Celebrating Black History Month Literary Style

In honour of Black History Month, I have compiled a shortlist of essential writers. Each explores the African American or African Canadian experience in their own way. Some are political. Some are poetic. All are stylistically innovative. And all will make you think. 

Canadian: George Elliot Clarke’s Whylah Falls  

George Elliot Clarke was the Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate from 2016-2017. Born in Windsor, Nova Scotia, Clarke’s work often refers back to the east coast black community, or what he calls “Africadia”. Whylah Falls is a novel in verse. Set in rural Nova Scotia in the 1930’s, it speaks of love, desire, loss of self, and the spirituality of unrequited feeling. It is composed in fragments: monologues, sonnets, sermons, recipes, and haikus. It was given the Archibald Lampman Award for poetry.

Up and Coming (and Canadian): Aisha Sasha John’s I Have to Live  

Aisha Sasha John is a Montreal born writer, poet, and performance artist. Her latest work, I Have to Live, came out in 2017. “I would only make declarative sentences,” says John. “No questions. No speculation. Just things that I could assert.”. Through poetry, John figures herself out, asserts herself within a white, masculine society. “I’m told that I’m not the authority, that I have to seek other authorities in order to know how to live. And that is not what I believe”, says John. Declaring what she is and what she is not, those things that surround her and those that could, John becomes her own authority. Don’t let the simplicity fool you, John’s poems are both philosophical and unusual.

 

Memoirist: Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Part One of Angelou’s seven-part autobiography, follows a young Maya as she struggles with racism and abuse in small town Arkansas. Childhood experiences conspire to bring her down, to make her feel small and bare. But this is a story of growth and voice. Through literature, Maya emerges. She finds herself in drama and dance, modes that allow her to find a way to speak, to love and respect her voice.

Maya Angelou often credits Shakespeare to be her greatest influence. “Shakespeare must be a black girl,” said Angelou in the context of debates over the bard’s true identity.  She was kidding, of course, but saying something big. If this white male author could make poems that resonated so deeply with a black girl from the American south, then we must have faith in the the power of art to unite.

 

Critic: Hilton Als’s White Girls

Hilton Als is a staff writer and theatre critic for the New Yorker. In 2017, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism for his “provocative contributions to the discourse on theatre, race, class, sexuality, and identity in America” (New Yorker). His most recent novel White Girls, hailed by Junot Díaz as “the read of the year,” combines literary criticism with insights on race and gender and seamlessly fuses the personal with the political.

  

Modern Classic: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

As one of the great American novels of the 20th century, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man should make it onto any good lifetime reading list. It is a story of existential discovery and self-creation, using language to overcome the limits set on identity by the colour of one’s skin. Ellison writes in jazz-toned speak, with dream interludes, improvised speeches, sudden and off-beat scenes. It is a form speech characterized by the productive interplay of voices and histories. It is a riff on tradition. With jazz, the invisible man finds himself; he achieves “a resourcefulness of craft commensurate with the complexity of [his] actual situation” (Ellison, Shadow and Act). He is a “technical master” within a “tradition [that] insist[s] that each artist achieve creativity” (Ellison, Shadow and Act).

Feminism 101: Strong Female Voices in Fiction

The Time’s Up Movement has got us all thinking. Farewell to silence! we say. Goodbye to tolerance! In celebration, I have here devised a list of books. All of these pass the Bechdel test with flying colours. They feature female writers of excellence that will leave you laughing to yourself, or abandon you with teary eyes, grasping a tissue with one hand and embracing the phone with the other — time to dial your mother. These are books that everyone ought to read at some point. They have much to teach us about our place in the world as men and woman— the two sides of humanity that must share it. Looking forward to an egalitarian future for the entertainment industry and beyond, I look to these books in recognition of the dynamic female voices that have already passed across the stage.

Speedboat by Renata Adler

Recently returned to print, Renata Adler’s Speedboat is at the top of my to-read list. In a fragmentary and aphoristic style, Adler charts the life of journalist Jen Fein as she navigates the male-dominated publishing industry of the mid nineteen-seventies. Fein is witty and unabashed. She is at once an observer, a critic, and a member of the scene, and through her, Adler offers up a highly intelligent voice and a wry take on professional life. Sifting through realities of solitude and connection in the big city, she deftly captures and pokes fun at urban America.

