidiousness notwithstanding-is that, because the primary impulse is so strong, resulting in such a generous flood of fiction and poetry, perhaps there hasn't been enough time for the analytical/theoretical faculty secondary though essential to an understanding of the creative process, to sort itself out. Until very recently, the writers have been doing most of their own criticism, in fugitive essays, introductions to anthologies, polemical exchanges of various kinds.

Now the professors are starting to get their act together. York University's Rinaldo Walcott seems well situated to speak in conventional critical terms about "writing black Canada", his subject in and subtitle for Black Like Who? He teaches in what he calls the largest black community in the country (specifically north-central Toronto, also known as North York) and has grounded himself in several fields of black culture that have to do wholly or partially with words: literature, film, rap. Walcott also has a few words to say about other matters: the treatment of Somali immigrants in the white media, the Donovan Bailey-Michael Johnson controversy. These are trenchant comments, but they serve as buttresses to the edifice of his argument, not pillars.

So he will be a voice. He admits, however, that Nova Scotia is the area of the country most prominently "collecting and documenting a black presence." Walcott does mention a short film with a Nova Scotia setting, but perforce the artifacts he examines-and their producers-are mainly Torontonian. They are the squeaky wheels; they get the grease. Walcott, a pioneer, has written a courageous, combative little book. Some of his opinions beg to be countered; some of his arguments are, sadly, all too unanswerable.

His point of view is unremittingly political, and on the Left. A work of art that does not consistently measure up in progressive political terms is scrutinized closely and considered to have fallen short of a pre-set mark. Walcott's always taking a line; this limits him, when he talks about aesthetic matters. He faults Clement Virgo's feature film Rude with this observation, for example: "the overburdened socio-religious narrative structure...fails to produce a politically transfigurative moment."

So what? It may be that Virgo is not looking for such a moment. The critical question to ask concerns style: whether or not the film builds a symbolic structure with any satisfactory grace. The answer is yes, from my viewing. Three narratives occur simultaneously in an anonymous Toronto over an Easter weekend, linked by the directing monologue of a pirate dj, Rude. There is a visual reference in one of the stories to Peter's denial of Christ. Death and resurrection figure in each story, "figure" being the operative verb. Virgo is an artist, not a village explainer. My point is this: you cannot apply a set of values from one area of human endeavour-politics-to another-art. The two may at times imitate each other. That is as good as it gets.

Again, Walcott complains of the parallel play of Virgo's characters-they do not encounter each other in the film; there is no "leakage" from one tale to another, though they all apparently take place in the same housing-project-dense area of the city, presumably where the low-watt pirate station can reach. Rude's the implicit choric link to all three tales, however, and to her listeners and viewers (the film's audience). Virgo's use of the literal time-frame of Easter weekend as a limiting factor in his characters' lives points also to the limits within which he is willing to view them. They rise up from the tombs of their deaths-in-life, but we're not privileged to see them walking around thereafter. He gives us a glimpses, not life stories. The transformation anyone undergoes as a result of conversion-or resurrection-isn't over as soon as it starts; that's what Walcott doesn't admit. If I were Clement Virgo and Citizen Walcott began talking to me, as he does to his readers, about the film's "truncated politics", telling me "...art necessarily speaks for some kind of politics," I would pick up my camera and walk toward the door. Quickly.

Next, I must admit a major hindrance to my ability to respond to Walcott's arguments: I don't by choice listen to much contemporary pop music, of any colour. My excuse is simple; echoing Edward Dahlberg's defence of his own selective ignorance, I prefer to kill off one form of art at a time. I cannot therefore comment in public print about any of Walcott's statements concerning rap music.

