Paths within the Onion
- Cecil Foster (Author)
A Place Called Heaven: The Meaning of Being Black in Canada. HarperCollins (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- George Elliott Clarke (Editor)
Eyeing the North Star: Directions in African-Canadian Literature. McClelland & Stewart Ltd. (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Peter Hudson (Editor)
North: New African Canadian Writing, a Special Issue of West Coast Line: A Journal of Contemporary Writing and Criticism 22 (Spring/Summer 1997). West Coast Line (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Uzoma Esonwanne
Onion is round, but there are paths within it. —Ewe Proverb
It seems to me better to think of Canada, not simply as British America, but as culturally descended from the Tory opposition to the Whig triumph at the time of the Revolutionary War. This is a view of it that would, mutatis mutandis, include French Canada, which still flies the pre-revolutionary flag of the lilies. —Northrop Frye, "National Consciousness in Canadian Culture"
Every February—the "Black" History Month—teachers, politicians, newspeople and community activists solemnly intone important facts about African-Canadian peoples. Two in particular are often recited: that Black Loyalists first arrived in Nova Scotia in the late eighteenth century, and that peoples of African descent have been productive members of Canadian society since the early colonial period. Such facts, one admits, are true. But their truth does not explain why, today, African-Canadians remain peripheral to Canadian life. Asked to explain, people often proffer rote answers or clichés. Might it not be better, we wonder, to begin with specific questions? Thus, for example, we might ask if, despite some historical truth, Northrop Frye’s attribution of Canada’s genealogy to a single, decisive, political event in Britain does not, ultimately, oversimplify the complex processes of nation-formation in Canada. Is there any connection between genealogies such as Frye’s and the inscription, in "official" narratives, of the French and English as Canada’s "founding peoples"? Are canonical genealogies and narratives of nation-formation in Canada linked to race-making cultural, economic, social, and political practices? If so, might not the nation thus created have become, particularly for those disenfranchised by the process, somewhat round and hermetic like the proverbial Ewe onion? Such are the kinds of questions that the books under review compel us to explore.
Notoriously paradoxical African proverbs offer inconclusive solutions to intractable problems; North Star, North, and Heaven provide no easy answers to these problems either. And, as anthologies of art and criticism, North Star and North are even more circumspect. Still one may discern in the visual and literary art collected here a variety of aesthetic practices from which one might deduce some insights. One such practice Edouard Glissant has called "counter-poetics," that is, forms of language "deformation" which one might also find in the visual arts. Our first example is Jan Wade’s "Epiphany." A triptych of crosses, "Epiphany" is a visual re-presentation of the history of the Americas. Considered independently, each cross symbolizes a stage in the European Imperium. Considered consecutively, however, they seem to be violent phases in the progressive desacralization of the Christian heritage in the "New World." In panel two, the black Sacred Heart—impaled on a plain, wooden Cross in panel one—is displaced by a small, dark hand impaled upon a garishly adorned cross pointing heavenward, as if invoking divine intervention. In panel three, both Sacred Heart and supplicating Hand are displaced by the United States dollar, named GIVER, which is shielded from INDIAN and OKANADA by a buffer of military figures, and from CUBA by clenched fists whose middle finger points (defiantly?) upwards. In "Epiphany," Wade cuts, splices, and rearranges images from the crucifixion, the history of the African diaspora, and the triumph of American multinational capitalism in a manner that endows them with unorthodox meaning.
Counter-poetic techniques may also be found in the domain of literary art. In "Legba, Landed," a cornucopia of alliterative sounds cast in the form of concrete verse, Compton makes Legba (the Yoruba God of Interpretation and Owner of the Crossroads) the figure of the immigrant who "crossed the border/line in a northern corner;/... created/a/herej/one/foot/in a-/merica/one/foot/in a/canada." But Canada, he soon realizes, is not a place of repose for "one/negro,/liminal." Suspended "in flight," all "hope/of landing" dispelled by symbolic Canada geese which "kill their crippled/for fear of attracting stalkers," he submits to fate: "death./no./rest./I am sweet to the prey./my only thought: I fly Î¿Î·,/Î¿Î·, my sky home/home." Far from arriving, then, Legba remains in a state of suspended flight. Thus, he becomes the artist’s trope for the African-Canadian: someone who exists on the borderline.