 

Orlando by Virginia Woolf 

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is a satiric masterpiece and a favourite among feminist scholars. The premise: at the age of thirty, Orlando, once a British nobleman, wakes to find that he has transitioned into a woman overnight. From this moment on, Woolf takes a comic trip through time, documenting the next three hundred years of Orlando’s life and exploring the role of women in 18th and 19th century society. Woolf anticipates modern queer and feminist theorists like Judith Butler and Eve Sedgewick as she discovers gender to be one grand performance. “In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place, and often it is only the clothes that keep the male and female likeness.”

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Marjane Satrapi writes an autobiography in the form of a graphic novel. Part One: The Story of a Childhood recalls her youth in Iran during the Islamic Revolution, and Part Two: The Story of a Return follows her experiences as a high schooler in Vienna, and eventual homecoming. Throughout her life, Satrapi strains to stay true to various modalities of self, to remain both Iranian and female, despite the oppressive nature of Iranian politics. In the beginning Satrapi associates with male heroes and family members, but as the story goes on she finds inspiration in female historical figures like Simone de Beauvoir and Artemisia Gentileschi. Looking both inward and outward, and taking into account a host of unconventional life-experiences, Satrapi grows to find a unique sense of personal freedom.

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore

While pioneering shows like Sex and the City and more recent productions like Girls and Broad City have opened up space on screen for the portrayal of female friendships, these relationships have gone largely unacknowledged in literature. Lorrie Moore enters gracefully into unchartered territory with her novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? While travelling through France with her husband, protagonist Berie Carr recalls an intense adolescent friendship with Silsby Chaussee. She meditates on the difficulties and obscurities of marriage and yearns for the close connection she felt with Sils that summer of 1972.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison writes: “Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.” In her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Beloved, Morrison follows ex-slave Sethe and her daughter Denver after their escape from the Sweet Home plantation. With characteristic lyricism, Morrison explores the aftereffects of slavery — a lingering trauma, a haunted past. In the Forward she writes: “The heroine would represent the unapologetic acceptance of shame and terror…[and] claim her own freedom.” Sethe is matriarch: strong, maternal, one of the most memorable characters in contemporary American literature and the subject of one of the most important social commentaries to resonate through fiction.

Tom Malmquist’s Experiment in Autofiction

Tom Malmquist’s In Every Moment We Are Still Alive is an autobiographical novel, at once a meditation on grief and a confrontation with the pains and joys of fatherhood.

Tom’s story begins in the hospital. His partner, Karin, is many months into her pregnancy when she is rushed into the emergency room and quickly diagnosed with leukemia. Surrounded by surgeons and nurses, anesthetists, and in-laws, Karin is X-Rayed, hooked up to an oxygenator and eventually operated on. Tom strains to keep track of the fragments of information passed along by tight lipped doctors, determined to appear optimistic. Although they are able to deliver the baby, Karin doesn’t make it.

While this novel is presented in the form of a memoir, it is the unmemorable moments that set the tone. Malmquist deals in details. His prose is spare. “I am lying on the off white sofa, I am drinking in small sips…there’s a slight draught running through the flat, [Karin] is making notes in a book she hides behind the pillow”. Whether speaking of the past or the present, Malmquist’s narrative is filled with with motions and small visual cues — all things noted, remembered, or, at the very least, fictionally recreated.

Writing solely in the present tense, Malmquist discloses a world unaffected by time and resistant to forgetting. Past and present intermix, memories of Karin fall amidst descriptions of his daughter’s homecoming, and episodes from Tom’s boyhood appear within the narrative of his father’s funeral.

In episodes prior to Karin’s illness, Malmquist separates dialogue by line, but once they reach the hospital, it is nestled within paragraphs — no quotations, no line breaks. Conversations read as though they were a part of Tom’s stream of consciousness. Family advice, doctor’s orders, and friend’s condolences pass through Tom and into Tom. They reflect an emotional reality, an embodied experience of panic and grief as a kind of turning inward.

As Malmquist plays with chronology and style, as he fills his narrative with detail and dialogue, he turns pure memoir, total fidelity to the “truth”, into, what the Guardian calls, a “manifestation of our craze for autofiction”. Autofiction is a hybrid form, a combination of autobiography and fiction, where the author has free reign to alter details and characters, to add dialogue and action, or more simply put, to fictionalize life.

