Black Chronicles

  • Ann Towell
    Grease Town. Tundra Books
  • Dionne Brand
    Chronicles: Early Works. Wilfrid Laurier University Press
  • Donna Bailey Nurse
    What’s a Black Critic to Do II: Interviews, Profiles and Reviews of Black Writers. Insomniac Press

These three books chronicle the lives and writing of black people in Canada in remarkable though different ways. Donna Bailey Nurse embarked on her project to “keep some lasting record of contemporary black Canadian letters” in 2003 with the publication of What’s a Black Critic to Do. This second volume supplements the first by collecting interviews, profiles, and reviews scattered in publications between 2007 and 2011 in a structure already familiar to readers of her earlier book. While many of the works she discusses are by black Canadians, some are more loosely connected to the subject. However, all come together in a wide-ranging, reader-friendly whole that generally addresses questions of race and belonging. Whether she is discussing the work of Nobel Laureates Wole Soyinka and Toni Morrison or interviewing the BC writer Wayde Compton and the African Canadian poet and historian Afua Cooper, among many others, Nurse relentlessly interrogates the multifaceted engagement of the black writer with his or her time, place, and audience. In her introduction, Nurse pinpoints two events that have enhanced black Canadian letters since the first volume of Black Critic: the Calabash literary festival in Jamaica (to whose founders Nurse now dedicates this second book) and the publication of Lawrence Hill’s Book of Negroes. Whether or not one agrees with Nurse, it is undeniable that black Canadian literature in the wake of the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade is not lacking in such groundbreaking events. The success of The Book of Negroes, winner of the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, has been followed very closely by that of Esi Edugyan’s second novel, Half-Blood Blues, shortlisted for the prestigious 2011 Man Booker Prize. Both attest to growing international recognition and swelling audiences.

Although not featuring among the writers in Nurse’s book, the Toronto poet Dionne Brand has played a major role in the development of contemporary black Canadian literature. Leslie Sanders had catered for interested readers in an edition of Brand’s selected poetry published in 2009 under the title Fierce Departures, and she now writes the foreword for Chronicles, both under the auspices of Wilfrid Laurier University Press. The earlier book provided a way in for newcomers to Brand’s poetry, collecting some of her best known work—like No Language Is Neutral (1990) or the Governor General’s Award winner Land to Light On (1997)— whereas Chronicles turns to three volumes dating back to the early 1980s. Yet one can nonetheless identify in them the unmistakable voice and concerns of Toronto’s best-loved black poet for, as Sanders knowledgeably argues, Brand’s work “explores and chronicles how history shapes human existence, in particular the lives of those ruptured and scattered by New World slaveries and modern crises.” Even though they do not constitute, strictly speaking, her earliest published poetry, they stand out as a period of experimentation with form, in which Brand tested out the classic epigram by way of Ernesto Cardenal and the lengthier, Neruda-inflexed canto. Sanders aptly points out the connections running through Brand’s poetry as well as the persistent influences of several Caribbean and Latin American writers. Chronicles of the Hostile Sun contains some of the most powerful lines in the book, particularly in the sections dealing with the US invasion of Grenada in 1983, where Brand lived while she was a CUSO volunteer involved in development work.

Finally, the notion of history also features prominently in Anne Towell’s children’s novel Grease Town, about the oil boom in southern Ontario in the 1860s. It is the story of twelve-year-old Titus Sullivan, a clever and enterprising child who builds a deep friendship with a black boy his age, Moses Croucher, and with an Irish teenager, Mercy Merriman. Towell’s novel paints a lively picture of the oil town from the boy’s perspective, in a manner fairly reminiscent in plot and characterization of Mark Twain’s gift for telling stories of local import through the eyes of children. It starts out as an adventure story when an excited Titus travels with his elder brother to Oil Springs, but what appears as the land of opportunity turns into the land of inequality when the author pays careful attention to the often neglected presence of black people in these boomtowns, performing the hardest jobs for much lower wages and being the target of occasional racial violence. Titus experiences first-hand the ravaging violence of racism when a rioting mob torches the black settlement, beating and chasing away whole families. Grease Town imparts not only an engaging history lesson for young readers, but also a valuable lesson in showing that even a child can stand tall against racism, as Titus learns. While the novel occasionally veers towards the sentimental, it provides an engaging picture of the period while making clear that not everyone lived the oil boom of southern Ontario in the same way.

This review “Black Chronicles” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 216 (Spring 2013): 186-87.

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