The poetry and short fiction collected in North and North Star demonstrate that African-Canadian writers are resourceful bricoleurs. M. Nourbese Philip’s rewriting of Ceres’ search for Proserpine in "And Over Every Land and Sea" and George Elliott Clarke’s reprise of Ezra Pound in "The River Pilgrim: A Letter" and "Each Moment is Magnificent" testify to this resourceful use of imposed and received aesthetic forms. Olive Senior and Pamela Mordecai use Creole in "Swimming in the Ba’ma Grass" and "de Man" respectively, poignantly to underscore the significance of patois in the construction of an African-Canadian aesthetic. That, at present, such aesthetic work must of historical necessity be diverse is, perhaps, owing to the multinational cast of writers represented in both anthologies. In any case, it would not be an exaggeration to say that African-Canadian literature today owes some of its imaginative vigour—especially as manifest in Dionne Brand’s "Just rain, Bacolet," Claire Harris’s "Policeman Cleared in Jaywalking Case," Paul Tiyambe Zeleza’s Kafkaesque "The Rocking Chair," and Andre Alexis’s exquisitely crafted "Despair: Five Stories of Ottawa"—to the "diverse range of styles" and ideologies ("pan-Africanism and black nationalism") to which each writer subscribes.
Though published separately, both anthologies may be read as complementary volumes, particularly because North also contains criticism, reviews, and interviews, including Lillian Allen with Kwame Dawes, Leslie Sanders and Arun Mukherjee with Claire Harris, Rinaldo Walcott on Dionne Brand, Leslie Sanders on M. Nourbese Philip, George Elliott Clarke on Austin Clarke, and Wayde Compton on George Elliott Clarke. That one of the most lucid articulations of African-Canadian literary response to the challenge mentioned earlier occurs in criticism—specifically Walcott’s "A Tough Geography"—merely confirms the complementarity of North and North Star. Walcott states explicitly what Compton suggests in ’"Even the Stars Are Temporal’: The Historical Motion of George Elliott Clarke’s Saltwater Spirituals and Deeper Blues": namely, that for African-Canadian writers, language is a site of struggle, and repetition a strategy of representation and resistance. Thus, far from offering them an escape, language embroils them in contestations over meaning. Or, as Walcott puts it, their "practices of revising language continually disclose its construct-edness, making evident language’s importance in both domination and resistance."
Foster’s Heaven substantiates Walcott’s proposition. However, in Foster’s calculation, politics (and, to some extent, economics) combined with active intervention in national debates displace language as the site, and repetition as strategy, of struggle. Commenting on the segregated and alienated African-Canadian community in Montreal, Foster argues that rather than continue letting "white" French- and English-speaking Québécois bat them back and forth like political Ping-Pong, they must intervene in Quebec politics. Similar interventions, he believes, are essential in other provinces of Canada. To bring about the changes they desire in Canada, African-Canadians must take two paths. First, they must "continue to believe in Canada." Secondly, they must build the future they desire—economic security, collective pride, cessation of police harassment, "positive" representations, and an end to being scapegoats—by actively intervening in national affairs in a manner that would secure their collective self-interest:
We have to be in the middle of the discussion on the future, a discussion taking place on the very nature of Canada itself. A discussion in which Blacks can make a difference, the same way our forefathers and foremothers left us their proud legacy as United Empire Loyalists fighting against the republicans to the south, to help forge a country called Canada.
So simple is this conclusion, and yet so radical, that it is necessary to recapitulate how Foster arrives at it.
