Why We Write

Why We Write (2005)

University of Toronto Quarterly
This collection of interviews with fifteen key African Canadian poets and novelists is a necessary addition to the few anthologies of book-length analyses of African Canadian writing that have become available in the last couple of decades. In his introduction H Nigel Thomas notes the value of the book in providing a forum for the discussion of issues important to African Canadian literature, in particular the difficulties of getting published; the complexity of defining African Canadian identity (and indeed the suitability of this term); the expectations of the Black community ; and the use of ‘nation language.’ He continues to emphasize these issues throughout; in this way the book becomes more than a collection of separate interviews. It serves to invoke, as well as help further constitute, a supportive, discursive writing community that has not been paid the attention it should in a Canadian literary scene still effectively controlled by the ‘Euro-Canadian literary establishment.’ This makes Why We Write indispensable: firstly, for any reader wanting to understand the African Canadian writing scene; secondly, for any African Canadian writer wanting to know more about his or her own writing heritage; and thirdly (and perhaps most importantly) for students, general readers, academics, publishers, and politicians alike who are investigating how to make Canada live up to its multicultural promises and create a writing environment that will allow writers from all backgrounds to share stories that may be difficult for the Establishment to hear.Thomas makes the agenda and context for embarking on this book project clear from the start, meaning he does not fall into the trap of posing as an objective and thus disengaged interviewer. He asks questions as a fellow African Canadian writer, requesting his interviewees to situate their own writing context themselves. Thus, rather than attempting to make generalizations about an overarching ‘African Canadian aesthetic.’ a task he shows to be impossible, he allows the aesthetic to build up variously and incrementally as the book progresses. For example, the particular regions of Canada and islands of the Caribbean are shown to be integral to the kind of writing produced, and at the same time the influence of African American writing is acknowledged whilst the particularity of being Canadian is highlighted. The book, therefore, avoids centring any arguments about Black writing in Canada solely upon experiences from central Canada and Toronto.Moreover, concerned with highlighting the complexity of contexts within which the writers work, as well as the literariness of their works, Thomas asks each one to name influences upon his or her work. Consequently, a particular strength of this collection becomes the reading list the interviewees effectively provide for anyone new to the field wanting to investigate further. As well as American, Canadian, Caribbean, and African writers, musicians, politicians, and artists are mentioned, all contributing to the important story Why We Write tells of the ever-growing and increasing prominence of the Black cultural community in Canada. Indeed, whilst every writer without fail agrees with Thomas’s assessment that Black Canadian writing is still under-represented, each also acknowledges the increasing prominence of Black writers in the Canadian prize scene in recent years; with this publication Thomas increases the profile of Black writing further.Overall there is a sense in which the writers interviewed in this collection know they are contributing to an absolutely necessary project guaranteed to aid future writers and readers, with its discussions of the political and literary contexts, as well as formal and aesthetic aspects, of current Black Canadian writing. Indeed, George Elliott Clarke sums up the vital function it will play when he says, ‘Your project reminds me – I have to go back forty odd years – of Interviews with Black Writers. That work brought together Ishmael Reed, Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin, and everybody who was publishing. I read that book . . . when I was starting as a writer. It is very, very important: you could be a Black writer, i.e., an American Black writer, and be taken seriously and have somebody listen to your ideas and transcribe them.’—Catherine Bates
ARIEL: A Review of International EnglishLiterature
I remember my first year of high school in Toronto, when I met a young man on the subway who was collecting donations for an all-black bookstore. He had a comprehensive list of authors that were underrepresented by corporate bookstores, a list divided into African American and African Canadian writers.I recognized half of the Americans and I was shocked to realize that I only vaguely recognized some of the Canadians. The young man was, incidentally, a crook. The black bookstore was a scam. This young man was exploiting a need in Toronto, the need for an all-black bookstore and a need for the exposure of African Canadian writers. He made a profit on the average person’s guilt over their own complicity in these matters.Nigel H. Thomas reminds me that these issues (over a decade later) are still, in fact, relevant. Canada still has a need for bookstores that market black writers, publishers still need to seek out new and marginalized talents, and African Canadian authors are still prolific forces in literature, despite the hardships and impasses that go along with being different in an audience eoriented market.Thomas’ Why We Write: Conversations with African Canadian Poets and Novelists is an edited collection of interviews with prodigious contemporary black writers. The book considers issues that are particular to African Canadian authors, such as ethnic labelling and the stigmatization of minority voices in the Canadian publishing industry, alongside matters of