Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine


Writing Change

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I first felt invited into the African-American narrative through Tony Morrison’s Beloved, a novel that continues to be on my Desert Island list. The chance to feel the lives of her characters, and to see how they coped with a history of brutal disenfranchisement, deepened the impact of the musicians I admired who shared that history—Miles Davis, Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Betty Carter, Thelonious Monk…

Morrison’s work has been widely celebrated for its eloquence and power. Receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, she observed: “Narrative has never been merely entertainment for me. It is, I believe, one of the principal ways in which we absorb knowledge.” That’s a big and potentially unsettling idea. If the stories we read (or watch or hear) shape what we know, we might want to be more alert to what we are taking in. We might also want to consider what we aren’t taking in, either because we’re not bothering, or because the stories are suppressed or drowned out.

Stories pull you into the feel of a situation, and that’s what Morrison is pointing to when she talks about “absorbing knowledge.” Writers like Morrison share harrowing experiences without completely devastating a reader—after all, you can set a book down if you choose. In the hands of a gifted teller, stories plant small explosions that crack open protective habits and opinions. They can literally change your mind.

In Canada, we tend to see the American history of slavery as painful but distant. Our writers say otherwise. Long-established black communities in Nova Scotia have been brilliantly portrayed by George Elliott Clarke in several novels, poetry collections, and even an opera, and more recently Lawrence Hill visited their earliest incarnations in his Commonwealth Prize-winning novel, The Book of Negroes. Christopher Paul Curtis’ wonderful Elijah of Buxton and Karolyn Smardz Frost’s I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land explore the black settlements in southern Ontario, final destinations of runaway slaves coming to Canada via the Underground Railroad.

The Canada in these narratives isn’t necessarily hospitable, and the tensions are prevalent in contemporary depictions as well. Writers like Dionne Brand and Austin Clarke, both Caribbean-Canadian, expose unexamined racial prejudice in our present-day city streets and public policy. Haitian-born Dany Laferrière shows the knife-edge between fascination and exploitation in racially-marked relationships. And these are just voices from the African diaspora. Add in the surge of First Nations writers, and the stories from burgeoning immigrant, rural, and gay communities—there are narratives enough to change our minds, if we will allow them.

Canada perpetuates an image of itself as a tolerant country, comfortable with its multicultural character. But stories in the news and in our coffee shops show that we are staggering under some cumbersome baggage. It’s time to imagine new ways forward—our artists have maps.

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