Black Writers Matter, edited by Whitney French

I was attracted to this book right away – partly because I was curious to read what these authors had to say (especially after falling so hard for Black Berry, Sweet Juice by Lawrence Hill) and also, I have to admit, because of the vibrant purple cover.

There are twenty-five entries in this book, including the foreword and introduction. Stories from all over Canada, from writers with a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences. The contributions/stories/essays are so varied, there was no getting bored. Most of them either taught me new things or made me see things in a new way. And I spent almost as much time googling the authors as I did reading their stories!

To begin, there is a Foreword by Dr. Afua Cooper in which she says: “If there is a unifying theme in this anthology, it is the pain and burden of anti-black racism. Each writer tells us in a different way how painful it is for them as they realize, sometimes abruptly, sometimes over a long period, that white Canadian society views Black people as inferior beings and the damage to Black psyches and bodies that this view has wrought. But as Alice Walker grasps: we carry within us the medicine for our pain. And that is what Black Writers Matter does: it presents the pain, mourning, and sorrow, but each story contains within it its own medicine, its own balm, its own antidote. And that is part of the small miracle that [Whitney] French has performed.”

In the Introduction by Whitney French, she writes about some of her experiences as a six-year-old; observing, listening, collecting pieces of information. “Six-year-old Whitney, so desperate for validation, has grown up. I’m not interested in asking people to see our humanity. I’m simply here to celebrate it.”

I would love to be able to write about every piece, but there are too many. I imagine different stories will resonate with different readers – here are the ones that stood out for me.

Hunger Games by Rowan McCandless is a powerful story about a Black biracial woman with an eating disorder. The story is structured as a quiz, and each question with its multiple answers to choose from makes you think. Many of the available answers are things I hadn’t thought of or considered before. For example, I had never before considered the fact that having an eating disorder is a different experience for a Black woman than for a white woman. When the narrator sought help in a Group therapy situation, a woman across from her said, “Women of colour have it so much easier. They’re okay with their bodies – with having bigger bodies. They don’t have the same pressure to look a certain way – to be thin. It’s harder for white women, all this pressure to be thin.

Becoming a Shark by Phillip Dwight Morgan is fascinating. The premise of this story is the observation that Black people remain “curiously absent” from depictions of Canada’s wilderness. The narrator talks about how many Black people have “internalized this messaging” to the point where Black comedians use it as fodder for their jokes: “But why would Black people willingly participate in a sport where they have to put a rope around themselves?“.

There’s a certain insidiousness to these narratives, a flexibility and dynamism to the process of othering that aches deep within my belly.

As a young Black man from Scarborough studying history, the issue was not only that my family did not have a canoe or tent or ski poles or a cottage but, also, that we didn’t feel like we had any basis for laying claim to those spaces.

Ultimately, his trip across the country “was, at its core, a search for home, an ongoing quest for belonging in a country that is as much hostile and dangerous as it is rewarding”. Perhaps an effort to stop the question: “But where are you really from?”.

In Black/Disabled/Artist, Brandon Wint, a spoken word artist, talks about what it’s like to be these three things. “I must claim these identities for myself because, if I do not, I know the world will weaponize these words against me or bludgeon me with the culturally loaded weight of them until I am small, or invisible, or powerless.”

Eternity Martis talks about having a Black father but growing up in a Pakistani family, and their confusion when she began writing about anti-Black racism. (“You’re not one of them.”)

Chelene Knight, author of Dear Current Occupant,  talks about demanding space when it’s not given to you. (“You can be born into a place, live there your whole life, and still never truly be home.”)

Scott Fraser was taught by his parents that race wasn’t a problem in Canada, but grew up to discover otherwise. (“To the European eye, it doesn’t matter if we’re descended from the families of Africville, Nova Scotia, Jamaican slaves, or recent Somali immigrants. They just see Blacks.“)

Rachel Zellers writes about the vicious cycle of shame and violence. (“… the silence in our families, in our communities, and in Black women’s relationships regarding our histories of violence is still deafening. And this silence is, quite literally, killing us.“)

Kyla Farmer traces her ancestry on her father’s side to African Nova Scotian communities near Shelburne and Digby, right back to Jupiter and Venus Farmer. She encourages readers to be telling these stories rather than covering them up.

H. Nigel Thomas writes in praise of fiction…

Among the many things that fiction does, I note the following: it bears witness to our times, it reflects the inner and outer forces that sustain or threaten to destroy us, and it constantly reminds us of who we are.

I highly recommend this book. The copy I read is from the library, but it’s at the top of my wishlist to buy so I can pass it around and share it with as many people as I can.

 

Contributors: Fatuma Adar, Shammy Belmore, Simone Blais, Wenzdae Brewster, Christina Brobby, Simone Makeba Dalton, Meshama Rose Eyob-Austin, Kyla Farmer, Scott Fraser, Whitney French, Kaya Joan, Chelene Knight, Eternity Martis, Rowan McCandless, Mary Louise McCarthy, Phillip Dwight Morgan, Delice Igicari M. Mugabo, Chayo Moses Nyawello, Christelle Saint-Julien, Cason Sharpe, Makeda Silvera, H(ubert) Nigel Thomas, Angela Walcott, Brandon Wint, Sapphire Woods, Angela Wright, Rachel Zellars

 


Further Reading:

In an interview with Now Toronto, Whitney French talks about the focus of the book: “The mantra became “Everyday every day.” How do we tell our stories by magnifying our dignity in the everyday? This was the focus.

An interview with Quill & Quire: “Black Writers Matter is my first anthology. I feel like I was trying to be super intentional about the people who I was selecting – not just Black writers who people know, or Black writers who people feel comfortable with. My intention was to disrupt the idea of not just who’s who, but who’s coming up, who’s exciting, and also who is it we have not heard from? That’s why I find anthologies to be so powerful in that they’re a subversive tool.”

My review of Black Berry, Sweet Juice by Lawrence Hill, and interview with my sister about being both Black and White in Canada.

A selection of literature on the Black Loyalists of Nova Scotia

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23 thoughts on “Black Writers Matter, edited by Whitney French

  1. Laura says:

    This sounds great. Having read UK and US collections on a similar theme, I’d love to read these pieces from a Canadian perspective.

    • Naomi says:

      That’s what I found so powerful about this book – despite the fact that these writers come from vastly different backgrounds and experiences, they all have experienced anti-Black racism.

  2. Michael says:

    Great review! I read The Fire This Time last year, an anthology of Black writers I loved, but it was focused primarily on the experiences of African Americans — the Canada-centric approach of this interests me, and I’ll have to track down a copy sometime.

  3. Karissa says:

    This sounds fascinating. I feel like these are voices and experiences we don’t hear much about in Canada. I’ll definitely look for this one.

    • Naomi says:

      I was at a book store in the city the other night and almost bought The Fire Next Time when I saw it on the “sale” table. But “sale” doesn’t always mean “good sale”. Ha! And I know our library has it. 🙂

  4. DoingDewey says:

    Ooh, the quiz-style essay sounds particularly awesome. I love when authors play with form like that and the page you shared seems like a great look at an important topic.

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