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Black Writers in Search of Place

A three-way conversation about history, role models, and inventing 'The Black Atlantis.'

Wayde Compton 28 Feb

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[Editor's note: The Tyee invited Vancouver author Wayde Compton to allow readers to listen in on his conversation with other African-Canadian writers. He shares this email exchange with Esi Edugyan and Karina Vernon, both of whom write about the black experience in Alberta.]

Wayde Compton: Each of us three are connected by the fact that our individual projects deal with the recovery of certain aspects of black history in western Canada, namely, historical black settlements that no longer exist, or no longer exist in their previous incarnations.

Esi, in The Second Life of Samuel Tyne you create the fictional town of Aster, Alberta, which is a rendering of the real-life black settlement of Amber Valley.

And Karina, you are presently working on your PhD dissertation which is tracing the writing of black Canadians in the prairie provinces, from the earliest surviving work to the present.

Myself, I've just published a book, Performance Bond,  which includes a long poem about Hogan's Alley, the small Vancouver neighbourhood once known for its black community. In my own work on Hogan's Alley I've repeatedly turned to the question of what is my own relationship to this neighbourhood that I never personally belonged to, so I'll ask that question of you both: What do you see as your relationship to these historical black settlements at the heart of your work?

Esi Edugyan: The discovery of Amber Valley's existence (and other Albertan settlements like it, such as Campsie, Wildwood, Breton) was the novel's main spur. I have no historical ties to Amber Valley. The appeal for me was this: Having grown up in 1970-80s Alberta, in which there seemed to be very few black people, I was fascinated to discover the existence of these black settlements.

Karina Vernon: I think because I grew up in Alberta without hearing anything at all about the history of black settlement on the prairies -- about Amber Valley or Keystone (now called Breton, just west of Edmonton) or Maidstone, in Saskatchewan -- when I found out about these historic black communities they seemed to me like buried, mythical places. The Black Atlantis.

I had lived only hours away from Amber Valley, yet I had never heard or read anything about it. An entire community of black farmers, black-owned businesses, an all-black baseball team in northern Alberta? How does a history like that get so buried? I grew up with no sense at all that Alberta had historically been a black space. After learning about the Oklahoman migrants I began to re-imagine my personal history in terms of the wider history of black folks on the prairies. Instead of thinking that it was my family's personal folly that brought us to far-flung Alberta, I started thinking about how Alberta is part of the black diaspora, and that my family was really part of a second or third wave of black migration there.

Because the black population in Western Canada is pretty diffuse in comparison with the black populations of Ontario and Nova Scotia, the idea of there having been places on the prairies where black people were once tightly knit, living in community, organizing together, educating their kids together -- that's amazing to me.

But whenever I get sentimental about wanting to be a part of that kind of close-knit, concentrated black community I have to remind myself about the reasons why those Amber Valley folks and others like them lived in pockets, isolated from other (white) settlements. When I went out to visit Breton, I was really struck by the lengths those first settlers went to have a little land and a place to themselves. It's really in the middle of nowhere, and must have been even more so then. What's interesting now is to see how other waves of migrants from places like Korea have found Breton.

Maybe I can put another question out there. Both your books, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne and Performance Bond, impressed me as being strikingly self-confident about their use of history. You both complicate the historical record by playing around with and, to some extent, re-writing history. Esi, for example, sometimes depends on the historical records in her rendering of Aster: A lot of the history about the migration from Oklahoma is there, but you also insert a family of Ghanaian immigrants into a historical community that I understood as being American-descended. There is also Aster's evocative, but (I think) mythical stone road. Wayde, you also intervene into the historical record of Vancouver's black community -- especially so in photos of "Lost-Found Landmarks of Black Vancouver."

I think until recently many black authors, at least those in Canada, felt that part of their job was to be historians, so that black Canadian history wouldn't get erased from the public imagination. But you are both more playful with history than that. I'm wondering if you can say a bit about your motivation.

Wayde Compton:   "The Black Atlantis" -- that cracks me up! But it's a pretty good way of describing my own feeling on these communities we're talking about. In western Canada, even the truth about black people often feels mythical. The "Lost-Found Landmarks of Black Vancouver" -- a series of photographs taken by Bob Sherrin and conceptualized by myself, which look like archival photos of storefronts and institutions that never actually existed in and around Hogan's Alley -- was inspired by a few people, including my friend Peter Hudson. Peter and I used to joke about how absurd it was to be "fellow travellers" of Afrocentrism (or whatever you'd call what we were in the early nineties) in a province like B.C., among the least fertile regions for black radicalism in the hemisphere; for me, the absurdity carries further in being so light-skinned. So we would make stuff up, joke about imaginary conspiracy theories and so forth.

