In celebration of Black History Month and the many black voices that have shaped Canadian literature now and always, we have put together a list of six must-read black writers! These writers take us from the halls of literary obsession to the neighbourhoods of East Vancouver, to Toronto’s side streets, and back again. Read on for a selection of prose, poetry, and nonfiction works not to be missed. Happy reading!
A by Andre Alexis
André Alexis has described his fictional terrain as “the shifting ground between the imagined life and the life that you live in from day to day.” There’s no better representation of this than the compelling narrative in A, where Alexander Baddeley, a Toronto book reviewer, is obsessed with the work of the elusive and mythical poet Avery Andrews. Following in the footsteps of countless pilgrims throughout literary history, Baddeley tracks Andrews down, thinking that meeting his literary hero will provide some answers to his lifelong questions about creativity, art, and inspiration. “A is a wondrous piece…. that deftly plays with the conventions of satire, polemic, and magic realism,” writes Quill & Quire.
Smells Like Stars by D. Nandi Odhiambo
Journalist Kerstin Ostheim and freelance photographer P.J. Banner have been together six months after meeting on a dating website. As their wedding fast approaches, they question their compatibility while investigating a series of mysterious horse killings taking place in Ogweyo’s Cove, the Pacific tourist haven where they live.
“In D. Nandi Odhiambo’s absorbing and beautiful novel Smells Like Stars resides a sharply humane wisdom, smart and timely, that is couched in a lyricism both edgy and elegant. His dynamic scenes and taut pacing nerve straight to the heart of his characters’ complex loves. Odhiambo is a singular writer,” says Elise Levine, author of Requests and Dedications and Driving Men Mad.
The Unpublished City, Volume I, Edited by Dionne Brand
Curated and edited by the inimitable Dionne Brand, this anthology features the work of 18 Toronto talents: Diana Biacora, David Bradford, Nicole Chin, Simone Dalton, Dalton Derkson, Doyali Islam, Laboni Islam, Ian Kamau, Adnan Khan, Shoilee Khan, Canisia Lubrin, Sofia Mostaghimi, Nadia Ragbar, Rudrapriya Rathore, Sanchari Sur, Katheryn Wabegijig, Phoebe Wang, and Chuqiao Yang.
Nominated for the Toronto Book Awards, the jury had this to say about this important anthology: “The Unpublished City brings together a collection of diverse voices, a true cross-section of Toronto’s burgeoning literary community. These poems and short prose pieces reveal a series of lush vignettes through distinct voices that surprise and delight. The stories conjure Toronto’s city streets, its preoccupations and psychological pulse. From race relations to racial profiling, there are choices, paths, cute friendships, tragedies, cruelties, griefs, loves, losses and sadness. Here are fantasies of power through magic, the complications of sex, death in domesticity, the clash of home, homelands, journeys away, the rural, the urban, generational divides, ghosts and revelations, quirky visceral moments, an itch that will leave goosebumps.”
Don’t miss the companion collection, The Unpublished City, Volume II: Essays, Edited by Phoebe Wang, Canisia Lubrin, & Dionne Brand.
Dear Current Occupant by Chelene Knight
Using a variety of forms including letters, essays and poems, Knight reflects on her childhood through a series of letters addressed to all of the current occupants now living in the twenty different houses she moved in and out of with her mother and brother. From blurry and fragmented non-chronological memories of trying to fit in with her own family as the only mixed East Indian/Black child, to crystal clear recollections of parental drug use, Knight draws a vivid portrait of memory that still longs for a place and a home.
“Dear Current Occupant is an astonishing book: haunting, intimate, and deeply rendered…It is a book that boldly takes risks, unafraid and brimming with raw energy, tenderness, and heartbreaking beauty. Chelene Knight emerges as a fierce new voice in Canadian literature, deserving of our full attention,” writes Ayelet Tsabari, co-editor of Tongues: On Longing and Belonging Through Language.
Blank: Essays and Interviews by M. NourbeSe Philip
Blank is a collection of previously out-of-print essays and new work by one of Canada’s most important contemporary writers and thinkers. In heretical writings that work to make the disappeared perceptible, Blank explores questions of race, the body politic, timeliness, recurrence, ongoingness, art, and the so-called multicultural nation.
“Poet, Essayist, Novelist, Playwright, Public Intellectual: M. NourbeSe Philip is the principal—and most principled—woman-of-letters in English right now,” writes George Elliott Clarke, former Parliamentary Poet Laureate, “Her every word is a must-read because she writes nothing that doesn’t change everything. She isn’t politic; she’s political. Unabashedly. Her ruthless truth-telling is page-turning and paradigm-overturning.”
FORTHCOMING IN FALL 2022:
Vox Humana by Adebe DeRango-Adem
Vox Humana (Latin for “human voice”) is driven by a sense of political urgency to probe the ethics of agency in a world that actively resists the participation of some voices over others. In and through literary experiments with word and sound, utterance and song, Vox Humana considers the different ways a body can assert, recount, proclaim, thus underscoring the urgency of doing so against the de-voicing effects of racism and institutional violence.
“This is poetry that scans like lightning across a slate-blue sky, slashing the page with its power. Through its measurements of Blackness, miscegenation, migration, identity, the body, and the body politic, Vox Humana is the voice you have been waiting to hear. An incendiary cri de coeur for our times,” writes Wayde Compton, author of The Outer Harbour.
Junie by Chelene Knight
In this much anticipated follow up to Dear Current Occupant, Knight explores the complexity within mother-daughter relationships and the dynamic vitality of Vancouver’s former Hogan’s Alley neighbourhood. Junie is a creative, observant child who moves to the alley with her mother, Maddie: a jazz singer with a growing alcohol dependency. Junie quickly makes meaningful relationships with two mentors and a girl her own age, Estelle, whose resilient and entrepreneurial mother is grappling with white scrutiny and the fact that she never really wanted a child.
“The picture Knight paints of Hogan’s Alley is vibrant and complex,” writes Harrison Mooney, author of the forthcoming Invisible Boy: A Memory of Self Discovery, “The place comes back to life in this novel. With Junie as our wise and wide-eyed guide, it’s hard to miss the magic in this lost community, and even harder to accept that it’s gone.”