Critical Dis/Orientations

  • George Elliott Clarke
    Directions Home: Approaches to African-Canadian Literature. University of Toronto Press

Ten years after the appearance of his first collection of essays, Odysseys Home: Mapping African-Canadian Literature, George Elliott Clarke returns with an equally comprehensive, though less monumental, volume comprising previously published work from 2001 to 2007. But it would be a mistake to read Directions Home: Approaches to African-Canadian Literature as a sequel to the previous publication. The belief that “to understand any culture, one must excavate its past” (Odysseys 7) informs both books but the essays contained in Directions Home are better connected through an invisible thread. A concern for the geopolitical and the historical conditions that produce it runs throughout Clarke’s volume. Although not fleshed out in theoretical terms, such concern shapes the book into a collection situating African Canadian literature as writing and reading practice casting a shadow on different geographies and political conditions, as well as identities.

The introductory chapter to the volume invokes the connections between the two publications through its very title, “Divagation: Approaching African-Canadian Literature (Again)” and establishes a scene of address to the reader. Clarke retraces the “accidents” of his entry into the field of study of African-Canadian literature and the motivations for pursuing the research that led to Odysseys Home: the discovery of the systemic exclusion of blackness from the construction of CanLit but also the constitution of the African-Canadian experience as a blind spot in the fields of African American and Diaspora studies. But this recollection soon shifts to the examination of the different responses that the appearance of Odysseys Home generated—most notably the ‘confrontation’ between Clarke and Walcott. The movement from self-location to reading practice—from author to reader—foregrounds the early volume’s participation in the forging of a reading community of African-Canadian literature but also defends a methodological choice—the delineation of textual genealogies—that was often received under the sign of (nationalist) conservatism. Clarke notes that in looking back at Odysseys Home, he sees “a militant book, a loud volume. Yet, I do not look down upon it. Rather, I turn away now to look forward here” (Directions 9). Indeed, metaphors of movement abound in the introduction and underwrite the volume’s attempt to delineate possible approaches to the reading of African-Canadian literature. If the figure of “home” in the title may seem to evoke the spectre of cultural nationalist discourses of “here,” as well as the teleologies and anxieties of place-based identity and its exclusionary strategies, once we immerse ourselves in the reading it soon appears that “home” is a textual community, one that is grounded in the complex multiplicity of African-Canadian experience and the different circumstances that produced it.

In the first essays of the collection, Clarke strongly argues for the research of genres that may be conceived as historians’ territory rather than that of literary critics. His appeal for the inclusion of Canadian slave narratives and Church narratives in literary study brings to light the various locales in which cultural expression and identity first took place. At the same time, Clarke probes the establishment of African-American studies and their assimilation of the slave narrative genre as a quintessentially “American” (read US) genre despite its different locations. The question is less one of exclusion or inclusion but, rather, the deconstruction of literary canons as the breeding ground for various nationalisms. Clarke is not only widening the horizon of what constitutes Canadian literature but also, and most importantly, raising questions about the ideological forces shaping the literary. This is certainly not a novelty in literary and cultural criticism but rarely have these debates addressed relationships between minority cultures. Attention to the geopolitics of the literary also informs essays attending to the shifting positioning of black cultural figures. Here W. E. B. Du Bois’ “Double Consciousness” and Paul Gilroy’s “Black Atlantic” are both invoked as frameworks to reread the competing claims and national identifications of A. B. Walker and Anna Minerva Henderson in relation to assimilation, pan-Africanism, nationalism, and exile, while the historical conditions that produce the tension between nationalism and cosmopolitanism is explored in an essay on Arthur Nortje.

While Stuart Hall is not specifically mentioned, Clarke addresses cultural representation in relation to gender and sexuality in two essays focusing on literature and media. Tropes of family, identity, and crisis in G. E. Boyd’s plays are explored in the context of larger discourses about black masculinity. Clarke fleshes out the complexity of gender in relation to the “ideal” of the heterosexual family, while the demonization of the black male body (or sexual Negrophobia) is discussed in a comparative reading of the racialized reportage of journalist Phonse Jessome and Darius James’ fiction. Gender and representation is also the focus of Clarke’s reading of plays revisiting the infamous story of Angélique’s hanging. This textualized Angélique sheds light on the import of Canadian state narratives of law and race, while the discourse of “black lawlessness” is further explored in an essay on vice in the short fiction of H. Nigel Thomas and Althea Prince.

Attention to textual production and circulation also informs key essays on the different practices of “ethnic anthologies” in the 1970s, specifically African-Canadian and Italian-Canadian, within and against the context of official Multiculturalism. Clarke also considers the meaning of location for literary practices exceeding the boundaries of region and nation. Where is Europe in African-Canadian literature? And what happens when Caribbean-Canadian literature exists outside of the boundaries of the nation? Although these essays could have benefited from a deeper theoretical framework, Clarke’s deft exploration resonates with current investigations about the scale of the national—rather than its geographically bound essence—and its relation to the cultural. The essay on Brand, though replete with insightful comments, is perhaps the most disappointing of the collection, since the notion of “voice” is only marginally explored in relation to the dynamics of the geopolitical that run as a thread in the book. Finally, three essays foreground location and subjectivity in poetic practices that explode conventional representation of identity and place through the cross-pollination with mass media and mobility, or their engagement with sound, performance, and jazz.

In true Clarkeian fashion, Directions Home thwarts the expectations of academic writing and reading. The larger than life authorial voice, the passion of his ideas, and the (only apparently) loosely connected essays do not satisfy the thirst for monography or well-wrapped collection into which scholars are trained. Clarke’s research is impressive and humbling. Yet this is not the only reason this book is a must-have and must-read. Although its idiosyncratic form may elicit dubious responses, it should also warn us of the importance of resisting formulas and crystallized language. Indeed, a question that we may want to ponder is the “directions” opened by the form itself. For Clarke has not substantially embraced earlier criticism of Odysseys Home as “cobbled-together” miscellany or “assemblages, bits of fabric with all kinds of threads hanging out” as Terri Goldie once called it. But should he? Clarke’s “directions” are as much a matter of orientation as deviation from well-trodden paths: there is no promise of return in our investment in reading. What happens then when form falls apart? What knowledges does it open up? Will different textual communities emerge in its wake? Food for thought.

This review “Critical Dis/Orientations” originally appeared in Gendering the Archive. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 217 (Summer 2013): 140-42.

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