Canada’s Black Writers: Achieving Excellence and Avoiding Annihilation

Friday, February 3, 2012

Zetta Elliott, Borough of Manhattan Community College
Guest Contributor

Last summer, after returning from a cross-border trip to Toronto, a friend of mine asked: “What’s wrong with Canada?” It’s a question she and I have considered over the years as we’ve worked to establish ourselves as black women writers and scholars. Rosamond is a poet/performance artist/activist. I met her in graduate school at New York University, where she wrote her dissertation on Caribbean immigrant literature, including texts by Canadian authors Dionne Brand and Austin Clarke.

It was both surprising and embarrassing for me to find that many graduate students in the United States knew more about African Canadian literature than I did. I read no black-authored books as a child, and in high school was exposed to “classics” written primarily by white American authors (e.g. Catcher in the Rye, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Great Gatsby, etc.). The few black-authored novels I had access to also came from the United States, and so in 1994 when I decided to pursue my dream of becoming a writer, I left Canada with barely a backward glance, convinced that my best chance of success was on the other side of the border.

In some ways, it’s reassuring to know that my African American friends also sense something “wrong” when they venture into the Great White North. Most bookstores carry few if any black-authored books. Despite over five centuries of contributing to Canadian cultural, social and political life, African Canadians seem satisfied with—or resigned to—having limited literary offerings for themselves and their children.Blacks in the United States don’t always realize their relatively privileged position in relation to other members of the African diaspora; African Americans represent a much larger percentage of a much larger nation, and while many challenges remain, they have a long, proud tradition of highlighting African American talent and resisting racism and social exclusion in publishing and other spheres of life.

When the 2012 Coretta Scott King Book Awards were announced recently, my American community of book bloggers, librarians, and educators bemoaned the fact that the same black children’s book authors and illustrators seem to win the CSKs year after year. My colleagues here in the United States have to be reminded that there are countries where not enough books are published to sustain such an award. Apparently this kind of literary award is a luxury that Canada cannot afford.

Book awards are meant to celebrate excellence, but can excellence emerge from a small and/or stagnant pool? I call this phenomenon the “big fish, small pond” syndrome, which ensures that a handful of authors are celebrated while emerging talent often is left to flounder, undiscovered or unsupported. Arundhati Roy calls this the “new racism,” which she explains using this brilliant analogy:

Every year, the National Turkey Federation presents the US president with a turkey for Thanksgiving. Every year, in a show of ceremonial magnanimity, the president spares that particular bird (and eats another one). After receiving the presidential pardon, the Chosen One is sent to Frying Pan Park in Virginia to live out its natural life. The rest of the 50 million turkeys raised for Thanksgiving are slaughtered and eaten on Thanksgiving Day. ConAgra Foods, the company that has won the Presidential Turkey contract, says it trains the lucky birds to be sociable, to interact with dignitaries, school children and the press.

That's how new racism in the corporate era works. A few carefully bred turkeys – the local elites of various countries, a community of wealthy immigrants, investment bankers, the occasional Colin Powell, or Condoleezza Rice, some singers, some writers (like myself) –  are given absolution and a pass to Frying Pan Park.

If the Canadian publishing industry only opens the gate for two black novelists each year, what happens to all the other talented and aspiring writers? Twenty novels written by twelve African Canadian authors have been published in Canada since the start of the twenty-first century – and only two of the twelve were first-time authors. A rather astonishing percentage of those novels have won or been nominated for major literary awards, including Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues, which won the 2011 Giller Prize. Yet can you name three black Canadian women novelists under the age of forty? I couldn’t do it when I emigrated in 1994, and I still can’t do it now that I’m nearing forty myself. I can name black women novelists from the United Kingdom (e.g. Helen Oyeyemi, Diana Evans, Zadie Smith) and the United States (e.g. Jesmyn Ward, N.K. Jemisin, Heidi Durrow). I adore the novels of Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, an amazingly talented writer from Nigeria. But when I think about young black Canadian women novelists, I draw an unsettling blank.

