Colouring the Nation
- Hazelle Palmer (Editor)
"...but where are you really from?": Stories of Identity and Assimilation in Canada. Sister Vision Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Farid Karodia (Author)
Against an African Sky and other stories. Sister Vision Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Makeda Silvera (Editor), Debbie Douglas (Editor), Courtnay McFarlane (Editor), and Douglas Stewart (Editor)
MÃKA Diasporic Juks: Contemporary Writing by Queers of African Descent. Sister Vision Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sujaya Dhanvantari
During the winter holidays this year, I attended a Sister Vision Press book launch, and later reflected on the meaningfulness of Canada’s only press which publishes works solely by Black women and women of colour in Canada. Three recent publications all represent Sister Vision’s commitment to upholding the tradition of Canadian women of colour writing across regional, national, and cosmopolitan communities by challenging the dominant systems that continue to exclude such work from academic, political, and artistic circles.
Multifaceted identifications across race, gender, and sexuality find affirmation in MÃ‚KA through a constellation of texts— poetry, prose, and autobiography— which assert the various histories of queers of African descent. The title itself, MÃ‚KA Diasporic Juks, symbolically marks the particular brand of cultural and sexual collectivity that colours the experience of difference in this writing. Found in the Dictionary of Jamaican English, MÃ‚KA is defined as a thorny, tropical plant, resilient and prickly, finding its counterpart in the endurance, sharpness, and longevity of writing by queers of African descent. The term "juk" alludes to a parental warning for children against approaching the plant’s abrasive edges, poised to inflict injury: "Mind mÃ¢ka juk ya pickney!" This collection bleeds new, anglophonic coinage in attending to the multi/cultural specificities of queer identities. Terms such as Moffie, the South African gay male term; Man Royals, the term for Jamaican lesbians; Zami, the term Audre Lorde employs for lesbians in the Caribbean; and buller man, a derogatory term used in Trinidad and Tobago to describe gay men, all add to the list of queer cultures across the African diasporas.
While insisting on the need for the visibility of Black queer identities in a dominant white social system, MÃ‚KA also contributes to an internal critique of the conservatism of families and cultural communities of African descent, who actively reinforce mainstream heterosexist communal structures both in Canada and in diasporic centres across the Americas, the Caribbean, and the African subcontinent. In this collection, Wesley Crichlow writes most compellingly that the heterosexist discourse of Afrocentricity and Black nationalism negates same-sex relationships within Black communities. In a parallel vein, T.J. Bryan enunciates the difficulties of defining Black s/m culture within both an egalitarian-minded feminism and a colonial construction of sexual beauty found in white-dominated queer bars.
The title question of the second collection " . . but where are you really from?" explores a specific facet of experience for women of colour in Canada through a compilation of writings and interviews on the topic of racialization and national belonging. This text aims to locate the experience of racism within Canadian boundaries, defying the customary displacement of racism onto the United States. The title question itself, addressed in Part One, underlines racist assumptions of national identity. This book offers an overview of the types of experiences that fragment the intellectual, emotional, and physical development of women of colour.
The following five parts articulate these experiences in detail. Part two, entitled "Fitting In," identifies assimilation as the problem that produces an internalized form of racism. For girls and young women growing up in Canada, the practice of assimilation takes the form of a pressure to conform to white standards of fashion, beauty, and culture; as Nadine Leggett says, "I was 15 before I was actually in a room of Black people and I was very uncomfortable." This bodily discomfiture is further addressed in Part Three entitled "Mirror, mirror." Problems of self-esteem that result from internalized racism are reinforced by the public desire for white femininity both in school and at work; as Lorena Gale discovers at a job interview, she did not have "the right look." Biracialism, Melody Sylvestre says, made her "not Black enough for those who were Black and too Black for those who were White." These stories indicate that the racialization of the female body maintains a barrier to positive self-identification for women of colour in both mainstream and diasporic communities.
Such stories mark both the effects of assimilation and the obstacles to self-identification, and reveal the way in which such issues produce a condition of withdrawal; hence, the title of Part Four: "Isolation." Susan Lee writes, "I am alone in a white world / And the barriers / that divide me / from other women of colour / are immense." Alienated from the other and from the self, the woman of colour knows no friend. This alienation laments itself in Part Five entitled "Language and Identity," where Lee names the causal disconnection as language loss. Notably, however, Ayanna Black offers a responsive, redemptive note to this otherwise painful account by proclaiming that English is not her enemy, since she uses it flexibly in Jamaican créole. Part Six, entitled "Finding ’Home’," reflects on the condition of homelessness, and the gravity of a term such as "woman of colour" in the wake of the numerous conversations featured in this book on the problem of articulating an identity, and thus a home, within a national culture obsessed with assimilation.
In Against an African Sky, South African Canadian writer Farida Karodia envisions a constant movement between ancestral home, now post-apartheid South Africa, and Canada. This collection of short stories records the impact of constitutional change on the daily life experiences of European, African, and Indian South Africans. While offering hope for reconciliation, these stories also recognize the way in which violence continues to infiltrate the lived experiences of South Africans, especially in the townships.
In the title story "Against an African Sky," the protagonist Johan, a white South African who migrated to Britain after his family died in a car accident, revisits his childhood farm house to reconcile himself with his past, which includes both the car accident and the racist practices of his family during the reign of apartheid. By taking over the farm in partnership with his coloured half-brother’s son, Johan attempts to open a new era of interracial relations in South Africa. The other stories in this collection reflect the lives of the disabled, the violence of the townships, and the maintenance of religious practices and business ethics in Indian families and the ensuing generational conflicts arising from the changing lifestyles of their children.
All three Sister Vision Press books clear a space for the complicated positioning of multicultural writing in both a national and global context.
- Dwelling by Lisa S. Szabo
Books reviewed: The Green Heart of the Tree: Essays and Notes on a Time in Africa by A.S. Woudstra and Broken Vessel: Thirty-five Days in the Desert by Harry Thurston
- Hearing Voices by Klay Dyer
Books reviewed: Public Men and Virtuous Women: The Gendered Languages of Religion and Politics in Upper Canada, 1791-1850 by Cecilia Morgan and I Bless You in My Heart: Selected Correspondence of Catharine Parr Traill by Carl Ballstadt, Elizabeth Hopkins, and Michael Peterman
- Legacy of the Bear's Lip by Heather Hodgson
Books reviewed: Stolen Life: The Journey of a Cree Woman by Yvonne Johnson and Ruby Wiebe
- Anthologizing a Woman's Life by Sarah King
Books reviewed: The Penguin Anthology of Stories by Canadian Women by Denise Chong
- Canadian Theatre of War by Marissa McHugh
Books reviewed: a nanking winter by Majorie Chan and Canada and the Theatre of War: Volume 1 by Donna Coates and Sherrill Grace
MLA: Dhanvantari, Sujaya. Colouring the Nation. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #172 (Spring 2002), Auto / biography. (pg. 160 - 162)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.