Elana Rabinovitch 0:00
Good evening, everyone and welcome. My name is Elana Rabinovich, and I am thrilled to introduce our second power panel of the year. Tonight we present AfriCanLit – Contours and Conflicts. This evening features six incredibly accomplished and talented Black writers, thinkers and scholars. Our host this evening is Scott Fraser, President and Publisher of Dundurn Press. Tonight, our panelists are Donna Bailey Nurse, Francesca Ekwuyasi Antonio Michael Downing and H. Nigel Thomas. Welcome to you all. Scott will delve further into your bios during the conversation and get tonight’s event underway. To all the viewers tonight, please do take advantage of the q&a button at the bottom of your screen. Scott will take as many questions as possible at around 7:45. So without further delay, Scott, please take it away.
Scott Fraser 1:02
Thank you so much, Elana. Good evening. My name is Scott Fraser. I’m thrilled to be joined today by four very talented people. We have the critic and author, Donna Bailey Nurse, author, poet and scholar, Nigel Thomas, author, filmmaker and visual artist Francesca Ekwuyasi, and author activist and rapper, Antonio Michael Downing. If we were here together in person, I would ask for a huge round of applause for these talented people. But since we’re not let’s get into it. Hi, everyone.
Donna Bailey Nurse 1:34
Francesca Ekwuyasi 1:36
Antonio Michael Downing 1:38
Scott Fraser 1:38
Yeah man. We are very, very heavily tilted towards Black Canadians of Caribbean origin. And Francesca, we won’t hold that against you. We won’t, I promise I won’t let them team up on you.
Francesca Ekwuyasi 1:58
They can I’m from Lagos.
Scott Fraser 2:06
Just by way of breaking the ice, why don’t we go around and, I’m interested, so, Francesco you’re from Lagos, thanks for sharing that. Antonio, how about you? Were, what’s your origin story?
Antonio Michael Downing 2:18
Wow. Well, origin story in the comic book sense is a different thing. But I was born in Caracas in Venezuela. I grew up in Southern Trinidad in a tiny little one road village called New Grants.
Scott Fraser 2:32
Right on, thanks for sharing. Nigel, how about you?
H. Nigel Thomas 2:36
I was born in St. Vincent. A long time ago. In a tiny village, well, not so tiny as villages go, called Dixon. And I’ve been living in Canada principally in Montreal and Quebec City for the last 53 years.
Scott Fraser 2:54
Thanks for sharing, Donna.?
Donna Bailey Nurse 2:56
I was born in Toronto, to Jamaican parents. And I grew up in Pickering Ontario,
Scott Fraser 3:03
Right on. I was born in Ottawa, myself, Jamaican father, Canadian mother and Durham Region is also where I grew up. It was a very different place before all the all the Caribbeans flooded the place.
Donna Bailey Nurse 3:17
Scott Fraser 3:18
I mean I was there, I was one of the first, we were one of the first. We were like pioneers.
Donna Bailey Nurse 3:22
What school did you go to?
Scott Fraser 3:23
I graduated from Sinclair Secondary in Whitby.
Donna Bailey Nurse 3:26
Oh, okay, okay.
Scott Fraser 3:28
Shout out to anyone from Whibty there.
Donna Bailey Nurse 3:29
Scott Fraser 3:30
Alright, let’s get into it. Um, Antonio, when I worked at at Penguin. It was a very, it was pretty rare to see Black authors on the domestic list. Now, fast forward a few years because it wasn’t a super long time ago. And that’s not the case anymore. Every serious publishing firm is almost, you know, trying to showcase Black writers in a way that I’ve never seen before. Is this the, is this the moment where we can say Black writers have won? And is this the apex of inclusion for Black Canadian writers? You’re laughing at the question already, I ask it, it’s a genuine sentiment.
Antonio Michael Downing 4:08
No, I’m laughing because I can see Donna’s smile and I know what she’s thinking. She’s thinking, she’s thinking they’ve reclaimed this victory before. Right, Donna?
Donna Bailey Nurse 4:21
I am thinking that.
Antonio Michael Downing 4:23
Yeah, exactly. I mean, here’s the thing. It’s, it’s like, you know, I think, I think Black culture is, is because of because of shared Black experience and the kind of like, unrelenting struggle against like colonialism, colonialization etc. I think Black culture is always very fascinating, but I also think that people don’t, I feel like there’s a falling in and out of love that goes on over and over. And it comes in cycles and waves. Oh, you know, they shot George Floyd and suddenly we remember Black people are important and part of our history, and important and even Black History Month, right? It’s this oh, let’s just remind ourselves, but, I mean, the truth is, regardless of the fashion Black writers have always been here. We’ve always been here, we’ve always been writing. And in fact, we’ve always been creating dynamic work. And, and so for me, you know, people…. I’m very loath to believe that anything real has changed. Other than we’re going through another cycle where we are in fashion, and the fashion, and fashion by definition changes. So, I, you know, that’s that’s my I don’t know if that’s pessimistic. And, and I applaud my publishers Penguin Random House for, you know, for empowering me and giving me a platform and the wonderful work everyone at my publisher, did I I’m not, I’m not ungrateful in any way. But to recognize the wider trend, I just feel like it comes and goes, and there are seasons.
Scott Fraser 6:27
Well, I know Donna wants to, Donna, can you can you respond?
Antonio Michael Downing 6:30
I would love to hear Donna’s take. She’s been a critic for longer than we have and so she’s seen the seasons come and go.
Donna Bailey Nurse 6:39
Are you trying to saythat I’m just way older than everybody?
Antonio Michael Downing 6:42
I’m saying you’re wiser than all of us.
Donna Bailey Nurse 6:44
Oh, ok that’s good then. When you say that this is the moment, I do think this is a wonderful moment. And we can’t underestimate this moment. Because you know, just on the face of it, we have in Esi Edugyan, one of the great Black writers, and she really is an international star. But we can own her as Black Canadian. She’s a great international writer at this point. And there are others, for instance Nalo Hopkinson. So I think we have to recognize that yes, this is a special moment. But I would say there has been an earlier moment – earlier moments. What I’m thinking of particularly is this span of time between the early to mid 1990s and up to 2008/2010. Or maybe up until around the time, Half Blood Blues was published. And I really remember because that’s when I started writing about Black books. For some reason, it’s Andre that stays with me from that time. And I remember that Andre – Andre Alexis – brought out a book Despair and Other Short Stories. Very spooky, making Ottawa this kind of staid, white dull place… Oh, sorry, not dull, staid white…
Scott Fraser 8:12
Certainly not this week.
