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A Long Sojourn
by Donna Nurse

Cecil Foster's books explore and redefine the dream of 'home'

BORN IN BARBADOS IN 1954, CECIL Foster came to Canada in the late 1970s. He has worked as a reporter for the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail, and as a senior editor for the Financial Post. His articles, frequently commenting on racial issues, continue to appear in numerous Canadian publications. His two novels deal in large part with the social and psychological repercussions of immigration. In the highly acclaimed No Man in the House (Random House, 199 1), emigration promises young Howard Prescod escape from the deprivation of his Barbadian existence. Sleep On, Beloved, published by Random House earlier this year, focuses on Ona Nedd, a Jamaican immigrant attempting to build a new life in Canada. His next book, A Place Called Heaven: The Meaning of Being Black in Canada, will be published by HarperCollins next spring.

BiC: Describe growing up in Barbados. Was your life anything like Howard Prescod's?

Cecil Foster: Yes, on a superficial level. I grew up in a very poor neighborhood, Lodge Road, where I set the book. There was me and two brothers and as in No Man in the House, my parents had gone off to England to live. I was the last of the three, somewhat like Howard himself. By the time you get into the third chapter or so, the resemblance to me has to some degree disappeared. I lived with my paternal grandmother from the time I was about two years old. Then I went to live with my maternal grandmother when I was about 11. Coming from both of them was the strong sense of extended family. Just about everybody was family; great-aunts, aunts, people who weren't blood relatives were, in effect, family -- the extended family in the Caribbean. I also got a strong sense of the importance of education -- it was seen as a way out. When I was growing up the ambitious ones among us saw ourselves as emigrants in the making. I can still remember the headmaster at my school teaching us about past students who had done well abroad. Very often it was used as a negative form of socializing for us, too, in that if you ran into problems with the law, that could finish your chances of getting overseas.

BiC: You started working as a reporter when you were still in Barbados. Did you always hope to enter that field?

Foster: I always wanted to be a writer. I don't remember much of my youth. I don't know if I'm repressing it or what, because I had a tough time. But there are some parts that I remember, like going to school to write an essay and my bigger brother seeing it and pulling my leg. I was talking then about becoming a communicator. I remember another occasion, too. In Barbados at the end of every school year you didn't automatically get promoted; you had to sit an exam. And I remember sitting that exam. It was a very bright afternoon. I was in the darkened hall, looking out into the glaring bright afternoon sun, beyond the escarpment and onto the blue Atlantic Ocean. One essay topic was "What would you like to be when you grow up?" And I remember sitting there and writing that I wanted to be a writer. I would have been about 13.

BiC: I read that you weren't really into reading until you were about 12 years old.

Foster: It became mandatory to go to the library. We would go in on the appointed day, look for a book, take it home and toss it aside, and then take it back without ever reading it. I remember going to the library and doing the thing that everyone else did: look for the slimmest book I could find. I intended to go home and throw it aside and play cricket. Something must have happened, though, and my grandmother kept me in the house. And she said, "Well, you went to the library. Why don't you read your book?" So I picked up this book, Amongst Thistles and Thorns, by Austin Clarke, and by the light of the lamp I started to read it. I was sitting in the comer, and other people were out in the backyard talking. And I thought, Gee! This is about a boy just like me. One of the characters, the little boy, ran away from home, in rebellion against his mother. And at that point, I guess, I really felt like rebelling too, because my grandmother had kept me in the house and I was angry. I identified with the book right off the top. And that was my introduction to West Indian literature. From then on that was all I would read. I really fell in love with the writers from Trinidad, Mark Anthony and others like V.S. Naipaul.

BiC: You describe Austin Clarke as your mentor. What is it that you admire so much about him?

