Dear Austin: Why Teaching Your Work Is Difficult

by Leslie Sanders

Leslie Sanders works in African American and Black Canadian literatures. She is the author of The Development of Black Theater in America (Louisiana State University Press), a general editor of the Collected Works of Langston Hughes (University of Missouri Press), and the volume editor for two volumes of plays and other performance works. Aside from publications on Hughes, she has published on such Black Canadian writers as Austin Clarke, Dionne Brand, Nourbese Philip, Claire Harris, George Elliot Clarke, Maxine Tynes and Djanet Sears. She is a founder of the Centre for the Study of Black Cultures in Canada and webmaster for African Canadian Online.

Dear Austin,

I’ve been reading your work for many years, and known you since the 1970s, in fact, and think I do truly understand and appreciate your importance. I no longer recall how we met, except that it was before I won a postdoctoral fellowship to write about your work; we did speak, then, several times, and I remember that you were very pleased with the essay I produced as a result. You lived a block away in those years, and would invite me around from time to time; I recall one long visit on Bloom’s Day listening to a reading of the entirety of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Later, many others—with mutual friends, especially Rinaldo, dear to both of us—evenings at your home or his, or your various haunts, just hanging out, over the years. Doctor or Professor, you always called me; not a close friendship, but a long one, one based, I think, on mutual respect and fondness. As you know, I teach African Canadian literature on both the undergraduate and graduate level, and every time I put together a syllabus, I am torn as regards your work and what to assign. Especially at the undergraduate level. What can I teach of your work that will not make me feel I must attack, defend, or ignore your representation of women? And if attack is my only viable option, how will that affect how succeeding generations value your work and contributions?

Of course, you are not alone by any means in regard to this problem, and many factors contribute to the narrowly gendered perspective of your imaginative world. At root, I think your project, of historical and continued importance, is the making of men, the difficulties of manhood in the aftermath of slavery, colonialism, Caribbean independence, and migration to White majority metropolises (in your case, Toronto)—even when women are central to your narrative. Your early work focuses on women in part because, due to the Domestic Scheme, they came first, providing a means and gateway for male arrival. Later, well, perhaps what follows will suggest what I see as the complexities of your later major characters: Mary-Mathilde and Idora.

Of major importance, your fiction introduced Caribbean people to Toronto, and the converse, chronicling migrant lives in narratives unabashedly flooded with a Barbadian-infused vernacular, and insistent upon the migrants’ perspective on Canadian life, its limitations, its racism—and in their own tongue. Your work began at the renaissance of Canadian literature, and for many years was its major, virtually singular Black voice in major Canadian publishers and presses. Speaking for community, and to an essentially hostile other, while still critiquing both, is part of the genius of your accomplishment.

You write no love stories, no relationships based on, nor stories depicting, mutuality.

There is a lot one can say, academically speaking, about the hows and whys and whats regarding your representations. It is not my intention here to pursue that avenue. I take this informal approach to allow myself speculation perhaps not permissible in scholarly form, and to wrestle with what I experience as the increasingly invasive and visceral quality of your representation of women, particularly regarding how your female characters experience themselves. How to understand, communicate and make meaning of their life in the fabric of your literary imagination?

Women are central to much of your early writing. In the Toronto Trilogy, for example, it is Bernice and then Estelle who carry the narrative in the first two volumes, and with whose fate we are most concerned, and while Boysie is the central consciousness in the third volume, Dots is made vivid in her loneliness. I’ve long regarded one story in your early collection When He Was Free And Young And He Used To Wear Silks, “Waiting for the Postman to Knock,” as a touchstone for thinking about your early representation of women. So abject is Enid’s situation in that story, so devoid of hope, that her weeping and her rage seem barely adequate a response to her situation. Everyone wants something from her: her mother and her boyfriend, the landlord, Bell and Hydro, and she has nothing. At the story’s conclusion, Christmas Eve, she sits alone in the dark. “… Enid didn’t know nothing about time now, and she didn’t really know where she was; here or there … she sit down on the toilet bowl to pass water, and as she sit there she cry and cry and cry out …” The depth of disappointment, sorrow, betrayal, and despair contained in these pages could only be expressed by a woman in your fictional universe. It is not that your male characters do not feel similarly, but they have no means of expressing it, no means but madness and suicide. I’ve long thought that vulnerability enters your fiction through your Black women characters.

The gaze so frequent in your other work has become internalized, self-reflexive.

Strikingly, in your preface to Nine Men Who Laughed, you situate your vexed and hurtful relationship with Canada as with a rejecting White woman (“the person who confronted me with her prepossessiveness, the woman, the system [sic]”), and many of your stories concern relationships between Black men and White women, virtually all of which are based on manipulation and deception. However, that theme subsides after your novel The Question, which seems fully to explore and evacuate that kind of relationship (or that is my reading), with its plot of a marriage between a Black man and a White woman which is vexed by her fixation on her little dog, and finally abandoned by the male character when he discovers her sexual relationship with her female best friend.

More generally, in your fiction, your male characters express a vivid and casual sexism, their relationship with women an expression of their gendered right and prowess. You construct some powerful and arresting female characters, notably, of course, in The Polished Hoe, but you write no love stories, no relationships based on, nor stories depicting, mutuality.

The persistent and conventional sexism and misogyny in your work is difficult and problematic; however, more recently, your representation of women occasionally has taken a turn that might simply be experienced as a kind of pornography; for example, in “Our Lady of the Hours,” where a woman masturbates while talking to her friend on the phone. To me, however, upon reflection, such scenes also have a deeper resonance. A few years ago, while reading More, your last novel, with a graduate class, a student commented about your representation of Idora’s highly physical self-engagement during her retreat: “Give the woman her privacy!” The comment was very apt. More opens on Idora’s dream in which ringing church bells transform into a man’s touch, bringing her to orgasm; later she sashays around her tiny basement apartment vamping for the mirror and touching herself seductively. In comparison to other narratives centred on women, including The Polished Hoe, the narrative voice wishes to inhabit Idora, to become her. The gaze so frequent in your other work has become internalized, self-reflexive. There is a path from Enid to Idora, I think, ultimately a desire not only to write the woman but to inhabit her, not only her mind but her body as well. A kind of cross-dressing, if you will. It’s not an idea I had expected when thinking about this letter to you, and I wish you were able to respond. Actually, I don’t imagine you would recoil.

The problem remains for me, but also the urgency of your work, as relevant as it was when you began writing, both for that institution called Canadian literature and as narrator of Black Diaspora story.

So, perhaps others will have suggestions. I’m still at a loss.

 

Your friend,

Leslie

 


Leslie Sanders works in African American and Black Canadian literatures. She is the author of The Development of Black Theater in America (Louisiana State University Press), a general editor of the Collected Works of Langston Hughes (University of Missouri Press), and the volume editor for two volumes of plays and other performance works. Aside from publications on Hughes, she has published on such Black Canadian writers as Austin Clarke, Dionne Brand, Nourbese Philip, Claire Harris, George Elliot Clarke, Maxine Tynes and Djanet Sears. She is a founder of the Centre for the Study of Black Cultures in Canada and webmaster for African Canadian Online.

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