Donna Bailey Nurse 8:17
…respectable place into this really spooky, eerie, mysterious place. And then he brought out Childhood. And that won a couple of awards. And at that same time, Rachel Manley brought out Drumblair, and she got a Governor General’s Award. And at that same time, Djanet Sears brought out- produced -Harlem Duet, and she got the Governor General’s Award. And it was just you know, Ken Saro-Wiwa. And all these different writers one after the other after the other, up until about Afua Cooper, Lawrence Hill. What I want to say about that time for me, was that it was more organic. We were like, what the hell’s happening? Where did this come from? You know. And it was it didn’t seem to be motivated by anything other than just a kind of energy among the Black writing community itself. And so I find you’re right, it’s different now. You said that Black writers are being courted by publishing houses. And I think that’s wonderful. I really think it’s wonderful that people know they have to reach beyond normal channels and make sure that Black writers are represented; that they build up their Black publishing lists. But at the same time, I think they know they need to do that because they don’t have the proper channels in place. They have to reach out because for some reason they don’t have the- well, not for some reason: for systemic reasons…
Antonio Michael Downing 9:56
We know what the reason is. There ain’t no Black publishers.
Donna Bailey Nurse 10:01
Exactly. They don’t have the proper channels. They still don’t have the proper channels. We should be building on that momentum, building on the momentum of Esi. Building on the momentum of all those people. And yet, it’s still not accessible for Black writers.
H. Nigel Thomas 10:24
Yeah, I just, I just want to say.
Scott Fraser 10:26
Go ahead, Nigel.
H. Nigel Thomas 10:27
Okay. I just want to say that that period in which Rachel and Djanet Sears, Larry Hill, and others, was followed by a period in which agents were telling Black writers that publishers were saying that books by Black people don’t sell, and therefore they were not taking books by Black people. So, I mean, I’m saying this to reinforce the idea of the wave. But it was, it wasn’t all quite that way because I can tell you that in 1993, when my novel came out, and I went, I was launched with Eden Mills. And, that Sunday, several people read, including Timothy Findley, some of you who are younger would know who he was. But, when the signing came, the lines was long for the white writers. And I think I sold all together that day four books. And it was quite clear that the audience at Eden Mills was not interested in Canadian reality from a Black perspective. Yeah, so I just thought I’d throw that in there. And I don’t know to what extent that has changed. And I do hope what’s happening at the moment isn’t just a wave.
Scott Fraser 12:02
Yeah, well, I want to hear from Francesca and then I’m going to talk about what I’ve seen from the publishing, from a publishers point of view. You’ll be interested to, to know.
Francesca Ekwuyasi 12:13
Yeah, so I mean, I’m really stoked to be here. And I feel very much out of my league, because I don’t know much about publishing. I know about writing and reading. And I know that like Black writers have been writing brilliant work since well, before I was born. So, but in terms of publishers, I believe it’s to their benefit, to reach out to and showcase Black work. But you know, what, what Antonio was saying, like, I am also grateful, and I am not getting it twisted. I’m sellable and I know, that’s why there’s interest in my work right now. And I’m grateful because I love to write. But it doesn’t solve anti blackness, you know. Bublishes being interested in Black writers in this moment doesn’t solve anti blackness. And the reason, perhaps, I think, I don’t know. But perhaps the reason, you know, Nigel, that story about only selling a few books, is because of anti blackness. And, and while like, well, I just want to say like, while we’re stoked that, like Black authors have been showcased now, there’s waves, and you know, all that. You know, we’re not, we’re not commodities, and our stories have existed before and will continue to exist and their brilliance and the nuance. And, you know, they’re excellent, and also mediocre. And that’s cool.
Scott Fraser 13:39
Francesca Ekwuyasi 13:40
That’s all I wanted to say.
Scott Fraser 13:41
Well, I appreciate that. It really, that’s actually a really nice segue. I’m not gonna bombard you with what I was going to say. Because I want to talk about a little bit about the state of review culture, criticism of Black writing, and I have a particular, I guess, I’m going to aim this at Nigel and Donna primarily, but I have this particular disappointment, I guess you could say, at the decline of substantive book coverage, especially in sort of popular publications, newspapers, magazines, etc. Now, there’s still some, some good, good venues out there, but they’re certainly in decline. And I’m trying to think of, I don’t think I’m alone in saying that when you do see this, like a mainstream, especially in February, for obvious reasons, you know, it’s like, it’s always kind of this this inane celebration, kind of like, “Oh, 10 readers, you must know!” And it’s like, well, tell me something interesting about them like, right? Like, what’s their, what’s their, what do they have a personality they have an opinion on anything? Or is it just that they have the appropriate melanin? So, so Nigel, what, tell us what do you see out there? What’s the state of Black writers being treated seriously?
H. Nigel Thomas 14:56
Black history, just to comment that, Black History is essentially a sort of a flavour of the month thing. And, of course, as you say, CBC whomever, they highlight stuff, because they feel they have some sort of a duty to do so because it’s called Black History Month. And I don’t think most of us are taken in by that. In terms of, in terms of our work and getting up there and receiving valuable, insightful criticism, I don’t know that I don’t know what to say about that. Because first to begin with the space has to be there for these critics to pair, reviews to pair. And we all know that print journalism has considerably reduced the space that is a given to books. Second, they generally ask you to review books. And, if the offers don’t come, there is just no way you can review. I at one, early on, I think somewhere around 2000, because they’d had actually thought, the Montreal Gazette that is that they might engage as a reviewer. And then suddenly budgets got cut. And I think I did one review for. Um, and so it goes. I, this space just isn’t there. Occasionally, some journal, literary magazine might ask me to review a book and I have a feeling that they particularly probably don’t like the reviews that I write. You see, there’s a whole lot of thing. I, people come to, I mean, Black reality has already been framed in the minds of North Americans. And when people write, they want to be able to identify with the material that is in there. And if that material doesn’t quite conform to their expectations of who Black people are, they are not so keen on embracing.
