Another Great Thing
Reviewed by George Elliott Clarke
The anglophone African-Canadian novel, since its modern debut in the 1960s, has been typified by Austin Chesterfield Clarke’s Horatio Alger burlesques, in which striving West Indian male immigrants often achieve a middle-class lifestyle and respectability, but at the price of losing their authenticity, their "roots" culture, or, if partially Americanized, their blackness. Clarke’s fellow Barbadian-Canadian novelist, Cecil Foster, has continued to mine this ground, though with an emphasis on the necessity for black nationalism. In contrast, In Another Place, Not Here (1996), by the Trinidadian-Canadian novelist Dionne Brand, features protagonists who reject every measure of bourgeois success except the ascetic and aristocratic pleasures of attempting to secure an anti-capitalist revolution—or to perish, joyously, in its ruins. The Ontario-born, African-Canadian novelist Lawrence Hill has blazed an alternate trail in his fiction, eschewing both the Malcolm Xian bleakness of Clarke and Foster and the Marxist élan of Brand. In his first novel, Some Great Thing (1992), and in his follow-up, Any Known Blood (1997), this son of an African-American immigrant father (who once helmed the Ontario Human Rights Commission) and a Euro-Canadian mother has consistently depicted black male heroes who struggle to build professional careers—to integrate, at least class-wise, in the "white" world—but who never lose their pride in their African ancestry. Nor do they ever meet a racist they do not manage either to ridicule or to convert. Hill’s novels chronicle black male achievement—with sweat, blood, and tears, yes, but also with wit, spirit, and style. In Some Great Thing (which is, incidentally, one of the few African-Canadian works in English to find its way into French), the protagonist Mahatma Grafton, a mixed-race journalist with a Winnipeg newspaper, combats—that is, exposes—police brutality, French-English tensions, white racism, black sell-outs, and anti-communist hysteria, but also explores black Canadian history, journeys to Cameroon, wins a white woman, and scores major scoops. He is insightful, ironic, and indomitable. Any Known Blood offers a series of similar protagonists, namely, five generations of Langston Canes—I, II, II, IV, and V. Most of the novel is narrated by Langston Cane V, a mid-1990s 38-year-old who, in seeking to establish a writing career following the loss of his marriage and his Ontario civil service job, travels to Baltimore, Maryland, from Oakville, Ontario, and back in time, via family interviews and letters, to uncover layer after layer of Cane history. The novel’s pièce de résistance is, arguably, Langston Cane V’s recovery of a journal kept by Langston Cane I, an escaped slave who had lived in Oakville before heading to Harpers Ferry, Virginia, with John Brown, in time to take part in—and to survive—Brown’s famous if failed assault on the US Federal arms depot. The journal reinforces the novel’s theme that pluck and luck can allow even a black slave to rise above his circumstances and find love and prosperity. (Indeed, Cane I takes one of Brown’s daughters for a mate.) By novel’s end, then, Cane V has essentially written his novel. His African friend, Yoyo (a character who, like Hélène Savoie and Mahatma Grafton, is imported— incestuouously—from Some Great Thing), tells him, "You have to get this published, my friend," a moment that echoes the writ-ing-will-bring-me-riches-and-fame, self-reflexive conclusion of Dany Laferrière’s Comment faire l’amour avec un nègre sans se fatiguer (1985). In addition, Cane V finds a voluptuous and willing African-American woman to help him recover from his divorcé woes. Any Known Blood is, like Some Great Thing, a true black comedy.
But it is also, in ways unavailable to the first-generation-immigrant black Canadian novelists—Clarke, Foster, Brand, et al.—a novel steeped in African-North-American history, both above and below the 49th Parallel. Though Hill is a second-generation African-Canadian, the clearest models of his novel are, fittingly enough, African-American. His arch protagonists carry the names of the chief African-American poet LÃ¤ngsten Hughes and the signature novel of the Harlem Renaissance, Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923). The plot seems to shadow that of The Chaneysville Incident (1977), a neglected masterpiece by African-American writer David Bradley, whose black protagonist—a professional archivist—retreats from a troubled relationship with a white woman to research his genealogy, specifically that of his slave-liberating ancestors. Any Known Blood opens with an allusion to African-American novelist Ralph Ellison’s celebrated Invisible Man (1952), but also with a signifying difference. While Ellison’s protagonist is "invisible" because whites do not affirm his presence as a black man, Hill’s Cane V does not appear to be recognizably black at all (a trait he shares with Hill’s Mahatma Grafton): I have the rare distinction—a distinction that weighs like a wet life jacket, but that I sometimes float to great advantage—of not appearing to belong to any particular race, but of seeming like a contender for many.
In Spain, people have wondered if I was French. In France, hotel managers asked if I was Moroccan. In Canada, I’ve been asked—always tentatively—if I was perhaps Peruvian, American, or Jamaican. But I have rarely given a truthful rendering of my origins.
Admittedly, this hesitation around biracial (black-white) identification appears in some African-American texts, but it is far more common in African-Canadian ones. The likely reason is that the paucity of all-black communities in Canada encourages a greater degree of intermarriage than is possible in the United States. In any event, Cane V is a bit of a chameleon, or a mask-wearing Negro. He even describes himself as "Zebra Incorporated." Still, a colleague notices, "You’re a revolutionary under that placid exterior," an observation the narrative verifies.
Then again, the tradition of being a coloured subversive is precisely the family history that Cane V discovers. This "greatness" is the grandeur of the "great-greatgrandfather," Cane I—the progenitor of "a family of people with great accomplishments"—and it is Cane V’s destiny to pass it on. Thus, "There’s nothing more humbling than family history." But it is not until Cane V begins to document it that he can begin to sense that writing will be his own contribution to his family’s greatness.
Any Known Blood is satirical, hopeful, and, especially in Cane I’s journal, masterful. Hill writes with a lyric clarity and a witty lightness that accords all his intimations of grandeur a beautiful and graceful gravity.
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MLA: Clarke, George Elliott. Another Great Thing. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #165 (Summer 2000), (Brochu, Buckler, Davies, Lowry, Ondaatje). (pg. 139 - 140)
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