In one sense, the "Lost-Found Landmarks" is a satire on Afrocentrism. (The title is an allusion to the "Lost-Found Nation of Islam," for example.) Afrocentrism is often fascistic, so maybe I'm attracted to satire as a method of de-railing those tendencies. You certainly can't assail Afrocentrism with rational argument, because it usually rejects rationalism, in an essentialist or religious way. The characters that developed out of the "Lost-Found Landmarks" -- two cousins from the States -- start as black nationalists, and I began writing their "transcribed interviews" with the intention that they would stay so, but when I placed them in Vancouver, and tried to maintain a verisimilitude to the interviews, I was forced to "British Columbianize" them, which meant that they were bound to find themselves dealing with more non-black than black people. Specifically, they both wind up in interracial relationships and families. That's B.C.

I do wonder a bit if the whole project is politically irresponsible, because there is already so little awareness of actual black histories that adding confusion into the mix might be a problem. However, I state very clearly in the book that these are factitious photos and interviews. But images are more powerful than written words, it seems, because people keep telling me, "I never knew there was a mosque in Strathcona," and I have to tell them, well, that's because there never was; this is fiction. I'm probably rebelling a little against the representative status that lands on any minority writer, the expectation that we are primarily here to teach the country about our sincere and tragic struggles. It's a pre-emptive strike against that sort of automatic anthropological reading that some of us Canadians endure.

Esi Edugyan: What about, as Wayde put it, the "the expectation that we are primarily here to teach the country about our sincere and tragic struggles?" As black intellectuals, do you feel it's incumbent on you to illuminate these lost pockets of black Canadian history? Do you feel a sense of personal duty?

Wayde Compton:  My representation of Hogan's Alley in Performance Bond is fiction, but it doesn't look like fiction. I made up a book title, for example, that the interviews supposedly came from. Maybe this is a little more like the fiction of someone like Daniel Defoe, who made a book that implied that there really was a Robinson Crusoe, author.

Overall, I do feel like I have a responsibility to the black community as a writer. That doesn't necessarily mean anything specific, and I don't think everyone is obligated to uncover historical lacunae, or that black writers are even necessarily obligated to write on "black subjects," whatever those are. I also know that black communities can be repressive forces sometimes, so "responsibility" should sometimes mean opposition. But I do think black self-representation can have a significant social impact on how our lives are lived. For myself, I know that the presence of certain black artists has helped me to articulate experiences in productive ways, troubles that had been previously only nameless dissatisfactions.

I believe that black utterence begets black utterence and, conversely, that black silence begets black silence. So when Esi Edugyan publishes a novel like The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, I believe that she creates a space for others to follow. Not just black readers -- anyone -- but for black readers it very well might be the first time some see their experiences in a work of art. I feel a duty to readers who might have those sorts of responses to my writing because I have had, and still do have, such response to others' work. At a reading I did once in Victoria, a mixed teenage girl came up to me afterwards and said, "I never knew black people could be poets." I can't help but feel a certain sense of duty to that girl, you know? It's no small thing.

Karina Vernon: The project I'm working on right now, researching and constructing a "black prairie" archive, is totally motivated by a sense of personal duty. Although it doesn't appear to be a personal project -- so far I haven't written about my personal experiences of growing up black or mixed-race in Alberta, and, as a dissertation, it has to be written in a formal, academic language -- honestly, the reason I'm writing it is with the hopes that in the future it will be impossible for black kids on the prairies -- no matter what their diasporic connections -- to grow up with that damaging sense of unbelonging. It changes everything if you think about your existence not as unique and freakish but as akin to others' in a long chain of people who have been there before you. I think it would have changed me in fundamental ways to have had my reality confirmed in the way that books can do. Esi, have you read Pourin' Down Rain, Cheryl Foggo's memoir about growing up black in Calgary?

My project is different from both of your current ones in that I don't have the leeway to be inventive with history. But it's exciting to me that both of you are exploring, in different ways, the limits of "authentic" history and the limits of realist narrative for capturing aspects of the black experience in western Canada. The Second Life of Samuel Tyne says something really interesting about the inadequacy of so-called realism to capture the reality of the twins [who are characters in the book]. I wonder if we could say that there is something gothic or uncanny to life itself when you're black and living in western Canada. You get really good at seeing ghosts. Imaginatively inhabiting vanished communities; as writers, welcoming the hauntings of history: these are things we do.