Walcott's assessment of several black Canadian writers, M. NourbeSe Philip and Dionne Brand in particular, is respectful and revealing. He marks the major themes and strategies of their work with satisfactory accuracy. The main point he makes that I wish to note here is the news they shout about Canada's being an unpleasant place in which to try to hang one's hat, especially if one is black. Fighting back, not knuckling under, not becoming invisible, not speaking white, not fading into the midget shades-those, as we've noted earlier, are their answers to what they and Walcott observe are bi- and even multicultural Canada's lack of room for the disturbing black presence. Walcott quotes Dionne Brand's advice to inhabitants of what used to be a black neighbourhood in Toronto: "Walk Bathurst Street until it come like home." The poet's fight is the poet's work, certainly, to create a space for herself and people like her, who, as Walcott echoes, "live in the in-between", still enacting daily the diaspora. The in-between is physical-the roots of many black immigrants, these texts claim over and over, are not here, not in the Islands, not in Africa; not yet (and yet in some sense they are). In-between is also linguistic, as is evidenced in the long wrestling match with the modalities of the language.

George Elliott Clarke states that, in time, "the distinction between `naturalized' and `aboriginal' [black writers] will blur, leaving only the usual, insurmountable divisions between metropolis and hinterland, French and English, to quarter the literature." I believe this prediction, if true, will lessen the need for such insistences as Philip's on the centrality of patois. In-betweenness will connote something different, perhaps a class rift, not a cultural rift. The change may resemble the change in Jewish-American literature in this century-the race, or at least the colour card having been removed from the deck, of course. Read first the dialogue in (say) Henry Roth's Call It Sleep and then that in a late work by Saul Bellow, for evidence of assimilative and anti-assimilative strategies.

Walcott takes the Ottawa and Toronto writer André Alexis to task in the last chapter of Black Like Who? for an inadequate understanding of what it means for black people to be at home in Canada, for not sufficiently recognizing the "in-between". It is also true that among the few works in Eyeing the North Star that have nothing whatsoever to do with racial differences or do not explicitly insist upon or even speak about black experience as such are a suite of short fictions by André Alexis. (Walcott does admit that these colour-blind stories "exist as a `voice' of black Canadian difference and plurality.")

The hugest claim Walcott makes concerning the issue of being in-between can bring us back to his discussion of Philip. He would have us believe that her sculpting of the language is emblematic of a black immigrant experience qualitatively different from European immigrant experience. Not only are most black Canadians fairly recent immigrants-one standard response is that we're almost all immigrants here, in one way or another; push the definition back far enough and plunder and rapine turn it ugly (property was theft)-they're immigrants with the Middle Passage diasporic twist. Their ancestors didn't want to come to anywhere in America in the first place, and they're not going to let the rest of us forget that. Those facts put a rider on their having landed in Canada, even though by now this is supposed to be a destination of choice. Black people are uneasy about the whole project; and we don't make it any easier for them, they're telling us, none too sweetly. If we isolate linguistic practice from conventional political matters, the appeal to difference isn't as special a plea as it appears. European immigrants came here speaking different languages; when they learned English, they learned standard English. Many black writers have an advantage; most of them in this country, if they came from elsewhere, grew up speaking English (the boss tongue), of two sorts. They can choose to write in either; my best guess, as I've said, is that they won't choose the original demotic forever.

Walcott loves academic neologisms. One of his wretched favourites is "performative", used to describe an aspect of black English emphasized by our other authors. "The performative qualities of language and...resisting subjects...are crucial to the political acts of Brand and Philip. They remake, or rather alter, language to make it perform the acts of their politics." That is obvious in Philip's work, but the question now is this: will what Philip calls kinepoiesis in black culture and speech patterns be strong enough, not only to ensure black identity, but also to change standard English in this country, even perhaps to loosen a few of the welded hips in the dominant culture, or to put across an improved sense of community? Walcott observes that "performative studies" are the examination of the ways in which "black folk remake themselves and in the process remake entire societies." One would think he's claiming for black people-here, there, anywhere, as a result of their "diasporic sensibility" (is Martin Luther King's contestable aphorism implied: "unearned suffering is redemptive"?)-the same sort of importance Jesus stated that his followers had. They were the salt of the earth. One might also cite as a worthy precedent Jahweh's favourable characterization of the children of Israel. The characterization is a bit grand, if applied to any one group of people, but it certainly does not lack nobility. Clarke's a cagey player, perhaps not wanting to show his hand at this stage in the political game, but Walcott and Philip, plungers both, are betting that claim is true. 

Ted Whittaker, a frequent contributor to this magazine, lives and works in Toronto.


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