Besides searching for books about city life, I make a conscious effort to seek out books written by Black and Caribbean authors, Canadians and women. I've been searching for these two books for a while, and when I found them just before the holidays I knew I'd review them for this blog. Spoiler alert: I recommend them both!
Brown Girl In The Ring by Nalo Hopkinson
I do not read science fiction. Brown Girl In The Ring was recommended to me by someone who knew I search out authors of Caribbean descent and also how much I loved cities, especially my city, Toronto. I understand why after only a few pages. It's narrated in a familiar, informal rhythm that I recognize from my upbringing in a Caribbean family, not in a thick patois, but with a readable lilt that is easy to grasp. On top of that, Nalo Hopkinson makes the city a main character in her story, which is what I try to do in my own writing. As a result I felt at home as a reader because I recognize street names and places, as well as other nuances of city culture in general, like neighbourhoods and subways.
The Toronto in Brown Girl is both unrecognizable and oddly pseudo-prophetic. The story is set in the future after mass riots destroy much of the downtown and all the businesses, jobs, government and everyone that can afford to abandon the city's core for its more suburban communities like Scarborough, North York and Etobicoke. Those left downtown are barricaded in with no access to mainstream goods like fruit, milk and meat and no city services like police or subways. And no cars, except for the armoured ambulances of the last remaining hospital and the luxury car driven by the violent crime boss who has stepped in to fill the power vacuum left by the departed society. It's almost a bizarre universe parallel to the current Toronto where the wealth has concentrated downtown pushing most of the working-class and less fortunate out to those same suburban communities that have developed a reputation for poverty and crime and where the jobs, subways and general opportunities haven't kept up with the demand of the growing population. Weird.
Because Brown Girl is a futuristic, post-semi-apocalyptic novel, it is often classified as science fiction, but those fantasy elements are actually the spiritualist traditions of indigenous African and Caribbean cultures and their accompanying myths, legends and characters. Ti-Jean is learning to "serve the spirits" as a seer woman like her grandmother, and both the good and evil spirits are from the same horror stories Caribbean children fear, including Jab-Jabs, Soucouyants and Duppies (ghosts). There are many who still believe in the spiritualist world Hopkinson describes, while some dismiss it as superstition. Either way, it makes for a soft landing into fantasy novels for readers like me who prefer realistic stories and it is an essential Black Canadian novel.
Live From The Afrikan Resistance by El Jones
Live From The Afrikan Resistance is the perfect title for a book by spoken word activist El Jones. The former Halifax, Nova Scotia poet laureate and two-time Canadian slam poetry national team champion is fiery, and every poem bites. Hard. She passionately addresses violence, racism, sexism, inequality and more, pointing the blame in every direction, and shouts instructions ("Raise a fist instead of reaching for a pistol"), but it never feels like preaching. She's begging us to stop the greed, discrimination and self-hate, writing, "Peace, brothers and sisters. Say it and mean it."
When it's clear she's on our side, dedicating poems to "all my queens in Queens and all my kings in Kingston raising a baby in Babylon," she can get on with telling the harsh truths. She is critical of the government, schools, prisons, materialism, rape culture and hip-hop, especially its misogyny:
"So while Move Bitch, Get Out The Way stays a hit record
Young Black girls are being identified by their dental records
I guess they were in the way of someone"
She's also very inspired by hip-hop, and you can "hear" it in her lyrical style, but also in poems like "Brands" and "Parts of Speech," which we would call "concept songs" if they were raps, because they follow themes (brand names and grammar) to great effect, the way Jay-Z and Big L do in "99 Problems" and "Ebonics."
Stereotypes and cultural appropriation falls into her crosshairs in "Real Black," ("It's not the real Black if somebody can sell it") which is one of several poems that are powerful on the page, but that you still wish you could hear performed on the stage. You can hear "Mandela," but not "Letter B," in which she absolutely annihilates the alliteration you learned in English class for almost three pages:
"Because businesses make bank off the bodies of Black brothers backed
Into barren blocks of broken down buildings
Where they blast each other
And boast about it"
But no matter how much style Jones has, the substance is what makes her and Live great. In "War On Black Women" she calls out feminism for ignoring the plight of Black women:
"When white women are raped, there's a terrible price
But what happens to Black girls is just called life"
As much as Live tells the often untold narratives of Black women, I still relate strongly to her poetry as a Black man, and her work validates my own poetry. "Choose Your Own Adventure," about the hard choices Black people make because of lack of opportunity, reminds me of my own poem "Life Is.." and "The Miseducation of the Black Child" very accurately details my own experience in the school system from kindergarten on up, almost as if she was there. It's uncanny and her biggest strength, because I believe that the greatest writers are the greatest because you can see yourself in their words.