In Malmquist’s case, the fictionality of the work is appropriate to the content, such that he writes of an event so absurd, so far beyond what one perceives to be possible or justifiable. Overstepping the limits of expectation, there is not much difference between reality and fantasy. When Tom attempts to understand his grief, when he tries to “attach words to it, define it, control it” he breaks down into a such a sadness that requires him to assure himself with “it’s only make believe”. As he experiences emotions more cutting than ever before, Tom exits a familiar world and enters a reality he never thought possible. What must be said exceeds what can currently be said.

Disarticulated by grief, Tom engages in a process of rewriting. Recovery is a creative measure, bringing together the old world with the new and allowing them to cohere. In this way, the writing of the novel is a way of coming to terms with tragedy — fictional techniques offer ways of expressing the inexpressible and reconciling the past with the present.

At the very core of it all, there is his daughter, Livia. “Papa she calls out” and there is no longer “time for brooding or even feeling”. Grief is fixed in a context of love and renewal. Despite how far apart these two things may seem, Tom finds that he can do both at once, and each to its fullest.

Image taken from The Guardian.

Talking Love and Longing with Marian Keyes

Marian Keyes’s “The Break”. Image sourced from Marian Keyes’s page. 

Marian Keyes is a bestselling Irish novelist — the prolific author of sixteen books of fiction, well regarded for titles like Getting Married, Rachel’s Holiday, and Last Chance Saloon. In her latest novel, The Break, Keyes continues to build on past themes, exploring relationships from female perspectives, and tackling difficult topics with a characteristic sense of humour and wit.

Amy’s husband Hugh has decided he needs some time off from their marriage — no, it’s not a divorce, but a break. Hugh will travel Southeast Asia while Amy remains at home with the kids, working her PR job and sorting through understandably muddled emotions. Amy has her own desires, feelings that tempt her to stray from her commitment to Hugh. Keyes works through a series of questions. Is Hugh a bad guy? Is Amy guilty of emotional unfaithfulness? Is their relationship built to last? She’s not quick to jump to conclusions. Instead her characters learn to accept messiness and to simply find comfort in companionship.

“I used to think the line dividing sane people from insane people was entirely black or white – sane or insane – with no grey area.,” thinks Amy, “but suddenly I see now that the grey area is enormous. It spreads far and wide and into every part of life.”

Last month, I had the opportunity to ask Marian some questions about the book. Take a look at our conversation for insights into characters and thoughts on what makes or breaks a satisfying relationship.

Rachel Gerry: Your style of writing is truly funny; Amy is full of one-liners and witty observations. What is the value of presenting serious content in a lighthearted manner?

Marian Keyes: Hello and thank you! I always write about issues that impact the lives of women and they’re often serious things. Using humour is a trick to keep the reader reading despite the subject matter being uncomfortable or challenging. I think it’s probably a way to also keep me writing. However, I’m very careful to never use humour to undermine a serious subject.

R: Social media plays a significant role in this novel. Facebook helps Amy to keep an eye on Hugh when he is away and to monitor peoples’ reactions when he returns. Do you believe that platforms like Facebook have a negative impact on modern day relationships?

MK: I’m not really on Facebook for the very reason that I find it unsettling and sometimes actually upsetting. Seeing other people out ‘Living their best life’ and being on amazing holidays etc. makes me feel like my own existence is pretty pathetic. I guess I see how good it can be in staying in touch with loved ones who live far away but by presenting an idealized picture of other lives, Facebook can erode the value we put on our own less-than-perfect relationships.

R: Amy’s affair with journalist, Josh Rowan, is strictly emotional before it becomes physical. Is there an important difference between these forms of infidelity?

MK: I don’t think I’d be too happy if my husband was emotionally infatuated with another women. But I think I’d be far more distraught if it was physical. Up to a point I think flirtations are okay, I mean we’re all human. But in Amy’s case, it was a bit more than that, long before it got physical.

R: At times, the children seem to have it more together than the parents. “We’ve been chill about this,” reminds Amy’s daughter, Kiara. Where do they derive their strength and maturity?

MK: Kiara was very much inspired by my beloved niece Ema, who is amazing. She’s an old soul even though she’s only 17. Also, I think modern kids have been given an education in emotional intelligence that I never got. They have the language to express how they feel, they have labels to hang their emotions on. Schools are so pro-active in trying to prevent mental health issues that it’s made a difference to how teens view the world. As a caveat though, I should stress that while they can be wise about other people, they still find their own feelings confusing and sometimes overwhelming.

