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Eyeing The North Star: Directions in African-Canadian literature.

Eyeing The North Star: Directions in African-Canadian literature. (McClelland & Stewart Inc), is about Diaspora and identity and leaves a hazy view of Black Canadian literature. George Elliott Clarke., an African-Canadian assistant Professor of English and Canadian Studies at Duke University, perceives African-Canadian literature as a network of multicultural language patterns, forms and images. "African-Canadian literature is a patch work quilt of voices. Its creators are, like their forebears, exiles, refugees, fugitives, pilgrims, migrants, and natives." I agree. Eyeing The North Star: Directions In Black Canadian Literature is Dr. Clarke's latest offering from some of the best works available in African-Canadian writing. The anthology comprises excerpts from published books by such writers as Austin Clarke, Gerard h e m e, Claire Hams, Frederick Ward, Olive Senior, Pamela Mordecai, Althea Prince, M. Nourbese Philip, H. Nigel Thomas, Archibald J. Crail, Dionne Brand, Dany Lafemiere, Cecil Foster, Makeda Silvera, Paul Tiyambe, Zeleza, Andr6 Alexis, Diana Braithwaite, Lawrence Hill, David N. Odhiambo, George Elliott Clarke and Suzette Mayr--some of the best known names in black Canadian literature, those first mentioned in literary circles and in discussions on Black Canadian literature from St. John's to Victoria. Some of these writers have been anthologized in mainstream Canadian literature. The collection follows in the tradition of Black Canadian anthologies of fiction, plays and poetry that combine native and naturalized Canadian writers in order to create a racial consciousness that symbolizes the eclectic nature of African-Canadian thought. "African Canadian literature," Clarke states in his introduction, which 1 found very interesting, "was fated to manifest such multiculturalism, for it evolved from the historic traffic in cod, sugar, fur, lumber, rum and slaves among West Africa, Western Europe, the Americas and the Caribbean." From this multicultural mix, he sees a literature emerging, hopefully from a state of primitivism guided by the symbolic presence of the North Star. Clarke restricts his selections to contemporary African- Canadian Writers and follows a chronological order based on the writers' birth dates. One moves from the seasoned writer Austin Clarke, a naturalized Canadian writer, to the beginning native writer, Suzette Mayr.

Eyeing the North Star is qualitative in the selections it contains and the pieces for the most part appear to have in common a spiritual yearning, and desire to define origins. Like earlier Black Canadian anthologists (and most new world Black writers) Clarke refers to an African past and offers his perspective on what constitutes a Black Canadian aesthetic. An earlier anthologist, South African-born Canadian Harold Head, emphasized the symbolic value of Africa to Black Canadian writers in his introduction to Canada In Us Now (1976, NC Press). There he states that the poems contained in the anthology embody "... a return, in spirit, to origins, to Africa where the work of the artist is even today at one with the community and where [the artist's] work is validated and legitimized by this community itself." (p.8). By placing the emphasis on African Canadian creative writing as "... the collective consciousness of people in the act of liberating themselves (and us) from a legacy which denied their humanity ..."(p.7), Head sought to unify this body of diverse work in terms of what he deemed to be its function. Another anthologist, Lorris Elliott, in Other Voices (1985, William Wallace) also evokes the "Mother Africa" connection; but his approach is quantitative since it offers no real perspective except to expand the boundaries of black consciousness in Canada. For him, "... the term "Black writer" includes not only the descendants of Africa, but Afro- Asians and others of the Diaspora." (p.4). Yet another anthologist Ayanna Black claims unequivocally that African-Canadian writers are" ... steeped in African literary tradition, [that] African-Canadians incorporate diverse cultural, ideological and geographic references in[their] works and further represent various literary influences ranging from western classics to the literature of developing countries" (Fiery Spirits (1994 (p. xvi). This is a problematic claim, because New World cultures and African literary traditions are Eurocentric to the core and in general Black Canadians are more westernized than Africanized. To their various assertions Clarke adds that Canada is "... an assembly point for all African peoples, both Old World (Africa) and New (North and South America)" (p.xii) through the history of slavery and migration. This I am in agreement with except that the history should emphasize twentieth century values.