Scott Fraser 17:23
I’m gonna, I’m gonna go to Donna, but maybe Donna can answer this question. Do you think that do you think that North American readers outside, I’m going to say non-Black people in North America, do you think that they, that they that there’s a desire for Black trauma in fiction? And do you think that, do you think that there’s something almost fetishistic about about the books that tend to rise to the top?
Donna Bailey Nurse 17:51
Okay, so I really, I’m not sure I want to answer that. I want to speak to more about what Nigel is saying. But I’m going to tell you why I don’t want to answer that. It’s because, I don’t really spend all my time thinking about what white people like or don’t like. So, when I think about trauma, I mean, when I think about Black experiences, that’s not our only experience. But all of us are coming from that experience, and we have to acknowledge that experience, because it’s really shaped our culture. That’s not our only experience. But at the same time, I don’t feel like I have to ignore that experience. And, and I don’t feel guilt or embarrassed. I respect those people who are my forebears who survived. I’ve missed those people who I was separated from. I feel like we’re taught to even disdain our own trauma. And that just aggravates me. There’s no reason to feel great or bad about it, it’s just our experience. But anyways, I really want to speak to what Nigel was saying. I don’t agree that white people are not open to reading our stories. And let me just give you an example. When I started writing, this would be like the 90s, for the Star I was doing book review. Actually, I’d lost a job. I went to the Star and I said I’d like to start doing book reviews. I thought well I could do that and be home with my little kids. Right? And Judy Stoffman, the book editor, said okay, yes. Write me some book reviews and she liked them. So I started writing about Black writers and I loved it. I just, I loved it. And I also started at that time doing kind small profiles for Maclean’s. And one of the people I wrote about early on was Cecil Foster. And I remember him saying, you know, Donna, the papers are never going to let you write about white writers. You’re going to have to always write about Black people. And I was like, well, I want to write about Black people. But I also knew he was wrong. Because I knew that if I got any significant attention, white journalists would want to take it. So a few years pass by, and I start contributing to the Globe and Mail. And when I’m writing for the Globe and Mail, I said, okay, this is it. I want to do these kind of Vanity Fair type, literary profiles, a little bit sexy, whatever. Because if I do that, and they’re really engaging, t then the audience will really be interested in the Black author. And then they’ll really want to read the Black author’s work. So I thought, okay, that’s what I’m going to do. And so, I literally threw myself into that. My editor was James Adams, and he thought this was a great idea. So, I threw myself into the first one. And that was Austin Clarke. He just had a new book out. And then after that, there was Dionne Brand, there was, you know, Clement Virgo, Dany Laferriere, Djanet Sears. So different people, right. But what I want to say is that I threw myself into it. And right away, the response was so strong, all around. And not just Black people, though Black people were jumping for joy. But it was all around strong. Why? Be cause every articlewas attached with a beautiful photo of a beautiful Black person that you rarely would see in the Globe. So, you had the beautiful Black face, then you had the story that had two Black people talking in public – something you never would see in the Globe. Then, you had the different kinds of subject matter. So it was all very, very different. So right away – I would say by the second or third story, the white arts journalists at the Globe, most of whom were staff, though they weren’t all staff – they’d just been around longer than me- I start to hear, “Why is Donna getting all these big? Why is she getting so much space?” And James, my editor said, Donna, don’t worry about this. It’s just about real estate in the paper. But then they started to complain that it’s not fair: Why does Donna get to write about all the Black writers? We want to write about Black writers too!! I’m laughing now. But I was not laughing then. It go really, really bad. To the point where I finally said, okay, I’m gonna just go back to doing book reviews, I’ll do them for the Martin Levin and Jack Kirchhoff who were the wonderful book editors at the Globe at that time. And they gave me whatever to review and it was wonderful. But there’s two things to say about that. I had started out wanting to do these wonderful Vanity Fair-style pieces for the Globe. And I kind of lost my groove and lost my confidence after I stopped writing them regularly. It affected my craft. And also because of those pieces my career was shooting up. But when I went back to focusing on reviews, I began to lose my profile. So that’s money, right? That’s money for my kids. That’s money for my marriage. And that’s systemic and that’s, that’s how it works. You get there, they expect you to be an ornament, you begin to take up space, and you’re out. But the other thing I want to say is that they loved our stories. The audience loved the stories; and the journalists knew that those were the stories the audience loved. And they wanted to have them for themselves. And if you look today, you will see again and again or let met say that you will rarely see, Black critics covering Black books in the Globe. Because the white journalists want those stories, because they’re great stories. So it’s not true that they don’t value our stories. They do.
Scott Fraser 24:17
Well, I was gonna say what I see as a former sales rep and as a guy who’s constantly looking at sales spreadsheets, I do see some some reasons to suggest that it’s not just, it’s not just Black people who are buying these books, it can’t be. And when we launched a new literary imprint, in the middle of a pandemic, the breakthrough title was was authored by a Black woman. You know, so this, this is, and not just in Canada, either in the United States, so I have, you know, I think we have dark, we live in dark times, but there’s little rays of light. Francesca, does anyone else want to weigh in? I have way more questions for all of you, but Francesca?
Francesca Ekwuyasi 24:59
I just wanted to, yeah, I just wanted to shout out my publisher Arsenal Pulp, because if you look at their catalog, they didn’t just start publishing, like racialized authors or like queer authors. I mean, they’ve been, so that feels, I feel so grateful for that. And I think there’s moments and there’s times where those, that alignment, which is not to say publishers can start making those changes, but it can’t be, the thing about it being a trend is just like, my whole body’s like, oh, no, Blackness is not a trend we, we can’t, how can that be? Our stories…. Yeah, anyways.
Scott Fraser 25:39
Well,I have to respond to you Francesca. I want to just read verbatim from my notes, because I think you’re reading my mind somehow. So this is what I have written down. You published with Arsenal, a publisher known for having diversity embedded in its core assumptions long before it was trendy. Was that part of why you trusted them with your work? So I think we, I don’t know. I’m all for heaping praise on Arsenal Pulp. They’re a terrific publisher.
Francesca Ekwuyasi 26:07
I trusted them with my work because they were interested. And they were encouraging me. And you know, I lied, I submitted what the pages that I had, and said, I have a full manuscript. I’m sure they knew.
Scott Fraser 26:26
Well they do now.
Francesca Ekwuyasi 26:29
They allowed the time. And they saw value and then cultivated that. And that’s invaluable, because I wouldn’t have had the confidence otherwise. Yeah.
