Scribing “Black” Canada

  • Althea Prince
    In the Black: New African Canadian Literature. Insomniac Press (purchase at
  • Camille Isaacs
    Austin Clarke: Essays on His Works.. Guernica Editions (purchase at
Reviewed by Madelaine Jacobs

As the required reading lists of course curriculae evolve, winnowing out the tedious and adding the timely to timeless classics, the face of Canadian education changes. In this sense, otherwise deep-rooted African Canadian literature is a “new” addition to many classrooms and lecture theatres. However novel to uninitiated imaginations, Althea Prince’s edited collection, In the Black: New African Canadian Literatureneed not be reserved for formal educational settings. Austin Clarke: Essays on his Works, edited by Camille A. Isaacs, provides a scholarly successor to Prince’s fertile yet accessible introduction with its critical scholarly approach to Austin Clarke’s Canadian literature.

In the Black is an enticing assemblage of “fresh writing” from African Canadian authors. Althea Prince has carefully crafted a creative flow from evocative poetry to stimulating short stories. Dwayne Morgan’s “The Ethnic Vote” gives voice to “the invisible Canadian, / Whose experiences and concerns are ignored, / Except for when an election is called” and whose “experiences are too rich / To be given away with nothing in return.” Gayle Gonsalves chronicles Torontonian Linden’s grappling with “A Good Woman” as he negotiates the distances inherent in the intimate places inhabited by families and the realities of Antiguan diaspora. Prince dedicates her work to, and includes pieces from, George Elliott Clarke and Djanet Sears. Each In the Black author is thoughtfully introduced alongside their chapter. By including these short biographies, Prince has literally added faces to prominent names of African Canadian literature, informed the newly-enriched of the excellence achieved by these authors, and encouraged further immersion in this invigorating field.

A different articulation of the excoriating poetic gaze of George Elliott Clarke searing through “A Record of the Ruction” in In the Blackappears in Austin Clarke with his frank essay “Clarke vs. Clarke: Tory Elitism in Austin Clarke’s Short Fiction.” Following the introduction, Isaacs begins Austin Clarke with a brief biography and an edited transcript of an interview conducted with the “still angry” award-winning author who inspired the compilation. Clarke’s voice in conversation is enlightening and sets a tone that echoes throughout the resolute grappling with his work in subsequent chapters. Sarah Phillips Casteel appraises the connections and limitations of representing Caribbean-Canadian diaspora in “Experiences of Arrival: Jewishness and Caribbean-Canadian Identity in Austin Clarke’s The Meeting Point.” Within the discourses in which they are employed, both “white” and “black” are uncomfortable, historically fraught, and potentially inflammatory terms. The intersections between “race,” class, and gender are critical themes of Austin Clarke and, therefore, have appropriately been taken up in Austin Clarke. Clarke’s often controversial engagement with the embedded colonialism found in institutions and attitudes is as requisite to understanding Canadian life as it is to understanding Canadian literature. Still writing at the time of print, Clark has been so prolific that Isaacs declines to include a complete list of his publications even in a volume dedicated to examining his works.

In the Black belongs in the commuter’s briefcase, and on the reader’s bedside table, as much as it does in the student’s backpack. It is simply a great read: a compelling and manageable book artfully designed to open doors to important authors and their award-winning bodies of work. Readers interested in the complexities of Canadian society and triumphs of Canadian literature should be familiar, or become familiar, with the work of Austin Clarke. Isaac’s compendium of excellent Essays on His Works drives the inquiring mind to new depths and will likely spurn the aficionado to an extensive revisiting of Austin Clarke’s literature. Packaged together with a selection of Austin Clarke’s original works, these books will inform, interest, and engross readers in vibrant worlds of Canadian literature.

This review “Scribing “Black” Canada” originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 163-64.

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