Esi Edugyan: There is definitely a hint of the gothic or the magic realistic in the twins. This is largely because of my literary influences at the time (O'Connor, Marquez), and because I read the actual case studies on which the twins are based with a growing horror. Every element of the twins' behaviour is based in some measure in reality. Have you heard of the famous cases of California's "Poto and Cabengo," or of the Welsh "Silent Twins," all of whom invented a language between them and refused to speak to anyone else? My preoccupation with these influences and case studies fused into the creation of these wholly alien characters.

What's interesting to me is that by dramatizing them at a distinct point in history within a certain geography, one is saying something very different about the racial experience in a given locale than if those same characters were placed into a different society. And that to me is an uncomfortable prospect.

I fully agree with what both of you were saying about role models -- that when a young black person in western Canada harbours aspirations to be a writer, there aren't a lot of precursors, so that s/he can start to feel disuaded. In that sense you may become a role model. But for me I think the role rests more on the act of writing, than on the actual subject matter -- for that reason, I don't necessarily feel that I must write solely about "black subject matter" (whatever that is). The case might be different were I an historian.

But as a fiction writer, it's important for me to be able to explore different histories, different races, different age experiences -- to be able to do that is a huge act of empathy. Who knows -- perhaps seeing a black writer do that -- write convincingly of another people's experience through the lens of their own, says something to the budding writer about the breaking down of racial barriers. It would be disengenous of me to try and speak for a collective. I did read Cheryl Foggo's memoir, and was delighted by it. Have either of you read Crawford Kilian's Go Do Some Great Thing?

Wayde Compton:  I'd never heard of those cases, the twins. I'm reminded of Danzy Senna's Caucasia, a novel in which two mixed sisters develop their own language called Elemeno (named after the middle part of the alphabet: L, M, N, O). I think I see Chloe and Yvette's alien behaviours, in part at least, as allegorical of the generational shifts in culture which can make children of immigrants inexplicable to their parents.

To clarify, I wasn't speaking of the black writer as "role model" -- that term implies some instructive individual morality, or something, which I'm not really worried about. I'm thinking more of the precedence of writing, the presence of writers, and artistic legacies. For example, James Douglas was a rampaging colonizer who used gunboats to blast local First Nations people into compliance on occasion, and Mifflin Gibbs was an arch-capitalist who eventually advocated that B.C. be annexed by the United States, so I don't regard these forebears as people to emulate. Nevertheless, I'm glad to have their writing.

I'm glad Gibbs addressed the black community in his writing and I'm disappointed that Douglas never did. Imagine if Douglas had not passed for white, if he had discussed his black ancestry in some document. I think we would be further advanced today, in terms of our sense of settlement as black Canadians in the west, if he'd just sat down one afternoon and penned 500 words on the subject. It would have made a world of difference.

My work has leaned pretty heavily on Kilian's Go Do Some Great Thing, a landmark text. It's too bad there isn't a book that picks up the black history of B.C. after the 19th century with the same comprehensiveness.

Karina Vernon: It's so interesting how James Douglas and Mifflin Gibbs are being read by us now.  They -- especially Douglas -- could never have imagined such readers as us, in such times as these. I'm wondering, Esi, as you wrote The Second Life of Samuel Tyne who you imagined as your readers? Do you write for a specific community and/or specific people? Also, do you feel like you belong to a certain community of writers? Were there people who mentored you in the writing of this book?

Esi Edugyan: Wayde, I wholly agree with your take on the "role model" issue -- I know that personally it would have been difficult to take my literary aspirations seriously without the presence of other black writers (though in that sense most of my influences were either African or African-American, not so much Canadian). Their very existence certainly made things seem more feasible.

In terms of readership, Karina, the readership I imagined consisted of myself. I really had no specific idea of who would read this novel; I wrote simply for the pleasure of writing, and because I was so fascinated by the discovery of Amber Valley's existence that I felt it was something I needed to work with. As you both know, a first book is an act of faith: One never knows if it will see the light of day. But in retrospect, the book could be said to have been written for a general Canadian audience -- the recovery of that history being so important -- but also with the hope that it would deal with personal concerns in a universal way that could ostensibly appeal to everyone.


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