importance to writers of any denomination, like the function of writing itself or the need for reviews. Thomas presents fifteen talented writers, who range from the established and foundational authors like Austin Clarke to the younger and more experimental works of those like Wayde Compton, in his search for the “African Canadian literary aesthetic.” In reflecting the work of this book in his “Introduction,” Thomas says that “reading the corpus of the writers whose opinions are expressed in these conversations and the corpus of many whose opinions are not, I think I have a clearer notion of what could be called an African Canadian aesthetic” (x). However, Thomas warns us that essentializing the works of African Canadians is not the agenda of this collection. Rather than define an “African Canadian aesthetic,” Thomas would posit “an ethos that readers encounter in the works of Black Canadian writer” (xi). This “ethos” relies on considerations of identity, an identity rooted in resistance of essentialism and stereotyping. Thomas reminds his audience that the “preoccupations” of African Canadians “are the preoccupations of humanity everywhere; and how we employ words comes down to individual talent, preferences, and temperament. At this level we are like writers everywhere” (xi). In this way, African Canadian writers become part of the larger literary machine, like all aspects of writing (genre, form, style, etc.), the need for a disparity of voices from different backgrounds is essentially what defines the Canadian Aesthetic, and these conversations take their place within that framework as necessary and relevant parts of a national writing community.From the title of his book onwards, Nigel H. Thomas is concerned with issues of labelling and identity. By calling the authors interviewed “African Canadian” (without the hyphen!) Thomas has made a conscious choice to parallel the heritage of his subjects (African with Canada) as he draws a direct relationship to our neighbours in the south (African Canadian immediately links to the labelling of “African Americans” in the USA). However, not all of the writers that were interviewed agree with the label: “Ayanna Black, Lawrence Hill, and Bernadette Dyer […] expressed discomfort with the label African Canadian” (xiv). In her interview, poet and novelist Suzette Mayr says: “I think of myself more in terms of Caribbean Canadian because African Canadian seems so far away, not that I’m not part of the African Diaspora” (173). Thomas asks Wayde Compton, an experimental poet, about his term “Halfrican” in the poem “49th Parallel Psalm,” as a word used to describe those with mixed racial backgrounds. Compton replies that “Halfrican is just a pun. It’s a wordplay that I came up with. […] I guess I grew up having to explain who I am, and it’s a good explanation” (59). Thomas does not shy away from confronting his own labelling of these authors as “African Canadian.” In fact, he embraces the different ways that people choose to label themselves, if at all. Thomas recognizes that if his “ethos” of African Canadian writing is under the rubric of identity, then he cannot choose which identities his subjects call themselves.If there is an “ethos” of identity in the African Canadians interviewed for this book, I do have to wonder how the similar positionality of these authors works to define it. Why We Write is a book for, by, and about academics. The majority of these authors have graduate degrees and teach in a post-secondary institute, in either a critical or creative capacity. Thomas himself spent eighteen years teaching American literature at Université Laval. The structure of the interview questions, which range from issues of Aristotelian functions of art to postcolonial representations of nation languages, are all aimed at creating intellectual conversations between academics. In response to a question regarding defining literatures, novelist and historicist Lawrence Hill reminds Thomas: “remember I don’t come to writing from an academic standpoint. I haven’t a PhD in English literature. I am not an English scholar” (134). This is from a man with an MA in writing and who has taught creative writing, as well. Why We Write is aimed at a particular audience, and the subjects chosen for the project reflect this. Thomas comments that he is “especially conscious of the fact that the playwrights, dub poets, and the many authors of children’s books, memoirs, and other nonfiction works aren’t included here” (xvi). I am not disparaging the use of writing to an academic audience, but merely suggesting that Thomas consider his choices of topic and subject before he declare an African Canadian “ethos” devoid of “the playwrights, dub poets,” (xvi) and others that did not make it into this academic exploration of black authors in Canada.The most startling aspect of this book is the absolute relevance of it. The interviewees of Why We Write range from those that have been established for decades to those who are relatively new to the writing industry. The issues discussed are both current and remembered. Cecil Foster looks to history to understand his place in Canada and says “if we look at what we might consider to be Canadian history […] we would see something of a dialogical struggle between the vision of the rulers and the reality of the ruled” (98). Simultaneously, Foster also makes statements about issues that are extremely current, such as the movement to establish a black school (I am specifically thinking about Toronto today, though this interview took place in 2002) when he says “for me, the setting up of separate educational institutions and calling them our version of multiculturalism is a misnomer. It’s segregation.” (109). Here, Why We Write demonstrates its power to reinvigorate old issues, reminding us that writing is political, and that complicity is in inaction.— Natalie Wall
Canadian Literature
Facing the Challenge