R: Many chapters begin with the announcement of the weekday, often a Monday. What does this say about Amy’s routine? Her feelings towards it?

MK: It’s predictable, it’s tough and there aren’t that many opportunities for fun. Like, so many people, poor Amy has a lot on her plate.

R: “I feel like I need to hurt you,” says Amy when Hugh returns. Is it important to feel even in a relationship?

MK: I’m sorry I’m not sure I understand the question. But I totally understand Amy wanting to hurt Hugh because he’s hurt her so much. I think it’s a natural response.

R: Amy realizes that no relationship is black and white. “Life is all about the grey”. When you began to write this book, were you aware of its ending? Or were you unsure of how to navigate through “the grey”?

MK: I had NO idea how it was going to end. It was only through the writing of this novel that I realised just how much of life is ‘grey’. Every relationship is nuanced and now I feel that no-one has any right to comment on another person’s relationship: the people who are living it are the only ones who truly understand its unique complexity. So yes, I was very uncertain about navigating the nuances. All I knew was that there were no goodies and no baddies, just flawed humans trying to do their best.

R: What do you believe is most important quality in a long-term relationship?

MK: Tricky one. I was going to say Kindness because it’s what I look for in everyone. But I guess for a longterm relationship to survive, it means the 2 people have to learn to forgive each other for their fallibility. Holding each other to impossibly high standards is going to fail. From time to time, even when we love someone, we’re all going to make mistakes, get things wrong, be thoughtless, selfish, foolish. To recognise that your partner is just a flawed human being, just like you, instead of a perfect saviour, can be disappointing but it also provides a realistic view of things from which to work.

R: (With reference to the above.) Do you think that your characters ever find it?

MK: Absolutely!

Thank you very much, these were great questions

Marian Keyes’s “The Break” was published earlier this year by Penguin and is now available online and in store. Find out more about the author here.

Books on This Year’s Holiday Wish List

There are no shortage of good books out there. If you are wondering what to gift your book-loving kin but don’t know where to begin, here are some titles at the top of my to-read list this holiday season.

Canadian: The Selected Short Fiction of Lisa Moore by Lisa Moore

Lisa Moore is an all time favourite when it comes to short fiction. She is a distinctly Canadian writer, often alluding to her native Newfoundland or to neighbourhoods in downtown Toronto. Her writing is inimitable — matter of fact and freely imagistic. She is interested in human relationships and devises rich emotional worlds that linger invisibly over commonplace settings and events. I look forward to reading her very best in this collection.

Award Winning: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I’ve yet to read Kazuo Ishiguro, but Never Let Me Go seems as good a place as any to begin. Set in dystopian England, it follows the lives of human clones, manufactured for the purpose of donating vital organs to prolong the lives of ordinary citizens. It was short listed for the 2005 Booker prize and included in TIME’s 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. Ishiguro was awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature.

Oddball: Notable American Women by Ben Marcus

I sincerely hope that this strange and wonderful-seeming book finds its way onto my shelf. Ben Marcus experiments with language as he tells the tale of the fictional Marcus family. In the beginning, a young Ben recounts his mother’s rituals as she works to make the world perfectly still; she “chooses not to move, refuses to speak” to eliminate the “wind violence” of words. What’s next, I don’t know, but I’m sure that it’s equally bizarre.

Best Seller: Swing Time by Zadie Smith                                                                                                

Swing Time sits comfortably in the window of nearly every other bookshop and in the hands of café dwellers and subway riders alike. Once, I even saw somebody walking down the street with it, unfazed by the likelihood of tripping or bumping into a stranger or wandering into a burning building. This must be a good book.  It’s a bildungsroman, following two girls who meet in a community dance class. While the friendship between them ends in their early twenties, it is never forgotten. According to the back cover, it’s “a story about friendship and music and stubborn roots, about how we are shaped by these things and how we can survive them.”

Non Fiction: Essays Against Everything by Mark Grief

Mark Greif refers to Essays Against Everything as a critique of the things he does. He looks culture in the face and questions it head to toe; topics range from the overvaluation of exercise, to the hipster, to the concept of Experience. In the preface Greif says, “To wish to be against everything is to want the world to be bigger than all of it, disposed to dissolve rules and compromises in a gallon or a drop”.