ONE OF THE MOST EXCITING concepts to emerge in the fields of Black/African Studies over the past 15 years is sociologist Paul Gilroyâe(TM)s Black Atlantic.Â Anchoring the shared experiences of the black diaspora in trans-Atlantic culture, travel, labour (especially slavery) and other experiences, the framework offered by Gilroy is helpful not only in illuminating his chosen subject matter, but also in drawing attention to one of our many deficits in understanding black experience âe" namely, here: Is there a Black Pacific?
Post-slavery black pioneers to the West were drawn by the same social and economic factors as other, white settlers (the Gold Rush, for instance).Â Unlike the rest of North America, where blacks served as the âe~otheredâe(TM) bedrock of racial hierarchies âe" the targets of racial hatred par excellence, to which other minorities were judged in relation; i.e. we knew the Irish were hated because they were âe~Smoke N*ggersâe(TM) âe" blacks in the West, in far smaller numbers than elsewhere, found themselves thrown into a Pacific apartheid in which indigenous peoples, South Asians and especially East Asians (particularly the Chinese) already provided a detested, underpaid pole for racial antagonism.Â
In the American context, these once-subtle differences were gradually erased; by the time of the urban rebellions of the 1960s, politics in Watts didnâe(TM)t look so different from those in Newark or Detroit.Â But in Canada, the position of blacks in the West was both more of the same found any place else (racism, ghettoization) as well as something profoundly unique; all our (that is to say, Western Canadaâe(TM)s) own.
For several years, Vancouver poet Wayde Compton (49th Parallel Psalm, Performance Bond) has been the most visible guardian and documenter of this historical legacy.Â Those whoâe(TM)ve been following his career have been long awaiting the first publication from Commodore Books, the âeoefirst and only black literary press in Western Canada,âe which Compton started with black/Prairie-literature expert Karina Vernon, as well as SFU English teacher and writer David Chariandy.Â After much anticipation, Commodore (named for the ship that brought B.C.âe(TM)s first black community up from San Francisco) has released author Fred Bookerâe(TM)s Adventures in Debt Collection, an engaging and cosmopolitan collection of (very) short stories describing just what the title suggests.
The eponymous title (âeoeMatoxy Sixapeekwanâe ) of the first story âe" and thus the first story ever published by a black-owned literary press in the Canadian West âe" is the nickname conferred upon âe~Albertaâe(TM)s famous black Cowboy, John Wareâe(TM) by the Sarcee Indians: âe~Matoxy Sixapeekwan or, âeoebad white black man.âe âe(TM)Â If the prospect of a mean, pioneering cowboy viewed simultaneously as white and black by the Natives werenâe(TM)t enough to capture the ambiguity of the black space in Western Canadaâe(TM)s racial geography, Booker arrives at Wareâe(TM)s story through the remembrances of his descendant, Bob, a business-suited collections agent who mercenarily outwits Vancouverâe(TM)s too-poor and indebted but nevertheless faces a glass-ceiling at work like the rest of his non-white colleagues (and women).
According to his write up, Booker spent some years working at âe~General Motors Acceptance Corporation of Canada, where he was responsible for repossessing cars and trucks on seriously delinquent accounts.âe(TM)Â Itâe(TM)s no wonder that these stories have the ring of truth to them âe" they read, thankfully, like good fiction augmented by the myriad anecdotes accrued during working life, rather than something cobbled together by a middle-class young writer sheltered from work as of kindergarten straight through to their MFA and trying to imagine what repossession might be like.
Occasionally, Booker wants to tell us more about his characters and their development than can be accommodated by the miniature-sized canvasses that heâe(TM)s chosen.Â In the collectionâe(TM)s least successful story, for instance, two co-workers antagonize each other, compete for a promotion, learn to cooperate, admit their mutual attraction and agree not to pursue it in a mere eight pages.
But for the most part, Booker offers us short glimpses into multiculturalism that reflect the even shorter glimpses we get into each otherâe(TM)s cultures in real life.Â Whatâe(TM)s more, he extends this cosmopolitanism past the borders of Vancouver and into a generalized Western mosaic, giving the lie to the idea held both in the city (by snobs) as well as in rural areas (by racists) that diversity can or should only be found big towns.Â Several of the same characters appear in different stories, and are introduced and re-introduced, in slightly different ways, giving us a multiple-angle view of Bookerâe(TM)s cast, whether MÃ©tis, Japanese, European; male or female; young, middle-aged or elderly.Â The stories are fun, memorable, and manage to speak subtly to the power of collective action while also meditating on the place of the individual in the multiple social contexts (ethnicity, gender, field of employment, personal and collective histories) of contemporary life in Western Canada.
This is an auspicious debut for an eminently welcome literary project.âe"Charles Demers
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