Coming Home through African-Canadian Literature: George Elliott Clarke’s Directions Home

Reviewed in this essay: George Elliott Clarke’s Directions Home: Approaches to African-Canadian Literature.

In 2011, Toronto city councilor Doug Ford dismissed Margaret Atwood’s rally to protect some 99 library branches, adding insult to injury when he said, “I don’t even know her, if she walked by me, I wouldn’t have a clue who she is.” Assumingly then, neither of the Ford brothers could identify Toronto’s poet laureate George Elliott Clarke from a poetic lineup. Not that it matters. What is more important is that Toronto continues to generate and engage poet/citizens who meaningfully negotiate citizenship, community, culture, and notions of the self within textually performed spaces.

I mention this preamble to my review of George Elliott Clarke’s Directions Home: Approaches to African-Canadian Literature, because I believe that Clarke, as a poet/citizen/scholar, successfully navigates—like a wobbled blue note, an unsettled note that is sung or played at a slightly slower pitch for expressive tension—the boundaries between being a poet and an engaged citizen. And while Clarke is perhaps best known as poet, he is also an astoundingly adept archivist, particularly of African Canadian literary history.

Clarke’s Directions Home succeeds his critically acclaimed Odysseys Home, a work which began mapping the tremendous depth of African Canadian literature upon Clarke’s revelation of “the existence of a canon of texts dating back to 1785” (Odysseys Home 6). Like Odysseys Home, Directions Home works against the notion that Black Canadian literature consists of two or maybe three writers, arguing that “African-Canadian literature did not—and does not—begin with the publication of Austin Clarke’s first novel in 1964 […] I do not grant that literary scholars can read African-Canadian (or Black Canadian) literature adequately unless they are also able to accept the historical (or ‘indigenous’) African-Canadian population and its cultural production as a constitutive element” (4).

Directions Home responds to its own call with fifteen diverse essays on Black Nova Scotian and West Indian-Canadian literature. The collection expands upon the map began in Odysseys Home in its consideration of national, bilingual, and historical perspectives from a varied trajectory of African Canadian literature and history, showcasing a multiplicity of texts. Clarke edits in everything from poetry, autobiography, church histories, and slave narratives.

Beyond providing substantial re-readings of well-known African Canadian writers such as Dionne Brand, Directions Home makes space for less familiar African Canadian writers who are often omitted from literary canons. One such writer is the highly skilled African American-Canadian (born in the U.S. in 1937, came to Canada in 1970) jazz poet, Frederick Ward. Ward has been excluded from both Canadian and American anthologies because he freely straddles polysemous cultural and musico-poetic boundaries. The difficultly of reading Ward—both in his hyphenated status and in his aesthetic orthography—deserves careful attention, partially because “difficulty in poetry is akin to dissonance in jazz” (193). The archive of Canadian literature must account for writers like Ward who are difficult to place—or “dissonant”—in literary and/or civilian categories.

As multiculturalism, like jazz, incorporates dissonance and difference, Ward and others in Directions Home help expand our concept of citizenship. The literary map in Directions Home also contributes to the increasingly diverse literary landscape of Canada, and is of value to not only African Canadians of all strides, but to Canadians, as we continue to grapple with the multiple ways we define this home we share with others. Understanding such broad terrain, of which African Canadian literature is certainly a diverse part, although sadly often an omitted part, is a good place to start. It doesn’t really matter if everyone at city council is listening. Many local and global literary communities of engaged citizens are.

About the author

Paul Watkins

Paul Watkins is a doctoral candidate in the University of Guelph’s School of English and Theatre Studies, as well as a doctoral fellow with the Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice (ICASP) project. Currently living in Toronto, Paul is working on a collection of poetry entitled Listenings.

By Paul Watkins