IN PRAISE OF BLACK VOICES
Notable Canadian writers recommend must-read books that will change the way we see the world,
While we mark Black History Month by honouring the writers and stories that have come before us, there are plenty of current stories that need to be read, that need to be heard. Stories that make us look at the world through a different lens, that urge us to see things in a new way. We asked prominent Canadian writers to recommend Black voices that we need to read now.
David Chariandy is the author of the award-winning novels Brother and Soucouyant and the upcoming I’ ve Been Meaning to Tell You: A Letter To My Daughter.
I’d like to highlight some Black writing recently published in Canada. Even so, it’s difficult for me to restrict myself to just one “must-read,” since the books published even just this year exhibit a striking diversity of genres, styles, and subject matters. I’d definitely recommend checking out Policing Black Lives by Robyn Maynard (non-fiction, Fernwood), Voodoo Hypothesis by Canisia Lubrin (poetry, Buckrider) and Our Lady of Perpetual Realness & Other Stories by Cason Sharpe (short fiction, Metatron). I’d also keep your eyes out for two forthcoming books already generating buzz: Dear Current Occupant by Chelene Knight (non-fiction, Book*hug); and Reproduction by Ian Williams (novel, Random House). Finally, I’m tremendously excited that two books by Dionne Brand will be published simultaneously later this year: Theory (novel); and The Blue Clerk, an ‘Ars Poetica’ from one of the most inspiring living writers.
Catherine Hernandez is author of Scarborough and artistic director of b current performing arts, which is dedicated to creating work by and about women of colour.
The book that everyone needs to read or reread now is Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.
It is the dawn of 2018. This book takes place in the 2020s in the wake of environmental and social disaster. Sound familiar? It should. I am currently writing a novel called Crosshairs about LGBTQ2S and racialized folks taking arms against white supremacy in this post-Trump reality.
Some have described my work as ‘science fiction.’ Not so. Following the footsteps of Butler’s genius, I hope to explore a plausible and imminent danger, not to mention an actual reality already lived by many around the world. This book was far from fiction. It was a map. It was a prophecy. Perhaps now is the time to take the brilliance of Black storytellers seriously.
Lawrence Hill is the author of ten books and is working on a new novel about the African-American soldiers who helped build the Alaska Highway in northern B.C. and Yukon during the Second World War.
Many people and places have been left off Canada’s literary map, so it is fabulous to see that two writers helped right that imbalance in 2017. How many novels have you read that plumb the experiences and geography — physical and cultural — relat- ing to Black and other folks in Scarborough? Exactly! So I’m happy to recommend two novels on the subject: Scarborough, by Catherine Hernandez, and Brother by David Chariandy. Scarborough (Arsenal Pulp Press) was shortlisted for the Toronto Book Award and Brother (McClelland & Stewart) won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.
Canisia Lubrin is a writer, critic, editor, teacher and author of Voodoo Hypothesis (Buckrider/ Wolsak & Wynn).
To that question of literature and need, the hand that has touched or longed to touch anything remotely alive, remains raised in a promissory gesture. This sentiment lives large in the work of Toronto-born-Montre- al-based Cason Sharpe. His work is muscular and fluidly colloquial reminiscent of David Foster Wallace, a master of the prosaic line. Sharpe’s debut collection of short fiction, Our Lady of Perpetual Realness (Metatron), is measured, sometimes despotic in evoking urban life, and resists reductive theatrics of trauma in queer communities of colour. Tempered with humour and the erotic, his prose powerfully negotiates ideas both conversational and irreverently philosophical. Sarah Raughley is the author of the Effigies series of Young Adult novels and is a huge fangirl of anything from manga to scifi/ fantasy TV to Japanese role-playing games.
Birchtown and the Black Loyalists (Nimbus) by Wanda Lauren Taylor is an important book to put on any reading list for elementary and middle school students. As Canadians, when we learn of the history of American slavery, we often think of Canada as the place slaves escaped to for freedom. However, many of us don’t actually learn much about what happened when the first Black Canadians resettled in Nova Scotia. For young readers for whom Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes might prove too heavy a read, Taylor’s novel works as a great introduction to the history of Black Canada.
Jael Richardson is the author of the memoir The Stone Thrower (Thomas Allen) and the children’s book of the same name (published by Groundwood) as well as being founder of the Festival of Literary Diversity.
When I think of necessary reads, I think of books that we have waited for — perhaps without knowing — books that enrich and challenge us as readers and as humans. Brother by David Chariandy is one of those books. The plot and setting are timely, but the writing is also lyrical and lovely. It’s this rare combination that makes Chariandy’s book a gift to consume, a treasure to finish, and an absolute must-read. Brother tells the story of people we have historically been overlooked: those on the margins on account of race and class. It pushes their stories into the centre of our lives, demanding our attention long after the final page has been read.
Karina Vernon is a professor in the Department of English at the University of Toronto with a special focus on Black Canadian literature.
There are many books by brilliant Black Canadian authors that deserve to be better known than they are. Two of my long-time favourites are Cheryl Foggo’s gorgeous memoir of growing up Black in Calgary in the 1960s, Pourin’ Down Rain (1990, Brush Education), and Addena Sumter Freitag’s fierce autobiographical play, Stay Black & Die (2007, Commodore Books), about growing up in Winnipeg’s North End during the same period.
I love both books for the ways they lovingly represent a regional Black Canadian history and identity — one that has been rooted on the Prairies for generations — that is too-often overlooked when thinking about Black Canada.