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Non-fiction

They Call Me George provides a different perspective on Canada’s past

By Cecil Foster (Biblioasis)

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An immigrant who came to Toronto from Barbados, in the early days of Canada’s official foray into multiculturalism, Cecil Foster had the courage to examine the realities of race in this country long before it was commonplace to do so: In 1996, A Place Called Heaven took a long look at whether Canada had lived up to the idea of a peaceable kingdom imagined by Black immigrants from the time of the Underground Railroad to the late 20th century. His most recent work focuses on one of the many Black Canadian stories that are suspiciously absent from most history books. It’s all there in the title – They Call Me George: The Untold Story of Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada. After Indigenous displacement and Chinese labour allowed a shiny new railway to link a newly formed Canada, Black men denied other employment options rode them from coast to coast. These sleeping car porters spent weeks away from home tending to riders on Canada’s new trains, often for no wages other than tips. Most passengers declined to learn their names, simply calling them all “George.”

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The Skin We’re In documents one year of racism and resistance in Canada

By Desmond Cole (Doubleday Canada)

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Desmond Cole became known to the public after becoming known to police. The Alberta-born son of immigrants from Sierra Leone rose to prominence in 2015 after publishing an award-winning essay in Toronto Life magazine about the dozens of times he’d been stopped and questioned by police. In the years since, he’s become one of the country’s most prominent Black activists. Fed up with hearing the refrain that life for Black and other racialized people in Canada was “not as bad as it is in America,” Cole set out to document just one year of racism and resistance in his own country in his debut book The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power. “I wanted to write a book that basically said, ‘What if we don’t talk about the U.S. for a minute? What if we just had to look at our country? Not by comparison – better or worse – but just on its own merits. What would we see?’”


Black Writers Matter is a revolutionary anthology about lived experiences

Edited by Whitney French (University of Regina Press)

Life for the average human is filled with joy and pain; it involves work, friends, family and a need to connect to others and to nature. Yet when we think of these very ordinary matters, rarely do we think of Black people. In film, television, magazines and books, both the imagined and real protagonists tend to be white. How revolutionary, then, is a book written by Black writers – Black Writers Matter – who casually refer to their actual lived experiences without any irony or hyperbole? Despite the socially constructed hierarchies that demand from them an inexhaustible well of emotional, psychological and physical energy to constantly prove their equality and their humanity, that “proof” lies effortlessly in the narration of their lived experiences. Despite the insistence of a monolithic “whiteness” to inaccurately capture a monolithic “Blackness” in a still portrait of prejudiced realities, these Black writers are doing their best to survive life’s challenges and thrive. The humanity is already a matter of birthright. It’s in the celebration of how these Black writers love, rage, grieve, challenge, define, heal and attempt to understand themselves and each other. We talked with three writers in this anthology about their contributions.


How writer Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali went from being on the streets to being published

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By Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali (University of Regina Press)

Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali is a remarkable writer and his first book, Angry Queer Somali Boy: A Complicated Memoir, is what Germans might call a Badbitchbildungsroman. A Somali-born, Muslim-raised, trilingual, street-involved Torontonian, Ali’s years of reading Richard Wright, J.G. Ballard, Nella Larsen and the Marquis de Sade prepared him well for what turned out to be an accidental opportunity to tell his story. He tells The Globe and Mail: “I don’t want to equate my own experience as a Black person in Canada today to that of Richard Wright as a Black boy in the American South pre-civil rights, but I can relate to always having people watching you, having only the library as a refuge. He goes to the library and he falls in love with H.L. Mencken and devours him, becomes enamoured of ideas, then falls out of love with them and has these heart-wrenching dilemmas to face. I’ve had quite a few of those over the course of my not so long life. We would all like to imagine we’re heroic, but there are conditions that humble us, that put us on our knees, and I think the truly heroic thing is to write about those moments and to write about them as objectively as possible.”


Learning from the Germans compares Germany’s atonement for the Holocaust with the U.S. reckoning over slavery

By Susan Neiman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

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When the American philosopher Susan Neiman told her German friends that her new book would favourably compare Germany’s efforts to atone for the Holocaust with the United States’ failure to reckon with the legacies of slavery, and that it would be called Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil, almost all of them burst out laughing. Except for one, who yelled at her. To her German friends, it seemed somehow shameful, and shameless, to think that their national reckoning – which many view as too late and nowhere near complete – could be held up as a model of anything. Americans view any comparison between the Holocaust and the legacies of slavery as tendentious, but Neiman has won crucial support for that comparison: Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, in a New York Times review, called the book “fascinating,” and “important and welcome.”