Foster: What I admire is the fact that he stuck it out in this city and now has published about 15 books. Austin has not got the attention that is his due. There are white writers who have written less than Austin and who have not been writing as perceptively about the Canadian experience, and they win the accolades. Many people would have gone to the States. And to think that, for a while, he was the only published black author around. I mean who did he feed on, who did he discuss things with? I would think that for him it was usually a case of people coming to say, "Austin-boy, how can I get this manuscript published?" as opposed to sitting down with people he might have rightfully called his peers. I think that Austin may have suffered because there wasn't the kind of intellectual discourse going on that would allow people to put his work in another context or put it up against somebody else's work. It was standing alone all the time. I enjoy going into Austin's house and having one of his famous martinis and sitting down and talking, because, as a young writer, I can learn. And I often say to him, "Well, Austin, it used to be you alone. Who did you talk to?" And he would say, "Yes, yes." But he doesn't really talk much about it. I think that ultimately his earlier works are going to be rediscovered. That trilogy -- The Meeting Point, Storm of Fortune, and The Bigger Light -- constitutes a seminal work on the immigrant experience.

BiC: No Man in the House is a coming-of-age story quite similar to Clarke's Amongst Thisties and Thorns. Would you say his novel influenced yours?

Foster: In Barbados there are three books that deal with that type of story. You have In the Castle of My Skin by George Lamming, which dealt with a coming-of-age situation in the 1930s. And then you have Austin's Amongst Thistles and Thorns, which dealt with the same subject in the 1950s, and No Man in the House, which dealt with it in the 1960s. If you read the three of them together you would have a pretty good idea of how life has gone in the Caribbean generationally over 30 or 40 years. So I'm looking forward to reading the work of people who can say: this is my experience as a person of Barbadian Independence.

BiC: In Barbados you had a promising career as a journalist. Why did you decide to leave?

Foster: I felt that emigration was in my plans one way or the other. Then I ran into some problems at home because of my writing. I guess I was an overly ambitious journalist in Barbados. I wrote a report from the House of Assembly that the government didn't like, so they made life a little uncomfortable for me at the time. I came up here in '79 with $750. 1 saw that money quickly running out, so I started to sell Dr. Seuss books and encyclopaedias. I don't think there were any weeks I took home more than the minimum wage, because I was absolutely terrible at it. After that I got a couple of lucky breaks. I decided to offer my services to Contrast [a black community newspaper in Toronto from the '60s to the '80s]. At that time the editor had just left. I went to talk to a man there named Al Hamilton, who offered me the job. This was during a fascinating period when there was one very infamous police shooting [of Albert Johnson], and the black community was really up in arms. I got to meet and talk to the people and feel the anger. Contrast was also a sort of community center. People dropped in and we had meetings. At that time, the National Black Coalition of Canada had its office upstairs from Contrast. It was sort of an NAACP association, led by people like Howard McCurdy and Al Mercury.

So we had all of this energy going, and a lot of young immigrants waiting to take on the world. Some of the leading black journalists of today were there: Royson James, who is now at the Star, and Hamelin Grange, of the CBC. Contrast also taught me something that I remember quite vividly. When I first came here, Oakland Ross was writing a feature on the black community. He came to me and he said, "There's a lot of debate going on as to whether blacks want to be called African, Caribbean, black or what." So -- call it a bit of nationalism -- I opened my mouth and out jumped the words, "As far as I see myself, I see myself as a Bajan first, a West Indian second, and a black man third." At that time I was a recent immigrant, so I didn't see myself as Canadian. I felt quite good -- I had been quoted in the Globe. I went to Contrast and as soon as I walked through the door everyone said, "Are you crazy? How can you say something like that?" They said, "This island thing, this American thing, has to go. This is one of the biggest holdbacks to black people in this country. Ultimately, what we have in common is that we are all African and black." I believe I was wrong -- very wrong. And I am very grateful that they dumped on me.

BiC: Is there a black Canadian literary aesthetic emerging and if so, how would you describe it?

