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Current Issue: #219 Contested Migrations (Winter 2013)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 219 (Winter 2013), Contested Migrations is now available! The issue features articles by Vinh Nguyen, Mariam Pirbhai, Rachel Bower, Maude Lapierre, J. I. Little, David Williams, and more.

Palimpsest Crossroads

  • Wayde Compton (Editor)
    Bluesprint: Black British Columbian Literature and Orature. Arsenal Pulp Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • David N. Odhiambo (Author)
    Kipligat's Chance. Penguin Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Jenny Pai

Sir James Douglas, the founding governor of British Columbia, is the first writer anthologized in Wayde Compton’s Bluesprint: Black British Columbian Literature and Orature. While this placement is explained through the text’s roughly chronological organization, Douglas also fortuitously serves as a frame¬work for the project, something that Compton acknowledges in the introduction: “With such an indeterminate history, perhaps it is fitting that black writing in B.C. begins with Sir James Douglas, a figure whose blackness was for years the subject of rumour and speculation.” Herein lies the crossroads of Compton’s Bluesprint, for the anthology creates community along the axes of time, heritage, location, and genre. The result is a “phantom lineage” which Compton hopes will enable future writers to “see that the subjects and subjectivities which appear in their writing are not isolated features, but rather parts of an experience that is over 150 years in the making.” In replacing the experience of isolation with an impetus for community, Compton’s work as editor echoes the text’s cover image of an outstretched black palm with its criss-crossing paths of wrinkles and out-of-focus fingerprints.

Among the many descriptions of community, the excerpts from Daphne Marlatt and Carole Itter’s 1979 collection of interviews, Opening Doors: Vancouver’s East End, are some of the most vivid. Speakers recount “the lowdown rundown on the way it went at that time” in Vancouver’s now-vanished black neighourhood, “Hogan’s Alley.” Three of the interviewees recount stories that depict food as representative of both the everyday and the monumental, marking quotidian acts of living, eating, and working in the same breaths that they underscore significant instances in the speakers’ lives. Rosa Pryor’s two-chicken assembly line is both a familiar anecdote of building a business and an extraordinary account of creativity and tenacity that gains resonance through Dorothy Healy’s revelation that “[p]ractically every Black woman in Vancouver has worked for Mrs. Pryor’s Chicken Inn sometime or other.” Two different meals discussed by Nora Hendrix, Thanksgiving turkey and chitlins, emphasize the elevation of homey food over celebratory cuisine as she quickly glosses over the turkey, instead focusing on the popularity of the chitlin suppers that would “sell out so fast, why, they wouldn’t last no time.” Her story concludes with the enigmatic statement, “You can’t buy no chitlins now. No, they run out of chitlins, I don’t know how many years back,” not revealing whether this lack is caused by a shrinking black population or the community’s desire to distance itself from a simple food with painful connections to poverty. Moving forward in the collection to Karina Vernon’s Aunt Ermine’s Recipe for Brown Sugar Fudge, considerations of “authentic” cooking resurface in the recipe’s demand for “real” ingredients. The parenthetical instruction that one can add less cream “for a darker fudge” questions the notion of purity even as the recipe posits its existence. The tendency for excerpts in the collection to repeatedly reach across pages, informing creative acts that come before or after, gains significance through Compton’s belief that “tidalectics,” Kamau Brathwaite’s term for “seeing history as a palimpsest,” applies to the experiences of the black British Columbian community.

This layered vision of history and identity is equally relevant to one of the authors represented in Bluesprint, David N. Odhiambo, whose second novel, Kipligat’s Chance, depicts a world in which people run to escape the palimpsests of their lives. While the central character, John “Leeds” Kipligat, looks to competitive running as his opportunity to rise above the poverty, racism, and violence that comprise his teenage experience, he is not the only Kipligat who searches for an opportunity to get away from life’s realities. In their own ways, his mother and father also attempt to deal with the crossroads of past family fail¬ures and feelings of helplessness; the largest part of this burden involves John’s missing older brother, Koech. Before his disappear¬ance, Koech was the runner in the family. Now John physically and mentally pushes himself to beat his brother’s best time, gain a running scholarship, and overcome the urge to self-mutilate. John’s body is not the only site for violence in the novel; the girls and women in his life have their lost chances marked on their bodies and minds, inflicted by an assortment of men in the name of love or protection. John often turns to his running coach, Sam Holt, and his best friend, Kulvinder Sharma, for sta¬bility and guidance, but Sam’s and Kulvinder’s problems yield their own destructive results. Early on, John finds a safe hiding-place in the comfort of Koech’s hooded sweatshirt and the sweatshirt’s eventual fate becomes emblematic of John’s relationship with the destructive familial and personal palimpsests around him. Cycles of history are physically rendered on the pages of Odhiambo’s novel through italicized flashbacks of the Kipligats’ and Sharmas’ experiences in Kenya before they came to Canada. Vivid depictions of classism, racism, fear, and helplessness connect the past to similar experiences in present-day Canada. After all, Vancouver is where John plays ice hockey, only to be told that racist epithets follow “in the tradition of Maurice ‘the Rocket’ Richard, who’d put up with getting called a frog back in the game’s glory days.” If racism is accepted as part of Canada’s national sport, what does that tell recent immigrants about the national mindset? Early in the novel, John’s feelings of marginalization lead him to realize that he “needs to be a different person, a neces¬sary person,” but he hides behind the safety of claiming that “[t]rying is overrated,” adding that “[m]aking an effort has never made an ounce of difference in [his] life.” The effort that John expends in the final pages of Kipligat’s Chance is an agonizing negotiation between his past and his future, his ability to navigate his particular present and make the chance he’s been given count. Bluesprint’s introduction asserts that “we do not improve upon the past, but are our¬selves versions of the past,” a sentiment that is wholly evoked on the closing page of Kipligat’s Chance, where John recalls the last time he raced his brother: “When the dust finally settled, I couldn’t distinguish his footprints from mine.” As Compton and Odhiambo consider how communities are defined and by whom, they speak to a recognition that the palimpsest crossroads of history is not so much traversed as it is experienced.

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MLA: Pai, Jenny. Palimpsest Crossroads. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 July 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #182 (Autumn 2004), Black Writing in Canada. (pg. 105 - 106)

***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.

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