George Elliot Clarke. Odysseys Home: Mapping African-Canadian Literature.
Is African-Canadian literature one of Canada's newest or is it one of Canada's oldest literatures? George Elliot Clarke would reply that the answer depends on how we define literature. If literature is the body of texts and oral production of a culture, then African-Canadian literature--comprising the texts of Black Loyalists, of the Black arrivals in 1812, of the fugitive slave communities in Southern Ontario and elsewhere, and of the 19th-century arrivals in British Columbia--is among Canada's oldest literatures. If, however, literature is created when the accumulated texts become part of university curricula and the focus of scholars, then African-Canadian literature is Canada's newest literature.
The title of this work: Odysseys Home: Mapping African-Canadian Literature, is an apt, multi-faceted trope that holds together the various forays into literary production contained in this book, For: (1) the book grew out of a request by someone for an essay on African-Canadian and African literature while Clarke was (away from home) at Duke University (his PhD thesis had been a comparative study of Euro-Canadian and African-American poetry); (2) the request set Clarke on a voyage (a scholarly-critical one albeit, for he had already edited two volumes of texts authored by Nova Scotians of African ancestry, a people for whom he has coined the term Africadian) to articulate and evaluate African-Canadian literary production; (3) 'Odysseys' and 'Mapping' imply adapting the tools and concepts already created for the task at hand, which is what Clarke does.
Clarke defines his critical approach as essentialist, and is mindful of the negative views expressed against essentialism, in an epoch when much has been done to replace essentialist categories with more inclusive terms--along with the necessary content--terms such, as multiculturalism, metissage, creolite, and even anthrophagie. To this end, and reflecting a trend in scholarship by many contemporary Afrosporic scholars, Clarke presents his credentials much like an ambassador come to represent his people. But the wide range of strategies that Clarke borrows from various theorists of literature, and his reliance on history as a vital heuristic tool, make me wonder whether his essentialist claim is just, whether, if any label were needed, empirical might not be more accurate.
The foregoing aside, Odysseys Home is an impressive tome that comprises a valuable introduction, to which, in keeping with the book's title, Clarke gives the title: 'Embarkation: Discovering African-Canadian Literature'; twelve essays under a subsection termed ' Sorties'; eleven book reviews under the subsection 'Incursions: Selected Reviews'; and several catalogues of resources in the form of bibliographic essays and bibliographies under the subsection 'Surveys'.
Since Clarke is making the case for a specific literature, it is incumbent on him to sketch out that literature's characteristics. It should be said that prior to the articulation of a hermeneutics for the study of African-Canadian literature, there existed much creative and 'factual' writing by Canadians of African descent and some literary criticism about that writing (Stella Baksh's biographical analysis of Austin Clarke exemplifies the latter); and, as Clarke's 'Surveys' shows, there exist various incomplete bibliographies of works by Blacks living in Canada or originating in Canada; among these are Clarke's own volumes one and two of Fire on the Water. But more than casual commentary is required to merge the various currents of African-Canadian writing, whose authors have in common two facts only: that some of their ancestors came from Africa, and that their existence in Canada is a de facto struggle against racism. The introduction, 'Embarkation: Discovering African-Canadian Literature,' begins to delineate how a more intricate analysis if African-Canadian literature might be undertaken. (It also establishes the links among the essays, book reviews and surveys in the book inasmuch as they were published separately and were not all written for the purpose of inclusion in a single volume. Perhaps it's the deftness with which the link is achieved that prevents this work from appearing like a miscellany, although it clearly is.)
The first two chapters: "Contesting a Model Blackness: A Meditation on African-Canadian African Americanism, or the Structures of African-Canadianite,' and' Must All Blackness be American? Locating Canada in Borden's "Tightrope Time," or Nationalizing Gilroy's The Black Atlantic', argue in a complementary way the case for a polyvocal African-Canadian literature, suggest how this literature might be studied and how it differs from its African-American counterpart, with which critics mistakenly conflate it.
Since language is perhaps the singular trait of a distinct literature, and since Clarke is essaying here to demarcate (and sometimes conjoin) African-Canadian literature from Euro-Canadian and African-American literatures, it is appropriate that he inquire into the linguistic particularities of African-Canadian literature. This he does in the chapter 'The Career of Black English in Nova Scotia: A Literary Sketch.' Perhaps there is some irony in the fact that the writer who best exemplifies the use of Black Nova Scotian English is Frederick Ward, an African American who grew up in Missouri. No doubt, in future studies, as Clarke's 'mapping' becomes more detailed, his inquiry would expand to other Black Englishes, particularly those from the Caribbean. The inclusion, towards the end of the volume, of the very brief 'No Language is Neutral: Seizing English for Ourselves' points to this, 'No Language is Neutral' is an essay in the Black tradition of 'Signifying' (See Henry Louis Gates's The Signifying Monkey). Beyond expressing the functional value of the word, the title riffs on Dionne Brand's collection of poems by that title, which itself riffs on an assertion by Derek Walcott. It is Clarke's indirect way of showing, via allusion, that a rich tradition under girds African-Canadian writing; in a way similar to nineteenth-century Americans
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|Author:||Thomas, H. Nigel|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2005|
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