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Reviewed by:
  • Why We Write: Conversations with African Canadian Poets and Novelists
  • Catherine Bates
H. Nigel Thomas , editor. Why We Write: Conversations with African Canadian Poets and Novelists. TSAR. xviii, 246. $24.95

This collection of interviews with fifteen key African Canadian poets and novelists is a necessary addition to the few anthologies and book-length analyses of African Canadian writing that have become available in the last couple of decades. In his introduction H. Nigel Thomas notes the value of the book in providing a forum for the discussion of issues important to African Canadian literature, in particular the difficulties of getting published; the complexity of defining African Canadian identity (and indeed the suitability of this term); the expectations of the Black community; and the use of 'nation language.' He continues to emphasize these issues throughout; in this way the book becomes more than a collection of separate interviews. It serves to invoke, as well as help further constitute, a supportive, discursive writing community that has not been paid the attention it should in a Canadian literary scene still effectively controlled by the 'Euro-Canadian literary establishment.' This makes Why We Write indispensable: firstly, for any reader wanting to understand the African-Canadian writing scene; secondly, for any African Canadian writer wanting to know more about his or her own writing heritage; and thirdly (and perhaps most importantly) for students, general readers, academics, publishers, and politicians alike who are investigating how to make Canada live up to its multicultural promises and create a writing environment that will allow writers from all backgrounds to share stories that may be difficult for the Establishment to hear.

Thomas makes the agenda and context for embarking on this book project clear from the start, meaning he does not fall into the trap of posing as an objective and thus disengaged interviewer. He asks questions as a fellow African Canadian writer, requesting his [End Page 417] interviewees to situate their own writing context themselves. Thus, rather than attempting to make generalizations about an overarching 'African Canadian aesthetic,' a task he shows to be impossible, he allows the aesthetic of each writer to be communicated, enabling a provisional aesthetic to build up variously and incrementally as the book progresses. For example, the particular regions of Canada and islands of the Caribbean are shown to be integral to the kind of writing produced, and at the same time the influence of African American writing is acknowledged whilst the particularity of being Canadian is highlighted. The book, therefore, avoids centring any arguments about Black writing in Canada solely upon experiences from central Canada and Toronto.

Moreover, concerned with highlighting the complexity of contexts within which the writers work, as well as the literariness of their works, Thomas asks each one to name influences upon his or her work. Consequently, a particular strength of this collection becomes the reading list the interviewees effectively provide for anyone new to the field wanting to investigate further. As well as American, Canadian, Caribbean, and African writers, musicians, politicians, and artists are mentioned, all contributing to the important story Why We Write tells of the ever-growing and increasing prominence of the Black cultural community in Canada. Indeed, whilst every writer without fail agrees with Thomas's assessment that Black Canadian writing is still under-represented, each also acknowledges the increasing prominence of Black writers in the Canadian prize scene in recent years; with this publication Thomas increases the profile of Black writing further.

Overall there is a sense in which the writers interviewed in this collection know they are contributing to an absolutely necessary project guaranteed to aid future writers and readers, with its discussions of the political and literary contexts, as well as formal and aesthetic aspects, of current Black Canadian writing. Indeed, George Elliott Clarke sums up the vital function it will play when he says, 'Your project reminds me – I have to go back thirty odd years – of Interviews with Black Writers. That work brought together Ishmael Reed, Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin and everybody who was publishing. I read that book . . . when I was starting as a writer. It was very, very important: you could be a Black...


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pp. 417-418
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