Literature: History


Aspects of African Canadian Literature
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African Canadian Writers from Genesis to Revelation:
The history of African Canadian literature

African Canadian literature "began in crisis, matured in crisis, and exists in crisis," according to George Elliott Clarke, a Nova Scotian-born African Canadian writer. As early as the mid-1700's, African American exiles and refugees wrote some of the first African Canadian literature, speaking out against slavery and other injustices of the time . Diverse cultural and geographical backgrounds shaped and continue to influence African Canadian writing, a writing whose expression is steeped in resistance and change.

Today, many African Canadian writers are, again, immigrants, particularly from the Caribbean and Africa. In their work, they draw on the "complexity of a history based in slavery, colonization, cultural genocide, famine and civil war, and tyranny." They draw as well on influences ranging from Western classics to Caribbean, African-American and African literature. Toronto writers of Caribbean descent, such as Dionne Brand, Marlene Nourbese Philip, Austin Clarke and Cecil Foster, contribute perspectives that are slowly but surely becoming a part of Canadian literature. Indigenous African Canadian writers from Alberta, southern Ontario, and the East Coast have also acquired visibility: their work often concerns community histories, memoirs, and autobiographies. This new literature informs both immigrant and native-born communities of each other's experience.

Until recently, self-publication was frequently the only venue open to African Canadian writers; yet since the 1970's, small presses--and two black presses in particular--have provided outlets for African Canadian writers. Poetry predominates, but fiction, particularly short fiction, has emerged in the past ten years. Although translations from one official language into the other are rare, African Canadian literature borrows from a variety of cultural (and "national") traditions, accents, and languages. It gestures both toward the past and the future of discourse on Canadian identitites.

Ottawa based writer Cyril Dabydeen, describes that the work of African Canadian writers of Caribbean descent comprise "a re-definition of the conventional understanding of nationhood: from one termed solely in terms of physical place to that which I have elsewhere referred to as based on a concept associated with the landscape of the mind, wherein place and psyche become intertwined in nation-building terms through the creative outpouring and meshing of the spirit."

African Canadian literature often bridges the "here" (Canada) and "there" (where one comes from). It is this marriage of diversities that gives the literature of African Canadians its energy and uniqueness.

This history is complied from:

Ayanna Black, "Introduction," Fiery Spirits: Canadian Writers of African Descent
George Elliott Clarke, "A Primer of African-Canadian Literature," Books in Canada 25.2: 7-9.
Cyril Dabydeen, "Introduction," Shapely Fire: Changing the Literary Landscape
Lorris Elliott, Literary Writing by Blacks in Canada: A Preliminary Survey. Department of the Secretary of State, January 1988, Catalogue #Ci96-36/2-1988E.

For a general introduction to African Canadian history:
Ken Alexander and Avis Glaze, Towards Freedom: The African-Canadian Experience. Toronto: Umbrella Press, 1996