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Donna Bailey Nurse. What's a Black Critic to Do?: Interviews, Profiles and Reviews of Black Writers.

Donna Bailey Nurse. What's a Black Critic to Do?: Interviews, Profiles and Reviews of Black Writers. Toronto: Insomniac P, 2003. 208 pp. $16.95.

The answers Donna Bailey Nurse offers to the ambitious title question of her collection What's a Black Critic to Do? exemplify practice rather than in-depth analysis. Part of this result comes from the collection's journalistic definition of "critic." Nurse brings together 21 profiles, seven interviews, and 23 reviews that she has written over the past decade or so, many of which feature writers of color who have some tie to Canada. Moreover, many of the texts were originally published in such newspapers as the Montreal Gazette and the Globe and Mail, and all are short, direct, and written for a wide, general audience.

The interviews with writers ranging from Cecil Foster to Toni Morrison and from David Odhiambo to Nalo Hopkinson are the collection's clear strength. Nurse's smart questions allow her subjects room for reflection--as when she nudges Morrison to talk about her complex representations of black men or when she encourages a somewhat-hesitant Lawrence Hill to consider how his rich heritage ("both black and white, both Canadian and American") shapes his "way of perceiving the world" (127). At both of these moments, as with similar moments in each of the other interviews, we see some of the struggles Nurse's subjects go through not merely in making art, but in talking about art in a language that, as Nurse herself says, "does not, as yet, fully embrace me" (13).

But more than a series of questions and answers, Nurse's interviews are, in the truest sense, conversations. You can almost hear the pause, for example, when, after Morrison tells her that "When I was young we used to run from white boys," Nurse answers, "I had to run from white boys too" (105). And, in probably the best interview with Hopkinson in print, you can feel the shift when, after Hopkinson reflects on seeing Whoopi Goldberg in Jumpin' Jack Flash--"a freaky black woman large as life and twice as African who is also a computer geek, has dreads, gets the guy and doesn't die"--Nurse quickly notes that "People are really resistant to accepting the full humanity of black women." Nurse's affirmation leads Hopkinson to a detailed and intimate reflection on how she felt that "there was no room for me in the world" (140).

The profiles are less satisfying. They perform their function of introducing their subjects acceptably, but, in part because of their brevity, are often limited. Especially for readers in the United States, the function of introduction is quite valuable, as many of the figures considered--author Austin Clarke, filmmaker Clement Virgo, and 1940's contralto Portia White, for example--though they have international reputations, have received much less notice in the United States. The best of the profiles (on Jamaica Kincaid and Edwidge Danticat, to name two) amply weave the subject's words with thick biographical and cultural contexts and crisp description. But many only hint at significant questions. While the profile of filmmaker Ken Burns--a curious addition to the "Black Writers" promised in the book's subtitle--raises some interesting questions about Burns's fascination with race, we hear nothing of the complex debates among historians about his sense of audience and approach to presenting history. Similarly, two pages for a piece on Hilton Als simply don't allow Nurse enough space to explore how or why Als doesn't "really believe in the construction" of "the 'we' of blackness" (91).

I must confess that, in reading the reviews in the collection, I found myself wishing my Sunday paper carried Nurse's work. While the focus is clearly on Canadian literature, she stretches and questions just what that might mean, and reviews texts by Blacks from the US and the Caribbean. The results are thoughtful, sometimes witty, and always direct. But the place of the reviews in the collection isn't clear. In some ways, publishing them in book form highlights the fact that they suffer from the limitations of genre: They are quick and provocative, but often too fleet and too thin, undetailed. More than any of the other work in the collection, the reviews also suffer from a sense of being dated. Arguably by convention, reviews are more ephemeral and more tied to an individual work's publication than perhaps any other genre of response--and even Nurse admits in her brief preface that, after rereading them, "a few individual reviews do not reflect my overall sense of an author" (14).

The collection devotes only three short pieces (a preface, an introduction, and a "coda") to Nurse's reflections on her work--though two of these were written before the collection was assembled. Because of the conversational nature of the interviews, they also reflect Nurse's critical practice--as when, in a group interview with Andre Alexis, Nalo Hopkinson, and Djanet Sears, she notes that, "As a black critic I want people to see that blackness is everything" (149). There is also a wonderful moment when the Morrison interview is interrupted by a phone call from "a friend who wants to talk about Michiko Kakutani's harsh review of Paradise in the New York Times"--leading both Morrison and Nurse to reflect on critical spaces (105). Still, these brief comments tantalize, but don't fully deliver. The collection does not consistently fulfill the promise of its promotional materials (which mark it as a "groundbreaking collection") nor live up to its ambitious and sweeping title.

Nonetheless, in a broader sense, this book is certainly valuable. It reminds us to think about the "Black" in the title question as embodying multiple groups--Black Canadians, Black Caribbeans, Blacks in the United States, and so on--and especially individuals within those groups. It challenges us to consider the relationships between artists and critics and the ways in which race, gender, and place figure into these relationships; in this way, the collection's consistent emphasis on reaching a general audience reminds us that "critic" signifies differently than "scholar." It touches on the ways in which Black, white, and other identities may meet in critical and artistic spaces--as when, for example, one of Nurse's editors asks her to write a column "on black books from a black perspective" and then "tersely" adds that he "did not hire [her] to be a black critic" (13). And it shows one Black critic at work--hard, thoughtful work that, given that this book is Nurse's first, shows promise.

Eric Gardner

Saginaw Valley State University
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Author:Gardner, Eric
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2004
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