Scott Fraser 26:39
You know, some someone I don’t know. It’s probably Antonio. But one of you mentioned George Floyd. And I swear to God, someone asked me, I think it was like an official, was like a survey or something. And it was, it was, what have you done to change your publishing program in the wake of Black Lives Matter? In response to George, it was specifically tied to George Floyd. And I thought, what an odd, like thing to have is like, okay, so now publisher, because it’s not like when I get this question, it’s not like anyone can see me, they don’t know what I look like, right? So it’s just learned, like, everyone, all the heads of firm, I guess, got this question. I was like, why specifically tie it to George Floyd? Again, it has to be like, okay, so now now, there’s been enough pain and suffering that people have to do something, but people in my position to do something about it. It was, it was wild.
Francesca Ekwuyasi 27:31
They probably just learned about injustice.
Scott Fraser 27:33
Francesca Ekwuyasi 27:34
They probably just realized that Black people were being murdered.
Scott Fraser 27:38
Oh, god, it’s like, you laugh because the only alternative is to cry.
Antonio Michael Downing 27:43
Yeah, that’s what my grandmother would say some things if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry. I’ll just say that as a music dude. Um, I see a lot of parallels. I see it across culture, in terms of the appetite for Black music, but it’s like, you know, there’s a, there’s a thing and and just entertainment is in general. I’m a sports guy, too. I was an athlete in university. The Superbowl just finished, you know, Eminem melts in the halftime show. And all these football fans were mad because we, it’s there, because people don’t mind being entertained by us. It’s it’s about what Donna said, taking up space, right? Or, or being part, or being empowered in a real way where it’s not reacting to their tastes. It’s like actually saying, no, this is about us. You know, but in music like like, you know, Lilith Fair, prior to Lilith Fair, everyone said, well, a woman couldn’t headline a tour on her own, there would need to be, no matter how big they are, there’d need to be a male artist on the bill. And Sarah McLaughlin and Sheryl Crow, etc, said, actually, we’re just going to do it. And then they did it. And suddenly it was okay to have women, you know, headlining tours. In in pop culture, you know, prior to Black Panther, which was just a few minutes ago. And the prevailing wisdom was an all Black cast wouldn’t. White folks wouldn’t go to see an all Black cast. And then they did it. And everybody went and saw it because it was a great story. Right? It was a great story powerfully told, you might not be into Marvel movies, but if you’re into that kind of thing, it was one of the best. And so I think, I think that the appetite for black stories has never been questioned for Black culture, for Black presence, in a certain box was never been, has never been debated. What’s beyond that is when you start to want to be something other than than what that box is. And as a Black man, you know, born in Trinidad, but I’ve lived here since I was 11-years-old. And, it’s you become really quickly aware that there’s a place for you. And if you play it, you’re, you’re good. But if you push back against that in any kind of way, that might be a problem. So in my music life, I’m good when I’m doing hip hop, but then that gives them a way to like, discredit me. But I played rock and roll for most of my life. And they were like, well, what are you doing here? And I was like, well, I’m pretty sure Chuck Berry and Little Richard invented this. So what are you doing here? You know?
Scott Fraser 30:44
We already had Lenny Kravitz, so we’re already kind of full? We can’t have another rock n’ roller?
Antonio Michael Downing 30:47
Yeah, but yeah. It’s a very, yeah, it’s, and that I feel like that message is, is sort of repeated and I see that in, in everywhere where Black culture is. I see it as a kind of like, yes, we love for you to be here. We have this place. We have this suit, it’s already made for you. It’s, it’s we decided what size it is what cut what cloth, please fit into it. Oh, you don’t fit into it? Let’s find someone that does. And so. And there’s a thing in music too where the white gaze determines what becomes successful in Black culture. So what Donna said when she said, how we talk to each other about what we do is different than how we end up talking to everyone else, because they’re like, well, we’d like to select you because your story tells it in a convenient way. Like Nigel was saying, as soon as his opinions, as soon as he starts talking those those Vincentians queer Montreal or Black opinions. They’re like, wait a minute, wait, hold on, hold on.
H. Nigel Thomas 30:48
Let me let me just let me let me just add a very, very quick comment about that. Those attitudes go right across the board, right across the board. In culture and outside of culture. I have been asked in Quebec City, at least 10 times. Why was I a professor? Were there no Canadians and Quebecers qualified for my job? And people asked it. And they saw nothing wrong with asking me that question. So, look, you’re Black. We have a place for you. Yeah, in the economic order. And that, you know, in Quebec City, the N word was a prefix for everything that was considered inferior. You had N wages, N work, and N projects.
Scott Fraser 32:55
H. Nigel Thomas 32:56
Yeah. So yeah, it goes right across the culture. That’s all I have to say.
Scott Fraser 33:02
Francesca, what are you? Well, that’s a lot. I mean, that yeah. What are you seeing in the film world? Francesca, one of my favorite films recently was The Harder They, The Harder They Fall, where I almost said, the harder they come, The Harder They Fall. Which I like, I don’t want to give away spoilers, but that was a that was a blackity black film. What are you seeing in the filmmaking world?
Francesca Ekwuyasi 33:26
Well see, I’m a novice, and I’m a DIY girl. Like I just write the script and apply for grants, you know, so I don’t know. I don’t know what the trends are higher up where the money is, so to speak. So I can’t really speak to that, other than the fact that I think my, you know, the fact I was born and raised in Nigeria, and I moved here, I moved to North America when I when I was a teenager, but my formative years were, you know, in West Africa, like Nigerians that were kind of annoying. There’s a lot of us we’re loud. We have strong opinions. So I think that sheltered me from some of the like, internalizing a lot of things that might have if I had been raised from a younger age in North American culture. So what I know is Nigerians, Black people are making like incredible work all the time.
Antonio Michael Downing 34:25
Scott Fraser 34:26
Francesca Ekwuyasi 34:26
That’s what I know.
Donna Bailey Nurse 34:28
African literature is taking over the world at one time or is literally taking over the planet.
Antonio Michael Downing 34:33
Scott Fraser 34:35
Especially the Nigerians.