My scholarly field, Ethnic Studies, is very much in the news these days since the Tucson Unified School District complied with an order from the Arizona state superintendent for public instruction to terminate the Mexican American Studies Program. It infuriates me to know that books are being banned – books that empower so many students of color by opening doors to an alternate, more inclusive view of the world. I know from experience – both as a student and educator – how it feels to finally find yourself in a classroom where people who look like you take center stage. How often does this happen in Canada for black children or children of color more generally? How can it happen when gatekeeping in the Canadian publishing industry keeps the flow of diverse voices to a trickle?

Over the past couple of years I’ve found myself writing extensively about my childhood in Canada and my subsequent efforts to “decolonize” my imagination. As I age it becomes harder to accept the slow pace of progress when it comes to multicultural literature for young readers. I started my blog to advocate for greater equity and inclusion in the United States publishing industry but soon realized that the situation was actually much worse for blacks in Canada. I dedicated my forthcoming novel, Ship of Souls, to my cousin’s son, Kodie. He’s not yet twelve but his childhood in twenty-first century Canada is looking a lot like my own childhood of the 1970s and 1980s – not much has changed. His white mother and black father are no longer together, and this brown-skinned child is growing up outside of Toronto in an all-white environment. I send him books from the United States that offer Kodie a mirror in which he can see himself, but I resent the fact that his mother can’t walk into a local bookstore or library and find Canadian books that do the same.

Last year I began to compile a bibliography on my blog and discovered that, of the 500 English-language books published for children in Canada each year, on average only three are written by black authors. Since 2000, of the nearly thirty novels featuring a black protagonist, only two depict black children living in contemporary Canada. Outraged (though not especially surprised), I wrote an essay, “Navigating the Great White North: Representations of Blackness in Canadian Young Adult Literature,” in which I examined this “symbolic annihilation” of black youth:

I detect a disturbing focus on people of colour who are represented as distinctly not Canadian, not living within the country’s borders, and not active in the current historical moment; blacks specifically are imagined as foreigners and/or figures from the distant past rather than established/integrated members of the national “mosaic.”

…instead of reflecting this racially diverse nation, books for young readers published in Canada during the first decade of the twenty-first century paint a picture of a country devoid of black citizens.

…black youth appear as fugitive and/or former slaves or as impoverished Africans grappling with violence and disease. Why is it so difficult for authors of any race to situate black teens in contemporary Canada? Why do so many authors prefer to see blacks as “eternal slaves” seeking sanctuary in “the promised land?” And what effect does the erasure of black teens from the contemporary Canadian landscape have on young readers?

I worry that, like me, Kodie will grow up not dreaming in color, not imagining himself as worthy of assuming the starring role in literature (as protagonist and/or author). Right now he has aspirations of becoming a writer and I’ll do what I can to help him realize that goal. But I’m not a very good role model since I never managed to get my own books published in Canada, and ultimately chose to leave rather than blaze a trail that successive generations could follow.

The truth is, effecting change in Canadian publishing is difficult when I’ve committed myself to life in another country; as an expatriate it is challenging to organize a much-needed symposium on multicultural children’s literature – something comparable to the inaugural ‘A Is For Anansi’ conference held in 2010 at New York University. Here in the United States I have advocated for the adoption of a Publishing Equalities Charter like the one sponsored by the Diversity In Publishing Network (DIPNET) in the United Kingdom, but my pleas have had little if any effect. I have, nonetheless, managed to launch my writing career, and I have found a community of like-minded activists who helped me to launch a childhood literacy initiative with an emphasis on multicultural books. As a black writer, I have no regrets about leaving Canada. By comparison, the United States is a vast sea that is, perhaps, more perilous but ultimately more productive for me than Canada’s “small pond.”

Zetta Elliott is a Canadian-born black feminist writer of poetry, plays, essays, novels, and stories for children. She is Assistant Professor in the Center for Ethnic Studies at Borough of Manhattan Community College and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.


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