Foster: I would say there is a black aesthetic. When I go to poetry readings, I see it in the anger and in the fire and in the sense of saying "We belong here. We are going to fight back and we are not going to run away. We are going to make sure that there is change." I see it, too, in how they present themselves; how words, music, rhythm all interplay to create a cultural thing, an artistic thing. We have a phenomenal outpouring of work from black writers: look at people like Austin Clarke, Dionne Brand, Afua Cooper, Ayanna Black. Think of the people published in those anthologies Ayanna Black has brought out in the last two years [Voices and Fiery Spirits]; there is really a vibrant black writing community in Toronto alone. There are also writers in Montreal and Edmonton and Ottawa and other places. Getting access to mainstream publishing is obviously still a big problem. Sometimes I feel that what is happening in the black community is reminiscent of what was happening in England in the 1950s and '60s, when West Indian literature came into vogue. And we are now beginning to feel settled and beginning to look back upon the region we came from and write about the environment in which now we find ourselves.

BiC: In a recent issue of This Magazine, Andre Alexis suggests that black Canadian artists have developed African- American sensibilities in place of a strong Canadian consciousness. Would you agree?

Foster: It's an interesting discussion. But I think that it is the kind of discussion where you can end up blaming the victim. The fact that we don't have an overwhelming body of black literature isn't because there haven't been writers over the ages. George Elliott Clarke has proven with his anthology Fire on the Water that from way back that body of literature was out there, but it never got published and never got sustained. Also, I do not have any problem whatsoever in laying claim to black icons from any place in the world. I feel they are all common property and we can use them. Should I disown a Nelson Mandela? Should I disown a Martin Luther King or a Malcolm X? Other cultures don't. English writers -- even those who are living here in Canada -- can deal with Chaucer and the pre- Chaucerian writers, and Shakespeare.

BiC: What about the argument that African-American culture fails to reflect accurately the black Canadian experience

Foster: The reality for many blacks in Canada may be closer to what they see in the streets of New York or Los Angeles than what many people assume as being their reality. Black youth here are offered images of Wayne Gretzky and others as heroes. I'm sure that many of them would prefer to have a Michael Jordan over a Wayne Gretzky. Why? Because there is the feeling that here is a black man who has triumphed. They do not identify with a Wayne Gretzky. How can they?

BiC: You often speak about writers as prophets and recorders. Is that how you see your task?

Foster: Perhaps the writer's task is to keep challenging the community, to record and also to prophesy. James Baldwin saw himself as a writer who, at times, if you can use the analogy of the prophet, not only foretold but also had the unenviable task of speaking directly to his people and saying "You'd better get your house in order." Very often it wasn't an easy message to deliver. And sometimes it was a message that was brought at great peril and personal loss to the prophet.

BiC: What did you want to communicate to your readers in Sleep On, Beloved?

Foster: What I'm arguing in that book is that multiculturalism can work. That multiculturalism. worked in the Caribbean where we had people from different places getting along and that the best form of multiculturalism is when you allow people to be natural. So Grandma Nedd (a Pocomanian) was always natural. She danced the way she wanted to dance. She did not debauch herself. She danced for her God. And whereas the pastor would always hope to convert the Rastafarians into Pocomanians, she never did. She was very accepting of them. I also wanted to talk about how we move away from the spirituality that was ours. First of all, we had Grandma Nedd dancing for her God, and then we had Ona dancing for secular reasons, and ultimately we had Suzanne table dancing for money. It's also an indication of what has happened to us as immigrants. The reason most of us left the Caribbeanwas economic, whether to get a better job or a better life for our children. In essence we became whores, no different from, say, Suzanne, dancing for money. As economic refugees, to some degree, we start to go for the dollar at all costs. In the book, one of the big problems was that Ona felt that being a West Indian was baggage that held her back. She wanted to sublimate who the heck she was. My argument is that we don't need to change that drastically, because even when we do we don't get the dream.

BiC: What is the dream?

Foster: One of the dreams in Caribbean literature is the question of "Where is home for the nigger?" Because, certainly, in the previous generation, there wasn't an acceptance of the Caribbean as home. So where is home, really? Is home back in Africa'? Is home in a new Caribbean that we are supposedly developing at a time of Independence? Or is it a place like Canada, which can be a multicultural society? I guess to some degree I'm toying with the idea and I'm arguing that a multicultural Canada could be home; or it could be a place where we could make a long sojourn.


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