Antonio Michael Downing 34:36
I mean, it’s been taken over, right? You know, Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart. I remember studying literature, and when I read Things Fall Apart and his critique of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and how they portrayed a Black people running, rolling on the riverboat down the Congo. I was like, but wait, he can’t do that to Conrad. And then when I read I was like, yes, he can. Nigerians have been been reppin’ it. But I mean, I mean, that’s the beauty of the multitude of voices. Right? That’s the, that’s the problem. It’s like that’s, there’s a multitude of voices and you can’t put Jamaica with Trinidad or St. Vincent. That’s different people, different things. And, and, and, you know, West Africa as a whole place. And there’s authors all over in French, in the French, Caribbean, and the French, the French Africa as well. So there’s such a multitude of voices, there are queer voices there, like there are people who are first generation voices in Canada are different than people who were born elsewhere, like, like Francesca saying. So, there’s such a cacophony of voices. And, and that’s why that suit that’s made to fit before you even get measured. That’s the problem with it. And I would say that that’s a, as as Nigel so aptly pointed out, that’s not a problem with Canadian literature, or culture. That’s just the problem with how, with the narratives Black people are forced into all the time. And that’s what we’re trying to smash. That’s what we’re trying to break. Like, you know, I love what Donna said, I’m not going to, I’m not going to define myself by the misery and the trauma, I’m also not going to ignore it, because you’re trying to do that to me, right? Like, we that’s sort of where I’m at where I’m always thinking about how can I be radically me? How can I be as much as me because I’m Black, yes, but I’m also a man, and I’m a lover, and I’m an employee and an employer and an artist and a musician, and a an investor and a teacher and a coach. And all these, all these me’s are me. And what I see about white artists, like I just wrote a memoir, it’s right there. And yo I’m gonna pull one out there.
Scott Fraser 37:19
Bring it a little bit closer, bring it a little bit closer. Show the people.
Antonio Michael Downing 37:22
I just did a memoir. And I was influenced by, like, you know, a lot of Black authors, Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde. And I was influenced also by Angela’s Ashes, and Frank McCourt and The Glass Castle. And these great memoirs, which are just great stories about human beings. But every time I was interviewed about my book, and even in the way, my publisher chose to promote my book, it was a focus on the Blackness and the struggle and the identity. But if you read Angela’s Ashes, I mean, it’s his 30s, it’s the depression. And it’s, it’s for Catholic Ireland. So it’s way more struggle and adversity than I’ve ever seen. But I never read a review of that book that defines it by that it defines it by its humanity. And ultimately, that is how any human being wants to be defined.
Francesca Ekwuyasi 38:21
Antonio Michael Downing 38:21
None of us want to be fit into a box.
Donna Bailey Nurse 38:24
But part of the problem is that in the publishing houses, but even in scholarly Black Canadian literary circles there’s not an encouragement to read widely. Whereas I know, that on this panel, we read widely. So we can draw from this tradition, or from that tradition and all of that all of that comes together to create our work. But you know, a lot of people don’t even read any Black literature even if they’re going to be editing a Black book, they read no Black. They know very little about Black literature, none of the ideas that we’re dealing and none of the issues we’re playing with. And for some reason, they can’t seem to recognize- and this is gonna sound like a crazy analogy and I hate to bring this up, but Kim Kardashian is, you know, supposedly white, and her daughter, you could say, is Black. But to look at they’re identical. They’re like twins. People have to learn to see resemblances between Black and white. Most white critics, editors, etc, cannot make comparisons across race. They don’t read enough to be able to see Black literature as part of the whole body of literature which it belongs to.
Scott Fraser 39:57
Sorry, Francesca, I have to I have to jump because I’m getting a notification about the time. So it’s the time in the program for me to remind everyone watching out there, that if you have a question for any of the panelists or for all of the panelists, drop it into the into the q&a, and we’ll start getting to those. And I suppose I should be actually monitoring that too. You know, so where were we here? That was that was that was good. And I had to just jump right in there. Francesca, do you want to pick up that your thought there?
Francesca Ekwuyasi 40:30
Yeah, I was just just when Donna was speaking, I was thinking. Yeah, I think as equity seeking people like Black people in North America, and you know, maybe Black people from elsewhere, like growing up in Nigeria, I read, I knew so much about North American and European culture. I read so much, so many authors. Beyond my immediate, in fact, reading Nigerian stories about Nigerians that were like, like me, was rare and exciting and didn’t happen until as a teenager. I think that’s what what you’re speaking to Donna, this thing that as, you know, equity thing, people we’ve had to be so much more all the time, just to be okay. And it reflects, I think it reflects in our work I love, I love reading work from like Black people and from Caribbean people from Latinx people, because there’s so much, of course, also North American white authors so much depth. In my experience, I guess my preference is that the soulfulness and the apt. Donna, I mentioned this before in a different interview, we had, double consciousness, when you have to be aware of your own experience where other people’s experience and translate that space in between. And I think as racialized people, we’re always doing that.
Antonio Michael Downing 41:53
Scott Fraser 41:54
That’s come up in our conversations before, for sure.
H. Nigel Thomas 41:59
I just wanted to say something, though, that, that I think we’ve not paid any attention to. It’s really how many book buyers are there out there. And what’s the competition among publishers and among authors for that book, by that diminishing? I think we, regardless of, publishes have been saying that there’s been a slightly upward bump during the pandemic of readership. But prior to that, everyone was noting that readership was going down, and writers earnings had decreased significantly. And I mean, like 40%, etcetera, etcetera, the statistics from the 1990s, 2000s, and so on and so forth. So, what I’m saying is that, I am afraid that, in when there is such a competition for readers for the few people who buy books, I am not sure where we are positioned, you know, on in on the scale, you know, yeah.
Antonio Michael Downing 43:09
I mean, I think Marlon James is selling books.
H. Nigel Thomas 43:14
Yeah, he is. But you better be sure that you do have the resources of a powerful publisher, who is going to, you know, get the book out there in the public’s face.
Scott Fraser 43:29
It certainly helps. It certainly helps. But yeah, Nigel, I have to jump in just at the mention of Marlon because, certainly, like I was at Penguin, Canada, when when A Brief History was was in arc.
H. Nigel Thomas 43:42
Scott Fraser 43:42
That was not a book that anyone in the room, and I was I was there. No one no one was interested in this book. It was considered very marginal. And the reason was, was because of the language and his deliberate of Jamaican.
Antonio Michael Downing 43:53
Scott Fraser 43:54
And I was the one voice who put my hand up and said, well, we’re in Toronto. Everyone can speak a little Jamaican, okay. It’s not the end of the world.