Former Black Panther Albert Woodfox captures the plight of 40 years in solitary confinement

By Albert Woodfox (Grove Press)

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Albert Woodfox spent more than 40 years in solitary confinement confronting all manner of predators – sex-crazed inmates, racist guards, stifling heat, wardens bent on breaking his spirit. But the feature of life in isolation that tormented him most came from inside his own head. Every day he woke up in his six-foot-by-nine-foot cell at Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as “Angola,” and wondered whether this would be the day he’d lose his mind. “Will I start screaming and never stop?” he writes in Solitary, his account of the unprecedented term he spent buried in solitary confinement. The book is evidence of Woodfox’s extraordinary mental resilience in the face of relentless state cruelty. The pacing is brisk, with brief stops to reflect on the United States’ mass incarceration of Black people, Woodfox’s Black identity and his personal philosophy, much of it centred on the Black Panther Party’s 10-Point Program (“Point One: We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.”). Woven together, these strands form an indictment of the U.S. criminal justice system that should be read for generations.

Fiction

Dominoes at the Crossroads shows how Black history is entwined in Canada’s story

By Kaie Kellough (Esplanade Books)

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Kaie Kellough is a Canadian writer and poet with roots in Guyana who was raised in Calgary, but has called Montreal home for more than 20 years. His new story collection, Dominoes at the Crossroads, is a book whose shape takes on some of the qualities of the game in its title, although there are other ways that title could be interpreted. For example, the domino face can be any colour really, but it is most often represented as black dots on a white background. This could symbolize the book’s subject: the story of Black people in Canada – from Marie-Joseph Angélique, the slave of New France who struck back by burning Old Montreal, into the far future – especially Black Canadians of the Caribbean diaspora. But this is more than a book of linked short stories with Black Canadians as its subject. Dominoes at the Crossroads articulates how Black history is not marginal to Canada’s story, but central to it – encoded in its history, and therefore its future too.


Africville is a penetrating portrait of Black Canadian life

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By Jeffrey Colvin (HarperCollins)

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Africville, Jeffrey Colvin’s new novel inspired by the African-Canadian town on the outskirts of Halifax, spans three centuries. From its primary setting on the East Coast it sprawls west to Montreal, south to Mississippi and Alabama, and swings briefly across to Europe. But wherever Colvin roams, his heart (and ours) remains in the community of Woods Bluff, the collection of neighbourhoods that comprise his largely fictional Africville. The search for community is a dominant theme in Black Canadian literature. Protagonists frequently feel ostracized by white society and at the same time alienated from their own people. The residents of Africville present a stark contrast to the popular literary type. Although they suffer straitened circumstances and white oppression, they possess the emotional security of knowing who they are and where they’re from. Colvin, who hails from Montgomery, Ala., was amazed to learn how similar the real-life Africville was to the African-American towns he knew growing up in the American South. He applies his southern sense of Black community to produce a penetrating portrait of Black Canadian life.


Frying Plantain follows a third-generation Canadian woman of Caribbean background – without stereotyping

By Zalika Reid-Benta’s (House of Anansi Press)

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Zalika Reid-Benta could have very easily allowed the characters in her debut novel, Frying Plantain, to fall into the stereotypical “angry Black woman” trope. This caricature of Black women was brought to life by characters such as Sapphire Stevens of 1930s Amos and Andy sitcom fame, and has existed as far back as the minstrel shows of the 19th-century American stage. Reid-Benta avoids it by showing us how their faults become understandable responses to lived trauma. They aren’t just cardboard cut-out monsters. They are women wounded by betrayal, haunted by perceived failures, but still acting out of love. The protagonist of Frying Plantain is Kara Davis, a third-generation Canadian of Caribbean background growing up in the Little Jamaica neighbourhood in Toronto. The novel follows her transition from childhood to adolescence and examines her complicated relationships with her mother, Eloise, and her Jamaican immigrant grandmother, Nana.


Resistance reading: Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys and Black authorship of Jim Crow South

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Colson Whitehead (Anchor)

The Associated Press

Andray Domise writes that it has always struck him as odd that, in the canon of American literature, the nation’s relationship with Black people has remained so profoundly underexplored. From a moralist perspective, it almost makes sense. A nation founded on equality and individual liberty, yet shockingly failed its own principles since inception, would have to be so deeply embarrassed as to avoid the conversation. On the other hand, hasn’t the world’s greatest literature emerged from authors willing to probe the depths of the unspoken and the shameful? So it’s natural that when a writer as masterful as Colson Whitehead writes a book such as his most recent novel The Nickel Boys, which challenges Black boyhood and institutional racism in the Jim Crow South, the end result is great literature. But the dystopic existence of Black life in the post-Reconstruction era has remained so deeply sequestered to Black authorship, it has assigned them the de facto role as custodians of that unspoken cultural memory in American literary fiction.

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