I have many complaints about the mainstream publishing industry, especially the Canadian publishing industry, which is even more stuffy, exclusive, white and male than it is south of the border. My biggest complaint is that it appears to me that Black novelists only gain mainstream recognition when they write historical fiction, while Black authors who tell more contemporary stories are either ignored or classified as "urban lit" or "street lit." For example, Esi Edugyan's Half-Blood Blues, about a legendary, but forgotten jazz musician in World War II-era Europe, and The Polished Hoe, Austin Clarke's story about the bleakness of womanhood in colonial Barbados, have both won the Scotiabank Giller prize. Lawrence Hill's epic Book of Negroes won CBC's Canada Reads and Afua Cooper's retelling of the execution of the African slave Marie-Joseph Angelique in The Hanging of Angelique was shortlisted for the Governor General's Awards. Even everyone's "it" book by a Black author in the U.S. and U.K. in 2015, Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings, is a crime tale set in seventies, eighties and nineties Jamaica.
As an author and poet that tells stories inspired by my experiences as a Black man growing up in a big city, I'm not confident that the stories I badly want to tell fit into the box that appears to have been created for us. I enjoyed Book of Negroes, but I really liked Hill's Some Great Thing about a young journalism school grad returning to take a job at his hometown paper (of course I'd like that). I prefer Clarke's More, about a Caribbean mother whose son appears to be succumbing to Toronto's streets, to the long, slow-moving Polished Hoe, as rewarding as it is. My favourite author is Paul Beatty, whose hilarious satires about Black inner-city America in the nineties and 2000s, The White Boy Shuffle, Tuff and The Sellout gave me permission to write the novels I really want to write. Although I may have a family memoir somewhere deep inside of me, I want to tell stories about my city in my time, stories that aren't told in print.
I am happy to say that several contemporary novels by Black authors have made waves lately on both sides of the border. Andre Alexis' brilliant Fifteen Dogs, an apologue (I had to look that term up) about dogs given human intelligence for the amusement of gambling Greek gods, won him both the Giller Prize and the Writers' Trust Fiction Prize for 2015 and Hill's timely story of refugee and immigration policy The Illegal just won the 2016 Canada Reads on CBC Radio. I also finally got to read Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a three-year-old bestseller about a Nigerian girl who experiences race for the first time when she moves to America as a college student. I'm sure there are others, but these three have engrossed me for the last couple of weeks, and the attention they've received gives me hope that my novels-in-progress have a chance to be read by the masses too.
These three novels are very different, and some (possibly misguided) readers might say they aren't all books with typically Black narratives. Fifteen Dogs isn't about race, although one of its themes could be how society replicates itself in every group, which might include race, but definitely isn't the point. The refugee crisis in Hill's fictional countries in The Illegal is definitely about race, but Hill writes about race as if every reader knows that racism is real and knows who the good guys and bad guys are. Adichie and her protagonist in Americanah, who blogs about being a "Non-American Black" person, write about race flawlessly, as if any lapse in logic or language would cast doubt on her credibility and whether she's qualified to write about the subject.
Alexis is a thoughtful, creative storyteller, but most of all he is a master of dialogue, a feat that is even more amazing considering that his characters are dogs who've been blessed (or cursed, that is the basis of Apollo and Hermes' wager) with human reasoning. The dogs are split between those who believe they should make use of their new abilities (including a greatly expanded vocabulary), and those who believe that they should not, and that they will no longer fit in with other dogs if they do, because as their leader Atticus says, "A dog is no dog if he does not belong." The irony is that they could never fit in again, and though they tried, "they were, in effect, dogs imitating dogs." The lessons we learn from the gods' experiment are countless, and though an apologue's lesson is meant to outshine its storytelling, Alexis tells the story beautifully.
The critical success for The Illegal amazes me because often award-winning books are laced with flowery prose and vivid imagery, but Hill's writing is simple and direct. The amount of work that went into Book of Negroes is evident, and deservedly drew praise from all around, but The Illegal doesn't strike you as the kind of book that would inspire the critics and awards panels. It's accessible, something like the difference between CSI and The Wire: we all know which show is better, but which show had more viewers? Hill's style means more people will read his book and more will be exposed to his message, in this case, the truth about western nation's treatment of refugees.
Americanah is easily my favourite of the three, and as I type this, it hits me how much it reminds me of the quintessential African novel (in English) Things Fall Apart by the late, great Chinua Achebe. That may seem a lazy comparison, since Adichie is Nigerian like Achebe, but Americanah reads similar to Things in that it feels like a memoir because of how casual the narrator tells the story. It is so conversational that the characters feel real. There are proverbs and original, thoughtful figurative language ("...her relationship with him was like being content in a house but always sitting by the window and looking out). Most of all, the concept of the story is brilliant: an outsider commenting on race in America, first in the protagonists observations about her aunt and friend who'd arrived in America years before her, then through her descriptions of American life in her phone calls and e-mails with her boyfriend back in Nigeria, and finally in the blog posts that make her a nationally known "expert on diversity." Every word, line and paragraph is carefully thought out. Adichie has mastered her craft, and Americanah is the best novel written in this decade that I've read.