Black History Month: Our Favourite Canadian Writers

Posted by 
Christina Cooke and Nailah King

In honour of Black History Month, Room highlights some amazing female black Canadian writers. This list is certainly not an exhaustive one but these are some of our favourites. 

Dionne Brand (b. 1953; Trinidad and Tobago)
Widely known for her 2006 novel What We All Long For, Brand has penned numerous fiction, non-fiction and poetry titles - such as the poetry collection Inventory, a personal favourite here at Room. Issues such as race, migration, queer desire and patriarchal oppression often recur in Brand’s work, all couched within the breathtaking beauty of her prose. Formerly the Poet Laureate of Toronto and a current Professor of English at the University of Guelph, Brand’s work is a definite staple for any Canadian feminist’s bookshelf.

Shani Mootoo (b. 1957; Ireland)**
Mootoo rose to critical acclaim following the 1996 publication of her novel Cereus Blooms at Night. Since then, Mootoo’s written two other novels and a poetry collection, in addition to her extensive visual art exhibitions and video screenings. A recommended favourite here at Room would be The Predicament of or, in which Mootoo chronicles her cultural anxiety and racial displacement stemming from being born in Ireland to Trinidadian parents then later relocating to Canada in her mid-20s. It is her unabashed willingness to write within these critical intersections of lived experience that makes Mootoo’s publications so invigorating, so necessary. Mootoo identifies as Indo-Caribbean. Her reflections on finding community in queer and diasporic spaces makes her work a necessary addition to your "to-read" list.

Jillian Christmas (b. 1983; Canada)
Born and raised in Markham, Ontario, Christmas grew up watching videos of performance poets such as C.R. Avery and RC Weslowski before taking to the stage herself in her mid-20s. Since then, Christmas earned titles at Vancouver's Poetry Slam and Bedrocc Poetry Slam competitions, and will be representing Vancouver at the 2014 World Poetry Slam in Austin, Texas. Her work takes many forms, including live poetry performance, poetry/music fusions, and the printed word. Most recently, her work appeared in the anthology The Great Black North: Contemporary African-Canadian Poetry.

d’bi.young Anitafrika (b. 1977; Jamaica) 
Since coming to Canada in 1993, d’bi.’s work manifests itself in many forms, such as live dub poetry, monodrama and print collections - which has garnered her numerous awards and nominations across the arts spectrums. One of her most recent accolades includes the 2011 Poet of Honour award from the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word. With two dub CDs, two published plays, a comic series, and two poetry collections already under her belt, d’bi.’s work is sure to engage a broad range of readers, no matter their preferred medium.

Esi Edugyan (b. 1978; Calgary)
Born to Ghanaian parents who immigrated to Canada in the 1970s, Edugyan’s family experienced racism when travelling through small towns within Alberta. Edugyan’s own experiences with racism would come to inform her work especially in her Scotiabank Giller Prize (2011) winning work, Half-Blood Blues, a novel set in the jazz period in Nazi era Europe. If you’ve ever struggled with finding your own place, or identity, you’ll want to pick up Half-Blood Blues.

Olive Senior (b. 1941; Jamaica)
Born in Jamaica, Senior has travelled extensively, finally settling in Toronto in 1993. The Caribbean, specifically her Jamaican heritage, is a focus in her work. She is the recipient of many accolades including the more recent Isabel Sissons Canadian Children's Story Award (2011). In Senior’s oldie-but-a-goodie poem “Meditation on Yellow” she ruminates on the early days of Jamaican colonization, using rich language pit against a hazy, golden Jamaican backdrop. You can read “Meditation on Yellow” and more of her poetry in Senior’s collection, Gardening in the Tropics (1994).

Cecily Nicholson (b. 1974; Vancouver)
Known for her poetry as well as her efforts working with women of the Vancouver’s Downtown  Eastside, Nicholson was also featured in Room’s recent post featuring 14 books by Canadian women that we think you should pick up in 2014. Nicholson’s work often deals with “conditions of displacement, class, and gender violence”. We recommend From the Poplars, inspired by Poplar Island (the site of the first “indian reserves”)  but you should also check it Nicholson’s other poetry collection, Triage, which explores the legacy of “women’s creative resistance to everyday physical and systemic violence”.

Lorna Goodison (b.1947; Jamaica)
Beginning as a painter, Goodison initially hid her creative writing talents because her elder sister was already a journalist. Goodison’s poetry often explores themes of motherhood, the Afro-Caribbean experience, and her painting. We recommend her poem “To Make Various Sorts of Black” from her recent collection of poetry, Supplying Salt and Light. It is a beautiful example of of Goodison’s incorporation of visual art with its beautiful textures and colours and poetry.

For more black female Canadian literature, Room suggests you pick up the anthology The Great Black North: Contemporary African-Canadian Poetry (2013)

**This post has been amended to reflect Shani Mootoo's proper cultural heritage.

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