Eyeing the North Star is an appropriate title. Not only does it evoke the historical fact that Canada was seen as a land of freedom for US slaves for the thirty years preceding the US Civil War but it also hints at many of the reasons that people of African descent elsewhere in the world have immigrated here. Of course, as many of the selections here attest, they were sadly deluded. The book does three things. First it ties Black Canadian literature to Black Canadian history and posits the North Star as an icon of freedom in native Black Canadian thought. Secondly, it expresses the movement of African-Canadian literature from the period of awareness to one of construction and third, it declares a universal presence of Black Canadian literature--the North Star as a point of reference to Black Canadian presence in world literature. This is not unique to native African-Canadian culture. The star as a symbol is used b x other cultures to denote presence. What can be considered original is the relation of the North Star to early black Canadian history and contemporary Black Canadian literature. One of the underlying profundity of Clarke's discourse is that African-Canadian literature is grounded in black Diasporic traditions which include African-American, Caribbean, Afro-British and African, because these are the major influences underlying contemporary African-Canadian thought. This can be seen in all anthologies of black Canadian literature. Most of the earliest Black Canadians were slaves and displaced free Blacks (refugees) imbued with the notion that the freedom absent for Blacks in the U.S.A. might be found in Canada. The North Star--for escaping slaves certainly--was their hope of a new life in Canada. For contemporary native Black writers it can be seen as a beacon of self-realization. Somewhat controversial is Clarke's argument that African- Canadian literature is spiritual and linked to its African-American counterpart because of a common early history. This may be true for the very early writers of Nova Scotia whom he anthologizes elsewhere, but as regards contemporary African-Canadian writers, as the origins of the writers he anthologizes here attests, their roots are multiple and a bonding element is the struggle for existence in which we are all caught There is also a pretension that comes to bear on Clarke's critical commentary. His treatment of time and the historical evolution and influence of black Canadian thought, is questionable. He also speaks about the reality of a black Canadian literature while at the same time expressing the absence of it: "The variegated composition of the African-Canadian community frustrates trans-ethnic, trans-linguistic communication. (Hence. no truly "national school" of African-Canadian literature has been created, nor will we ever see one.)" Contemporary African-Canadian literature is about the awakening of the black Canadian mind from the cocoons of provincial and regionalism. This can be seen from the various writing published by Blacks in Canada during the last fifty years. For example, in the sixties and seventies the naturalized Canadian writers' main focus was on mythologizing their place of origins as well as coming to terms with their urban reality. Dr. Clarke's own writing before Eyeing the North Star, especially Salt Water Blues and Deeper Spirituals, expresses the distinctiveness of the Africadian as a self-contained cultural entity. Moreover, in his two-volume anthology Fire on the Water, the Maritime writer is situated in a place called Africadia. In Clarke's words, "Africadian (a coinage from "African" and "Arcadian) literature has existed since the founding of the community. However, it was ignored until the 1970s and 1980s, when Africadians began to write and publish in numbers hitherto unknown, thereby fostering greater awareness of themselves as a literary family" (p. 1 I). Clarke's view that we would not see an African-Canadian school of writing is perhaps premature. To simply say "African-Canadian literature" implies a school of thought that represents the spirituality of black people in Canada as opposed to African-American, Afro-West Indian, Black British or African. Clarke himself implies that Evening The North Star is a body of work which reflects this school of thought. His treatment of time creates an overcast that dims the luminosity of the North Star, therefore leaving a foggy sense of direction. His bunching of works expresses the idea that early writers had the same problem with identity as writers today: "... however, writers have preferred to eschew party programs to discuss, simply, their personal interests. See Paul Tyambe Zeleza' Kafkaesque story, "The Rocking Chair" (1994). which defies description and Aithea Rince's story, "Ladies of the Night" (I=), which treats incest and prostitution, sans moralistic assertion (p. xvi). Early and later black Canadian writings are also seen as different perspectives from the same time frame rather than perspectives that have evolved from different time frames within the "collective consciousness" or macro reality of Black Canadian thought expressed by Harold Head in his introduction of Canada in Us Now, which shows the evolution of black Canadian thought from immigrant to citizen, but lacking a cohesive identity. Therefore for Clarke to view the term "collective consciousness" as merely an "... attractive recherche messianism of phrases," is somewhat farfetched. He also overlooked the fact that though there was writing existing from colonial times, it was only in the last two decades or so that black writers began to write with a national perspective, to really focus on developing an African- Canadian literature. The terms "Black Canadian" and African-Canadian" are new terminologies that are also reflections of this. Clarke's reference to "Black Canadian history being ignored" leads one to believe that blacks had written their own history. The fact that since Robin Winks' sociological study of Blacks in Canada (1971), African-Canadians haven't been able to produce a composite Canadian history. There are essays, but most of what has been published are either from a provincial or regionalistic perspective and regurgitates the history of slavery or the racial story between blacks and whites. There is no history centered on the evolution of black spirituality, one that puts into perspective the African or Black Canadian centredness that each writer sees at the heart of the black Canadian story: That is, what was happening in different parts of the country at the same time, Black people and events, and these influenced on the evolution of black creativity in Canada. It is the same reason why there are no Amiri Baraka in black Canadian Literature. because there was no black collective consciousness before the nineteen seventies and this is also the reason why African-Canadian poets, painters, playwrights and fiction writers in Canada today don the hats of literary historians, so that there would be many Amiri Barakas tomorrow. Clarke's assumption that the native African-Canadian writers emphasize "Canada-centered. documentary, spiritual, and historical writing"(p. xxii) is also a misnomer, depending on the time frame or periods he speaks about, if it it relative to early or contemporary writing, it can be argued that the native black Canadian writer, like the immigrant writer, recently came home to the fact that he/she is a Canadian no holes barred. I would say it is the future African-Canadian writers who would express the true nature of Canada-centered spiritual values, Professor Clarke speaks about, in defining the native African-Canadian soul. Eyeing the North Star: Directions in Black Canadian Literature is another good sampling of African-Canadian literature. It is a valuable text for educators, students and the avid reader of black literature. The collection, overall, is a welcome addition to the few volumes on the subject of Black or African Canadian literature. Professor Clarke in his introduction to this work has raised many issues which I am sure others will develop into essays which will either challenge or support them. I predict that this work will stimulate a lively discussion on what is African-Canadian literature.
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Author:Joyette, Anthony
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2009
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