Postcolonial Text / Author

Book Review:
Words Doing Battle

Odysseys Home: Mapping African-Canadian Literature
George Elliott Clarke
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002
491 pages, $35.95 Cdn (paper)
ISBN 0-8020-8191-6

George Elliott Clarke would perhaps be the first to deny that Odysseys Home, a collection of representative critical essays Clarke has penned since 1991, suggests his role as a cornerstone of African-Canadian literature. He has devoted much of his work to unearthing neglected historical works by African Canadians. Just as important are his efforts to ensure that contemporary African-Canadian writers are given the critical and popular attention they merit, and that they are recognized as part of a diverse and vibrant community that has been marginalized by mainstream Canada over the course of centuries. Clarke’s stated goal in these essays is to define and defend African-Canadian literature with “placard” and “bullhorn” (8). In the course of his literary and cultural cartography — in rediscovering, lauding, and critiquing the works of others — Clarke’s contributions have grown to such a magnitude that he should be considered a founder of the field, if not in chronological terms then certainly as a critical voice that calls it into being.

As Clarke’s chosen metaphors of placard and bullhorn suggest, the political aspects of his essays are central to his criticism; further, the title of the first section of Odysseys Home, “Sorties,” emphasizes his conviction that his words do battle in a struggle for the survival of African-Canadian cultural identities. In the first of these “sorties,” “Must All Blackness Be American?”, Clarke counters what he sees as Paul Gilroy’s stance in The Black Atlantic: that African-American identity is the quintessence of African diasporic culture. Such a position, Clarke asserts, relegates other African diasporic identities to second-class status, thus ironically echoing colonial ideology. In “Contesting a Model Blackness,” Clarke defines “African-Canadianité” as by nature espousing a principle of diversity, as a consequence of having been exposed to contradictory essentializing pressures from all sides. Here Clarke draws on W.E.B. Du Bois’ idea of the “double consciousness” of hyphenated identity (40) and Edouard Glissant’s “Antillanité,” which is for Clarke a “condition that involves a constant self-questioning of the grounds of identity” (48). Combining and adding to these concepts, Clarke argues that the African-Canadian state of being possesses at its heart a “poly consciousness” (279), a “hegemony of heterogeneity” (48).

To institute a “mandatory” heterogeneity, however, is in principle to transgress any and all boundaries of culture and ethnicity. Why not, then, dismantle the concept of African-Canadianité, and question its value as a coherent organizing principle? Clarke, addressing this possibility at some length in his essay “Treason of the Black Intellectuals?” and in the preface to Odysseys Home, “Embarkation: Discovering African-Canadian Literature,” is determined that it is possible to have it both ways — to negotiate a path between assimilation and racial or ethnic nationalism, between integration and separatism. For Clarke, despite his liberal insistence on diversity, proclaims himself a conservative in the tradition of Canadian political philosopher George Grant, whose defence of Canadian sovereignty and cultural particularity forms an ideological basis for Clarke’s insistence on the necessity of maintaining and celebrating the cultural difference of, and within, African-Canadian communities. He then asserts that it is necessary to read the literature produced by African-Canadian authors in the context of this difference, as opposed to reading it as a “spontaneous, ex nihilo creation” (202). Clarke’s vision, consequently, is one of cultural nationalism. It is “ ‘essentialist’ enough” (14), but is modified by an acute awareness that the essences upon which such allegiances are based are artificially constructed and continually shifting.

One of Clarke’s most resonant themes is his passionate refutation of the view that African Canadians are recent arrivals to Canada, that blackness in Canada is wholly an immigrant, and often a Caribbean, experience lived out in urban centres. Many of the reviews collected in the second section of the collection, “Incursions,” chastise their subjects for inattentiveness to a black presence in Canada reaching back into history. In turn, Clarke’s emphasis on history has been criticized as “nativist” by Rinaldo Walcott who, in his 1999 article “Rhetorics of Blackness, Rhetorics of Belonging,” suggests Clarke creates a hierarchy in which origins and length of residence are privileged (CRAS 29.2, 14). Reinforcing his picture of African-Canadian historical and regional breadth, Clarke includes within Odysseys Home a quartet of essays which addresses the cultural and literary particularity of his own ancestral ground, Africadia — an “imagined community” named by Clarke himself. As a name, “Africadia” is intended to reflect both the community’s separation from common perceptions of the white, “tartanized” culture of Nova Scotia and its centuries-old roots in the region, as strong as those of Acadie, the francophone community whose translucent borders are also superimposed upon the Nova Scotian map. Clarke examines the “conservative modernity” (151) of the Africadian community, its cultural renaissance in recent decades, the particularities of its dialect, and the literary production of several of the region’s poets, novelists, filmmakers, and historians.

Clarke, himself an award-winning poet, author and anthologist, is a generous but incisive critic. This collection brings together his commentary on numerous African-Canadian writers and intellectuals, including André Alexis, Dionne Brand, M. NourbeSe Philip, Austin Clarke, Lawrence Hill, Rinaldo Walcott, Claire Harris, Dany Laferrière, Maxine Tynes, David Woods, Frederick Ward, Ahdri Zinha Mandiela, and Walter Borden. Throughout, Clarke’s own incomparable voice resounds, “musicked, raw, rambunctious” (307), eloquent and impassioned. And he is not above fun: the opening of the essay “Clarke versus Clarke: Tory Elitism in Austin Clarke’s Short Fiction,” compares Austin Clarke’s predilection for beautiful women and sartorial splendour in his stories with that of Ian Fleming.

The third, final section of the collection, “Surveys,” contains Clarke’s groundbreaking “Africa Canadiana: A Select Bibliography of Literature by African-Canadian Authors, 1785-2001,” a catalogue of over one hundred pages. An essential tool for scholars of African-Canadian literature, and of Canadian literature more generally, it provides a weighty counterpoint to the essays and reviews preceding it, demonstrating that despite the ongoing scholarship of Clarke and others, much more has yet to be done. Odysseys Home provides an example, a challenge, and a landmark for African-Canadian letters and criticism.

Reviewed by Susanne Marshall, Dalhousie University

Works Cited

Clarke, George Elliott. Odysseys Home: Mapping African-Canadian Literature. Toronto: UTP, 2002.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1993.

Grant, George. Lament for a Nation: the Defeat of Canadian Nationalism. Toronto: M&S, 1965.

Walcott, Rinaldo. “Rhetorics of Blackness, Rhetorics of Belonging: the Politics of Representation in Black Canadian Expressive Culture.” Canadian Review of American Studies. 29.2 (1999): 1-24.