Indicatively, Why We Write is dedicated to three individuals—Harold Head, Ann Wallace, and Lorris Elliot—who usually aren’t the first to be invoked when African Canadian writing is discussed today, but who, as editor H. Nigel Thomas aptly observes, were “crucial in establishing a foundation for African Canadian literature.” Each of these individuals was active in the ’seventies and ’eighties, when Black Canadian writing was almost solely a small-press and “community-based” phenomenon, and each would appear to function as the inspiration for some discussion of developments since the early ’nineties, when a handful of Black authors began publishing with larger presses and attracting significant attention throughout Canada and, indeed, the world. H. Nigel Thomas is himself a writer of significant accomplishment, and in his introduction entitled “Facing the Challenge,” as well as in his interviews, he highlights the uneasy relationship of Black Canadian writing to the broader print-culture market. Thomas interviews Ayanna Black, Austin Clarke, George Elliott Clarke, Wayde Compton, Afua Cooper, Bernadette Dyer, Cecil Foster, Claire Harris, Lawrence Hill, Nalo Hopkinson, Suzette Mayr, Pamela Mordecai, M. NourbeSe Philip, Althea Prince, and Robert Sandiford.

What emerges most strikingly is that, despite the genuine accomplishments of some of the mature writers in the book, most of the interviewees are profoundly concerned about the future for Black writing in Canada. The redoubtable Austin Clarke, for instance, speculates that his own relatively early success with larger presses might actually have discouraged certain publishers from taking on additional Black Canadian writers—“We already have Austin Clarke,” as Clarke himself puts it. Cecil Foster observes that the “hefty state subsidy for publishing” of the 1960s has dried up; and George Elliott Clarke agrees, acknowledging that there is “general contraction in the publishing industry in Canada,” but noting that, despite the higher visibility of Blacks in Canada, the number of “books [of poetry] by Black authors has certainly not gone up.” Afua Cooper notes that today “we have no Black publishers”; and M. NourbeSe Philip describes this apparent situation as a “tragedy.” Among the interviewees, only Lawrence Hill suggests (after considerable qualifications) that “[i]t’s somewhat easier now [for Black writers] than let’s say twenty years ago”; but he also suggests that this is at least partly because publishers have “seen that books exploring the minority experience can sell.” However, a bit later in the book, Suzette Mayr appears to suggest that only particular forms of “minority experience” are likely to be deemed sellable and/or broadly consumable. Mayr refers to a Western-Canadian student who considered some of her writing difficult to appreciate because, ironically enough, it was about people born here, and not about “a first-generation immigrant from somewhere else.”

There are moments of optimism, though. Wayde Compton, one of the youngest writers interviewed, joins his elders in voicing concern for the future of Black writing in Canada, but he also describes his profound sympathy for the British Columbia-based Black writers of the ’seventies “who self-published” and were overlooked because, in that particular time and place, “there [were] no readerships and reviews.” Recently, Compton co-founded Commodore Books, a small (if not micro) press dedicated to publishing Black Canadian literature—proving, of course, that there is now at least one active Black-focused press in English Canada. Evidently, things are still happening; and Thomas’ interviews do a lot to suggest why.

— David Chariandy

The Caribbean Review of Books
“It is essential . . . that we, labellers and labelled, share our feelings, our fears, our sense of things, our meditations on reality,” writes H Nigel Thomas in his introduction to Why We Write. The label he most immediately refers to is “African Canadian”, and it recurs throughout this collection of interviews with fifteen writers who have two things in common; they are all black, and they all live in Canada. But that isn’t all they share. Ten of them where born in the Caribbean, like Thomas himself (St. Vincent); another was born in Canada of Barbadian parents, and migrated to Barbados as an adult; another has a Bahamian mother. In their respective Caribbean childhoods or young-adulthoods have influenced their writing; they write novels and stories and poems set in their home islands, they explore distinctively Caribbean themes, they grapple with “nation language”. The book might very nearly have been subtitled “Conversations with Caribbean Canadian Poets and Novelists.That it isn’t reveals something both of Canada’s cultural politics and of Thomas’s own concerns, which include the stubborn racism of the “Canadian literary superstructure”, the unfriendliness of mainstream publishers to black Canadian writers, “a book-buying public . . . conditioned to devalue Blackness”, and the notion of black literature as “victim art”. Thomas—who has published three novels, a collection of short fiction, and a book of literary criticism—begins by questioning the idea of an “African Canadian aesthetic”. Does it exist? Does it help us understand the work of black Canadian writers, or insidiously trap them in an essentialized concept of ethnicity? He decides to investigate by asking a cross-section of “African Canadian” writers what they think of all these issues.Some of these writers will be familiar to Caribbean readers, who may never have ceased thinking of them as “Caribbean”, no matter that they now live in the wintry north: Barbadian(-Canadian) Austin Clarke, Jamaican(-Canadian) Pamela Mordecai, Trinidadian(-Canadian) M NourbeSe Philip. Others, like Ayanna Black, Afua Cooper, and Bernadette Dyer (all born in Jamaica), are hardly known in their places of birth. Thomas begins each interview by talking specifics, probing personal histories and asking opinionated questions about particular works. But eventually he comes round to his preoccupations: institutional racism, the need for black publishers and magazines, the role of the “black voice” in challenging Canada’s “national myths”. Almost all the writers agree with him, whether enthusiastically or dutifully, but of course the most revealing moments are flashes of unpredictable individualism. And by insisting, in their various styles, on their very Caribbean-ness, a thoroughly hybrid state of being, they undermine the monolithic African Canadian-ness the book sets out to explore. Even Thomas finds himself asking, “I am African Canadian: right? Identity isn’t so simple. At least mine isn’t.” Why We Write turns out to be a multi-strand narrative about what happens when people exchange one home, one passport, for another, juggling nouns and adjectives and trying to find the names for what they are and what they will become.— Nicholas Laughlin

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