Antonio Michael Downing 44:03
Scott Fraser 44:04
Put put a bit of effort into telling people about this book, because do you realize what the plot is? Do you realize the some of the historical figures that that are making appearances? Has anyone looked at this seriously? And the answer really was no, because it was an import from the states and not to toot my own horn, but I think I like to take a little bit of the credit for his results in Canada. But that speaks to having the need to have Black publishing professionals. Anyway, I need to, oh, I don’t even, that was another one. I have to get to the q&a. This is a great one that I want to ask. I think I want to address this to to Donna first. The questioner is, the questioner is anonymous, but is wondering to what extent French language Black Canadian writing, at least some of which which has been translated, is considered part of Black Canadian literature by we the panel members and by the Black community and by readers in general. So let’s talk about well, have a have a crack at that. I’ll speak about the translation issues.
Donna Bailey Nurse 45:08
Can you say that again? Sorry, I just couldn’t quite, get my mind around the question.
Scott Fraser 45:11
Sure. To what extent French language Black Canadian writing, at least some of which has been translated, is considered to be part of Black Canadian literature by us as a group, by the Black community and by readers in general.
Donna Bailey Nurse 45:26
Wow. I mean, like, that’s just like a mouthful and a headful. I remember there was a time that I really thought there’s lots of interesting stuff going on with Black writers in Quebec, because the Haitian community in particular. I knew there was a lot of interest. But I think that part of the issues are around translation, and are around the fact that we don’t get access to those books. You know, I believe that we would embrace them. So I’m surprised that there’s not more going on. Though maybe there is. And I don’t know. Because I’m not in Quebec. I don’t know all those organizations, QWF etc are paying attention to the Black writers. All I can say right now is everybody is talking about Myriam Chancy, who was born in Haiti, but raised in Quebec, and has this marvelous book.
Antonio Michael Downing 46:22
Donna Bailey Nurse 46:23
Writing in English.
Antonio Michael Downing 46:24
I feel like Nigel, might have…
Scott Fraser 46:26
Nigel might have some thoughts to that.
H. Nigel Thomas 46:28
Alright, so first and foremost, we do have a Black publisher in Montreal. Memoire D’Encrier. The publisher is Rodney Saint-Éloi. And before I even answer the question about Black, write, I’d say that First Nations living in Canada, whose language is French, never had a publishing outlet. Until Rodney Saint-Éloi established his publishing house about 20 or so years ago. And it’s only through Rodney, that French Canada got to actually meet many of its First Nations authors. And of course, they are now winning prizes all over the place. And suddenly they have discovered them. They are, some of some of the books are being translated. Not many, but a handful of them. Because of the way publishing is set up. You have to pay translators and the returns on the books are, isn’t enough, the return isn’t enough economic return for publishers to take on the public. So if if the book isn’t funded by Canada Council, and they have a specific budget for that, they want, they can only allow so many of them, then that’s the situation. And usually, usually, for a book to get translated, it has to have won a prize or been nominated for a prize.
Scott Fraser 48:09
The risk has to be taken out because I can speak from firsthand experience as a publisher, having been burned by a translation that we thought was going to be funded and it was not funded. And that’s a big enough hole that that can kill a small business’ fiscal year, you know, it’s it’s real stuff. And that’s people’s, you know, people’s jobs, people’s employment there on the line. My friend, Patrick Crean is in the audience and he says, well he gives Nigel a shout out. And points out that only 12% of the books Canadians read are by Canadians, and the income of professional Canadian writers has dropped 27% in the last decade. That is depressing as F. And I mean, I think that could be an entire power panel in itself. Talking about the decline of Canadian reader, Canadians reading Canadians. Yeah that that’s such a huge topic. Does anyone want to take a, I mean, I, again, I could go all day long on that. But does anyone want to take a quick pop?
Antonio Michael Downing 49:10
I love Canadian authors. Canadian authors, there’s so much vibrant literature happening. Like, you know. I’m right now, I’m reading Leanne Simpson. I’m reading Tomson Highway. You know, there are just so many incredible books, I think. And, and I think something that I’ve heard is that when Canadian authors, there’s a great interest in Canadian authors internationally. But and again, as a music dude, I know this. Like, when someone somewhere else likes you, that’s when Canada appreciates you. That’s kind of a very Canadian thing.
Scott Fraser 49:53
All of a sudden, it’s cool.
Antonio Michael Downing 49:54
Yeah. I remember…
H. Nigel Thomas 49:57
It’s also a Caribbean thing.
Antonio Michael Downing 49:59
Yeah, yeah. very much so. I remember, you know, Leslie Feist was just, you know, touring around and then she went to Paris and did an internship. And suddenly she was an international star and everyone claimed her. And I feel like that’s a very, that’s that sort of passive aggressive Canadian thing where, you know, as a musician, if I’m in Memphis playing a show or Manchester playing a show, everyone’s just giving you that love. They’re like, yeah, I’m having this mate. If you’re in Toronto playing a show, everyone looks around to see if the other people are cheering. And then they cheer. I feel like, I feel like that’s what it is. How you solve that problem? I’m not really sure. But I think that you know, like, Canada produces so much great art right? And, and the vibrancy of the, of the art we create crosses lines, like I just, I just heard Tanya Tagaq’s album and Split Tooth – amazing book. Talk about Canadian literature. One of my favourites and Tanya Tagaq’s album with Saul Williams, the US spoken word poet and and hip hop artists. So, it’s like, I think the answer is to, for us to, again, be radically us. Because the more vibrant we are, the more us we are then the than the stronger the lines we cross are. This burgundy book up there, that is my US publishers version of my memoir, and which was, contains does not happen in America, was not written by an American, and contains no American characters.
H. Nigel Thomas 51:47
Well, you had you had a great agent.
Antonio Michael Downing 51:49
And, I guess so, I guess so. But the truth is, and even Leanne Simpson, who I’m reading now, who I think is one of the best Canadian writers alive. I found out her, about her from a Blackfoot American publicist at my US publisher. And and so all all of this to say, Canadian stories, Canadians might not be reading our stories, but our stories are vibrant. And they have legs beyond Canada.
Scott Fraser 52:20
I have to agree. Yeah. Donna? I didn’t mean to cut you off there.
