Capturing the Art and Soul of Storytelling
Book: What's a Black Critic to Do 11
Author: Donna Bailey Nurse
Publisher: Insomniac Press, Canada
Reviewer: Dr Glenville Ashby
In this collection of interviews, profiles, reviews, and reflections, Donna Bailey Nurse clinically explores the social and psychological dynamics that shape the work of a literary artist. What's a Black Critic to Do 11 is culled from sit-downs with writers at The Calabash Literary Festival in Jamaica, along with interviews conducted in Canada a few years ago. And the names read like a who's who in Caribbean literature: Kwame Dawes, Maryse Conde, Olive Senior, and Lawrence Hill, to name a few.
Nurse is an experienced and influential writer who understands the underlying forces that propel a story. She is aware of the angst, the complexes, the insufferable emotions that jockey to find healing and reconciliation through the written word. This has always been the burden of writers impacted by racism, 'shadism,' gender inequality, cultural dissonance and other forms of alienation. This is the world of diasporic communities. Nurse proves her salt with her command of comparative literature and her ability to discern, if not decode, her interviewees. In some ways, she is both a
medium and psychoanalyst. There is a synergy to her work, a symbiotic feel to her multiple exchanges.
Nurse's engaging material serves as an invaluable resource for journalists, writers, historians and social scientists. Despite its sociopolitical thrust, it is by no means an academic undertaking. It was never meant to be, as Nurse articulates at the outset. But arguably, there is no academia without the existential expressions of griots. Nurse goes further. She writes, "To be honest, I often feel at cross purposes
with scholars of black Canadian literature, a number of whom seem bewilderingly determined to convince readers that books are beyond their ken. I sometimes feel as though I am working hard to place books in the hands of ordinary readers, while certain black academics ... are working hard to take them out."
As a critic, Nurse is deliberate, seamlessly demystifying multilayered themes. She understands the social and historical forces that drive her writers. With impartiality, boldness, and clarity, she analyses and compares divers works, referencing the likes of Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, and Charles Dickens to deliver the most comprehensive and detailed reviews.
For the upcoming critic, her reviews of Hillary Jordan's Mudbound, and Sapphire's The Kid, are worth studying. Her analysis of Diana Evans' highly interpretative 26 A is equally insightful.
race and identity
Nurse's interview with Dan Hill, author of I am my Father's Son, surfaces as the book's most incisive exchange, laying bare the Jekyll and Hyde dimensions of race and identity. Of his relationship with his father, Hill's words bleed through: "It was very, very complicated. He felt that we had to compensate for our race ... . There was a part of our father who thought we were Einstein and another part of him who thought we were suffering from overweening ambition. He had to put us in our place."
Other quotes are also etched in memory: "I think you can never really enter the sensibility of the other gender," says Rachel Manley when asked about Horses in her Hair, a book that chronicles the life of her grandmother.
And as always, the words of the inimitable Kwame Dawes ring true when interviewed on art and violence. "Beauty is not the pretty or lovely. Beauty is bringing together elements that create something that is shaped and formed out of experience. And beauty can be ugly, painful, and difficult. But it's the way we turn that into a form that allows us to engage it again and again, to reflect on it again and again," he says.
Equally notable are Christopher Campbell's words: "I am the child of a really tremendous literary political and cultural tradition. The weight of those traditions is astounding in terms of the path they cleared."
Despite their artistic gifts, Nurse's featured writers are still vulnerable; but they are brutally honest about their shortcomings. Some have even doubted the value of their work.
The road to success can be long and painstaking. Timing and patience are sometimes the determinants of success. We embrace these lessons from the experiences of Rachel Manley who struggled for nearly a decade before completing her work. And of the pivotal Three Day Road, we learn that Joseph Boyden felt "a gnawing sense of dissatisfaction", after submitting the novel to his agent, and asked that it not be read. He proceeded with the onerous task of redoing the project.
Nurse and her interviewees breathe in tandem; they are kindred spirits conveying centuries of pain and triumph through artful exhalations. We are wounded souls, no doubt. But we must not make this condition our death knell.
Nurse scores on multiple levels. Her work is a celebration, a testament to the imaginative genius of a once silenced people. It is also cautionary, inspiring us to reflect, to somehow work through our psychic minefields towards healing. The many writers presented by Nurse did just that. So must we.
Rating: Highly recommended