Heaven consists of twelve essays, each of which presents anecdotes Foster garnered from personal "experiences and observations" of what being "black in Canada today" means, and how African-Canadians respond to experiences of being "black." Together, anecdotes and authorial commentary, both of which are written in lucid prose, lend Foster’s account of the meaning of blackness an air of transparency. But this transparency can be misleading since, as many of the anecdotes show, it does not completely dispel the dark shroud that conceals the meaning and significance of "race." Still, by the time one arrives at "Angrinon Park," one understands that, far from naming objective states of being, "black" and "white" are linguistic devices in race-making processes whose meanings are contradictory and contested, and whose effects are multiple. For example, while "whites" (and some "blacks") afflicted by "chroma-tism" (a highly serviceable term I borrow from Gayatri Spivak) may perceive blackness or Africanness as a "curse" or emblem of malevolent otherness, African-Canadians "claim and celebrate it as a blessing." So blackness and whiteness, Africanness and Europeanness, and cognate euphemistic terms ("peoples of colour," "minorities," "ethnics," and "real Canadians") are, in fact, discursive strategies in the "racial formation"—which Michael Omi and Howard Winant define as the constellation of "sociohistorical processes by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed"—in Canada. Such categories, we now see, are meaningful precisely because they are integral elements of historically distinct projects which represent, organize, and deploy "human bodies and social structures" in order better to facilitate the emergence of hegemony.
A few anecdotes from Heaven make clear why terms like "black" and "white" are best understood as discursive strategies in the "racial formation." Foster is ticketed for Driving While Being Black (DWBB), Audrey Smith is strip-searched for looking suspicious, and Donovan Bailey is asked, after he wins a race in the Olympic Games, if he could claim "without any difficulty" that he is Canadian. A proud mother reveals that her son was featured in Chatelaine, only to be asked by her "white" colleague what he did to be jailed. New European immigrants ask descendants of the Black Loyalists what islands they came to Canada from, and "white" comrades in the socialist New Democratic Party wonder aloud what African-Canadian party-leadership candidates want, since Canadians are not yet ready for a "black" prime minister. Anecdotes such as these, as well as those depicting the views of segregationist patrons of the Toronto booze can, make very clear not only how profoundly discourses of "race" saturate civil and political society in Canada, but also how indispensable they are even to adversaries of racism—for example, integrationists like Foster himself.
That Foster invokes "race" even as he rightly denounces racism, and that his political blueprint for racial desegregation depends, paradoxically, upon granting the necessity for African-Canadians, as a people subjected to racial discrimination, exploitation, and repression, to resist racism in the name of "race," are what makes his insight at once simple and radical. Foster says nothing about whether "races" exist: Heaven deals with a world in which their existence is almost an article of faith. The strength of Foster’s work is to be found in this hard-nosed realism. But might this not also be its weakness? In any case, Heaven, North Star, and North, propose that the answers to the questions with which we began, and thus the paths through the Canadian onion are to be found in the interventions we make in the domains of culture and politics.
- Poetry After Poetry by Clint Burnham
Books reviewed: Fond by Kate Eichhorn, Inventory by Marguerite Pigeon, and sublingual by bill bissett
- Destination Canada: the Dream and the Nightmare by Carrie Dawson
Books reviewed: Odori by Darcy Tamayose and Cockroach by Rawi Hage
- Icare et la poésie by Jean-Sébastien Trudel
Books reviewed: L'Inoubliable: chronique III by Fernand Ouellette, La Déchirure des mots by Jean Gagnon and Andrea Moorhead, and La Fatigue et la cendre by Michel Leclerc
- Environmental Sensibilities by Stefan Haag
Books reviewed: Mahoning by A. F. Moritz, Ariadne's Thread by Soraya Erian, Spells for Clear Vision by Neile Graham, I Mention the Garden for Clarity by Vivian Marple, and Marine Snow by Karen MacCormack
- The Poetics of Other Media by Karl Jirgens
Books reviewed: The Wardrobe Mistress by Beatriz Hausner, Trains of Winnipeg by Clive Holden, Smoke/Screen: Poems on Cigarettes and Movies by Don Kerr, Girls and Handsome Dogs by Norm Sibum, and Crowd of Sounds by Adam Sol
MLA: Esonwanne, Uzoma. Paths within the Onion. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #165 (Summer 2000), (Brochu, Buckler, Davies, Lowry, Ondaatje). (pg. 130 - 133)
***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.