Donna Bailey Nurse 52:26
But no. I was just saying I have to agree. I would say that especially Black Canadian novels travel, because, you know, we’re from so many places. Wherever you go in the States, you’re going to see a number of Black Canadian authors and wherever you go in Jamaica in the U.K. or Africa. We’re so multicultural within ourselves.
Scott Fraser 52:45
You know, Donna, I was in Jamaica in December. And I went, of course as you do when you work in publishing, you hit up all this many books stores you as you can. Now I’m convinced that, and Antonio mentioned he’s an investor, that we can make a little bit of money selling selling books in Negril because the bookstore there, I walked in and I said, I’m interested in buying some some books by Jamaicans. And the the bookseller looked at me like I had three heads because she’s like, oh, we don’t have, we have like notebooks and stationery. We don’t like, then I said, like, there’s a beautiful beach right there. What do people do on the beach? They read. Let’s go. Let’s get a bookstore going down there.
Donna Bailey Nurse 53:30
Do you know Calabash, that literary festival?
Scott Fraser 53:32
Very much so. I’m going in May.
Donna Bailey Nurse 53:34
Scott Fraser 53:34
Are, are you going?
Donna Bailey Nurse 53:36
I hope so. I’d like to go.
Scott Fraser 53:38
Well, that’s, that’s it
Donna Bailey Nurse 53:40
One of the reasons that festival was started by Kwame Dawes, the poet and Justine Henzell, Colin Channer was because they were having this issue with Jamaican readers. They were worried that most Jamaican readers believed all books were primarily textbooks. Books were things to study in school, and even a novel would just be looked at as though it was a text, not a story. So they started the Calabash festival just to get Jamaicans to think about the book as story. And it’s been very successful. So I’m surprised that you went to Negril and had that experience.
Antonio Michael Downing 54:12
But there’s an anti, there’s an anti book, learning kind of thing that happens. Like, we want you to study and do good in school, but I think the streets, the working class is kind of like, you know, eh – boy over there. That boy does read books.
Scott Fraser 54:27
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
H. Nigel Thomas 54:30
I was afraid you would say that because I want that secret to remain among us.
Scott Fraser 54:44
If every kid grew up, if every Black kid grew up in Nigel’s library there, there would be no problem with with engaging in the text, with the text. But no, it’s for real. I have a business partner, my business, one of my business partners looks at me says, why, you know Black people don’t read. Maybe, I don’t want to end this on a negative note, let’s not go there. It’s not true.
Francesca Ekwuyasi 55:08
Can I just tell you how my, my, my book, I’m so grateful. It’s like, I can’t believe it. I’m so grateful. But my, the people that tagged me on social media, are like Nigerian women. Nigerian women, just Nigerian people are reading. They’re reading a lot like Bookstagram is a whole thing. And I am sorry to be the weird millennial who’s like “Instagram.” But I think it really, it shows me people are reading.
Antonio Michael Downing 55:41
I’ve heard from so many Trini people, and Jamaican people, and even African people who grew up in the Commonwealth who have hit me up on Insta, because what up? And they’ve been like, wow, your book to like, Black people are reading. Like, there’s no, there’s no question about that. I just think it’s a, there’s a certain segment of people who distrust the book, because the books it comes, who makes the books?
Scott Fraser 56:14
Well, that’s. So we have time for a couple we’re gonna, we’re gonna go here. Yes, it’s very frequent for me to be at industry events, where I’m the only black person in the room, especially when you’re talking about people with real institutional power. So, Antonio, I’m going to start with you, Antonio, you can’t go take the rest of the time, though. You have to, I’m going cut you off after 30 seconds.
Antonio Michael Downing 56:35
Cut me off.
Scott Fraser 56:37
Here we go. What happens, what happens when Black writing is curated by all white editors. What happens in that position? Too easy?
Antonio Michael Downing 56:50
Well, I mean, I mean, I think it just, like the question answers itself. I mean, what do you think happens?
Scott Fraser 57:00
I was gonna lob you a softball so you can hit a homerun.
Antonio Michael Downing 57:03
Yeah, I mean, it’s just like, I’ll tell you something that happened with Saga Boy real quick. I, my editor, who’s a marvelous editor, legend, and I have so much to thank her for, but she was asking me, why do you call your half brothers brothers? And I thought about this, I’m like, well, because they’re my brothers. I don’t think of them as half brothers. And, and then I realized the reason why is because when there’s something to inherit, you have to be very careful on what your designation is, right? Are you a full brother, or are you a half brother? When there’s nothing to inherit, everybody’s your brother.
Scott Fraser 57:34
It doesn’t matter, right?
Antonio Michael Downing 57:46
And so I thought about just how culturally, even when you have a legendary editor working on your stuff, if that person isn’t, doesn’t have the cultural literacy, there’s a learning curve there, which is not to say they can’t do an incredible job. It’s just to say that, I think what Donna, to Donna’s point earlier, it’s you read it differently. When you’re from, when you know, the subtext and you know, the code and you know, the, the shared experience,
Donna Bailey Nurse 58:15
I’d really like to answer that. I promise to be really, really, quick.
Scott Fraser 58:18
Go for it, go for it, Donna.
Donna Bailey Nurse 58:19
It’s partly what Antonio is saying. Black editors are essential. And one of the reasons why is because sometimes white editors don’t know the questions to ask to deepen the storyline or an idea or encourage a conversation. Another reason why, Black editors are essential is because obviously, there are conflicts of interest. For example, a friend of mine, a Black writer told me his white editor got angry with him, because one of his characters, a Black character, refused to warm up to white people. In a book! In a book!
Scott Fraser 59:03
We’ll I’d have to keep some of my friends away from that person then.
Donna Bailey Nurse 59:08
There’s another point that I had about that. Oh, yeah. And here’s here’s something I think that’s important white editors tend to ask us to over explain things.
Scott Fraser 59:27
And that’s what came up with Marlon right. It’s like, someone’s gonna have to, we’re gonna put a glossary in here. That’s gonna cost an extra 30 cents.
H. Nigel Thomas 59:36
All to remove the dialect.
Antonio Michael Downing 59:38
Yeah, but did anybody ask James Joyce to take it off of Finnegans Wake? Like, Finnegans Wake’s a book that they have books about how to understand, how to read it. Oh, come on.
Scott Fraser 59:52
So we are right up against the time I want to do something in these, in these in the spirit of the old spiritual raise every voice. So, who are you excited about Donna? Who’s someone? A Black writer that we should be getting fired up about that maybe we haven’t heard of?
Donna Bailey Nurse 1:00:10
Yes. Well, I don’t have a new book because I’m a person that reads backward. You I’m always running back to find who I’m missing. This is a writer I don’t think gets enough attention. Her name is Suzette Mahr. She’s a biracial writer, a queer writer, writing in Alberta. She’s elegant and she’s hilarious. She’s been nominated for Commonwealth Writers Prize, and she’s been longlisted for the Giller. Her most recent book is Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall and it’s one of those satires about politics in universities. So…
Francesca Ekwuyasi 1:00:46
It’s hilarious. It’s so funny.
Scott Fraser 1:00:49
So there’s a fan in the room. Francesca, so did Donna take your pick?
Francesca Ekwuyasi 1:00:54
No, I don’t I honestly I don’t know the writers that come to mind around No, like Téa Mutonji is brilliant, brilliant. I can’t wait for her next book. But I just want to gush about an author that is very famous that I just read his first book. It’s called, his name is Caleb Azumah Nelson. The book is called Open Water. And it’s just truly rocking my world. And he’s, he’s a Black British author. He’s well known. I just, I can’t get enough.
Scott Fraser 1:01:25
Nigel, who you excited about these days?
H. Nigel Thomas 1:01:27
I agree with Donna’s pick about Suzette Mahr, but I really want to pitch a book that is not fiction. It’s recently been published. And it’s a book that I think should be read. It’s called The Fire That Time. It’s about the Sir George Williams revolt in 1969. And it’s edited by Ronald Cummings and Nalini Mohabir. That’s my book The Fire That Time.
Scott Fraser 1:01:57
Awesome. Thanks for sharing that. Yeah, I’ve heard about that. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. Antonio, you have a pick? Someone you’re pumped about?
Antonio Michael Downing 1:02:05
Yeah, I you know, I ride for two authors I’m going to mention because I think both their books are phenomenal. Neither a fiction, but Rinaldo Walcott’s On Property just blew my mind this year. I was like the way he connects the plantation to the Rastafari to the police and to the defund the police movement. I mean, I was blown away and I always ride for Canisia Lubrin. Her latest book of poetry. I keep that by my, St. Lucia what’s going on? Are they out there? I ride for that every time. I think she she is a great genius of Canadian letters and we celebrate her now before everyone else takes her
Scott Fraser 1:02:58
Nice. That’s, that’s exciting. Well, if I’m gonna, I’m gonna say a Dundurn author who’s, we’re publishing in September, it’s Tanya Turton, who’s no debut novel is is called Green is a, Jade is a, Jade is a Twisted Green. And I had a chance to present with her at a different book list. And she has the, she has that it factor that audiences are, so on top of being a great writer, she has that odd tha,t she can play an audience, she can work a room, so I think I’ve hit some gold in that. Very exciting. Very exciting.
Antonio Michael Downing 1:03:35
Look at that smile.
Scott Fraser 1:03:36
Yeah, no, no, it’s all about sales, right? I come from the sales world. So we got to we got to keep the lights on. You know, we got to…
Francesca Ekwuyasi 1:03:43
Can I mention one more author? Andre Fenton. Right now he primarily writes YA. So his book, his first book was called Worthy of Love, and Why They Love part 2 is coming out this year. It’s called The Summer Between Us .He also wrote Anika and he’s like African Nova Scotian. Brilliant love, just love his work.
Scott Fraser 1:04:06
Awesome. Well, so once this gets circulated people will be frantically jotting down all these great recommendations and hopefully we’ll see some sales because writers need, they need the income from from from sales that’s how they that’s the bread and butter that’s how writers make their living. So hopefully everyone will go out there and buy some books. Buy some Black-authored books and yeah, I think that’s I think that’s taking us right to the end we’re ovetime actually.
Antonio Michael Downing 1:04:34
Shout out to the Giller and and I love every single one of you on here. You’re fabulous and inspiring people. I’ve been, I’ve been listening to your talks all day and, and Francesca I love your book. Thank you guys, so much. You bless my my soul.
Scott Fraser 1:04:51
Well, I’m so glad that I have, well I’ve known Donna for a little while but it’s such a pleasure to meet everyone here and to engage in this reasoning, and hopefully it’s not the last time because I want I wanted to ask about the fact that Eric Williams capitalism and slavery has been published in the UK for the very first time. It’s only taking 80 years, but it’s now, now it’s gonna be available, hopefully for an entire generation of British people to read and to think seriously about reparations. And hopefully some of that will trickle over to Canada, as well and the United States because boy, does that book need to be well known. Anyway, so that’s, hey, there’s my reading backwards, right? When was it published? In the 30s?
H. Nigel Thomas 1:05:42
Thanks to all of you guys, you’ve been grateful. It’s, I’m glad that the old man is catching up with the younger folks.
Donna Bailey Nurse 1:05:52
Nigel Thomas is one amazing critic, and he doesn’t mention his book. What’s the title again Nigel. It’s not coming to me. What is it? The interviews?
H. Nigel Thomas 1:06:02
Why We Write.
Donna Bailey Nurse 1:06:04
Honestly, guys, he is an amazing critic. So I just wanted to, to let people know because he doesn’t toot his own horn.
H. Nigel Thomas 1:06:11
Conversations with Canadian poets and novelist.
Francesca Ekwuyasi 1:06:16
It’s an honour to meet you. It’s an honor to be in conversation with you.
Scott Fraser 1:06:19
So, here’s Elana. So, folks, I guess that’s it for us.
Donna Bailey Nurse 1:06:25
You’re kicking us out.
Scott Fraser 1:06:27
We got, we got, we out.
Antonio Michael Downing 1:06:29
Elana Rabinovitch 1:06:32
I just I just want to say what an incredible conversation. I’m really humbled by the depth of your investigation and the insights you all provided. And more than a little acutely aware that I have, you know convened this panel because of Black History Month and quarreled with myself about that, you know, as as a bit of tokenism. So, I hope you can forgive me for that. To our viewers, please note that a video of tonight’s event will be available in the coming days on our website, YouTube and on Facebook. As I said, tonight was our second master panel but please check back in March when it’s all about the women. Thanks again to all our participants and good night.
Francesca Ekwuyasi 1:07:23
Thanks, everyone, Thank you so much.