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The Book of Negroes: Second time, Still terrific

                           

When my supervisor suggested I read Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes I was delighted. Delighted because I had already read the book in 2007, and enjoyed it a great deal; and delighted because the narrative aligns nicely with ideas about historical fiction I am working on. So this post begins with the caveat that I already liked the book when I read it, and that I wanted to like it again while I was re-reading it. No surprise: I liked it.

The novel has won spades of awards and garnered Lawrence Hill the kind of critical attention he has deserved for years (his novel Any Known Blood is also terrific and well worth the read). The protagonist, Aminata Diallo, speaks with a captivating voice as she recounts her experiences being captured and kidnapped in Africa, transported to America, enslaved in the indigo fields and later in a domestic setting, escape to New York and then Nova Scotia, a return to Africa (Sierre Leone) and finally a journey to England to work with abolitionists. The epic journey is signaled from the first few pages, so it is not necessarily the particular destinations that strike the reader as remarkable, but rather the tenacity and grace of the speaker.

I did find the first time that the section on Aminata’s return to Africa dragged because there was no close relationship between Aminata and anyone else to follow; and perhaps because unlike the other sequences, time passes very quickly, whole years disappear in pages. In the earlier sections a year or two is given a fairly large chunk of text, allowing the reader to become fully immersed in the setting and relationships. This second time through I did not find the section dragged as much, but it still stood out because of its different narrative scope.

The descriptions are vivid and detailed; the voice is consistent and engrossing; the plot is painful, yet important for bringing to readers a story not often told in popular fiction and for doing so with great effect.

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Governor Generals, Historical Fiction, Prize Winner

The Trade: Dressing up colonialism

                           

Fred Stenson’s 2000 novel The Trade was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which I think is pretty neat considering the novel focuses on the fur trade, and as you might well imagine, the fur trade is not usually a sexy or glamorous topic. I say “usually” because Stenson does include some sexy-glam, but not nearly enough to titillate a Giller jury (though maybe I’m projecting here, as the Giller has recognized a fair number of novelists writing historical fiction: Margaret Atwood, Michael Crummey, Guy Vanderhaeghe, Anne Michaels, Wayne Johnston, Jane Urquhart, John Bemrose, Elizabeth Hay, and most recently, Joseph Boyden). So maybe my point is less that historical fiction is unpopular and unrecognized, and more that it is a triumph of the Canadian h.f. novelist. In this case Stenson takes what grade seven history turned into a mind-numbingly-dull exercise in remembering that the NorthWest Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company merged in 1822, and turns it into a fascinating and engaging narrative of deceit, violence, betrayal and madness. 

My favourite part? When a cat adopts orphaned bunnies only to watch while the bunnies get eaten. A microcosm for the rest of the narrative that sees (somewhat unconvincingly innocent) good-hearted and sincere men turned violent, or become objects of extreme and disproportionate violence. Stenson ultimately lays the blame for the violence of the fur trade at the hands of “colonialism,” but does so by personifying the ruthless economy of colonialism in the HBCo governor. This sleight, whereby colonialism is not blamed for the devastation of the land, the buffalo and indigenous people, but rather the governor is, remains a problem for me.

That said, Stenson does well to draw attention to the complexity and pervasiveness of colonial violence by including a missionary and an artist-in-the-field-reporter (I should say that the epistolary narratives of the missionary and artist are distracting and awkward inclusions at the end of a narrative that has otherwise been third-person omniscient) as a way of gesturing to the ways colonialism, Christianity and archival “truth” (in the form of paintings and written histories) sustain one another.

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Banal Nationalism: Written before 9/11

           

I’m not sure how I feel about posting on non-fiction. Reasons for? I read a lot of it and much of it is interesting. Reasons against? I only ever read non-fiction for work and I’m not sure I like the idea of “Literary Vice” being related to work. Also, I have less to say about character consistency and plot engagement when it comes to non-fiction. Considerably less.

I read “Banal Nationalism” because I was curious about the ways individuals perform their national-allegiance (nationalism, if you will). The book was written by a sociologist (Michael Billig) in 1995 and makes a few interesting points (and then makes those same points over and over and over again), chiefly: nationalism is not confined to extremist states or burgeoning states; nationalism can be seen in everyday life in things like flags on buildings and national news sources that refer to “us” when speaking of the country-proper; the nation is still important in a “so-called” postmodern era. He had very little to say about individual performance of nation. Sigh.

The problems: very little distinction made among nation, state, and nation-state; passing remarks about “Quebec nationalism,” but nothing specific about nationalism in the Canadian context (a problem for me because I work on Canadian literature); the idea of counting hanging flags as evidence of the strength of nationalism in a given region is silly; it was written before 9/11.

This last point is certainly not the fault of the book, but all the same, I can’t help reading it with a certain frustration. Some of the comments about the distinction between patriotism and nationalism (patriotism is seen as something at best, good, at worst benign, nationalism is aggressive) and the supposed anxiety about the permeability of borders would be much strengthened by a post-9/11 critique of changed border security methods, the Patriotism Act (or in Canada, Bill C-36), the divisiveness of the war in Iraq (which functions contrary to Billig’s claim that wars show the strength of nationalism), for example. I should follow-up and see what Billig has said post-9/11, but frankly I’d be surprised if he sad anything more than “A lot of flags waved post 9/11. Flag waving proves nationalism is alive and well.” 

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A Discovery of Strangers: Cannibal Consumption

Rudy Wiebe twice won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, first for The Temptations of Big Bear and then again for A Discovery of Strangers. In both novels Wiebe imagines historical events from perspectives not traditionally represented in historical discourse: the trial of Big Bear and the first Franklin expedition, respectively.

I’ve read A Discovery of Strangers three times now, and this last time is the first that I paid much attention. Something about Wiebe lulls me. I suspect the constantly shifting point of view and abrupt changes in chronological sequence are distracting, but his word choice is (oddly) poetic and so, for the first two reads, I lost a lot of the subtleties. This time around I’m reading with intent (take that Atwood), reading with the intent to write twenty odd pages about the book, and so reading with a close and careful eye. It has given me a sinus headache (actually I suspect the winter and germs are responsible for that).

There is much for the attentive eye to notice: the dominance of circles; the repeated use of both ‘discover’ and ‘strangely’ in reference to the ways characters speak; descriptions of the arctic ice as ‘eating’ or ‘consuming’; references to skin – the thickness, colour and texture of it. And so much to do with eating.

I noticed the eating before, but on this read I noticed it in new places. Sex is described as eating, the landscape is described as eating, the English explorers are (of course and always) described as eating, the animals eat, the children eat, the rocks and the forest and the water eats. And people eat one another.

The novel poses several questions directly: what are the explorers looking for? What do they hope to find? And. What are our responsibilities to one another? What does community require?

The answers might be found in the imagery, the symbols, the dialogic and polyphonic structure. Or perhaps there are no direct answers, rather an insistence that we readers ‘eat’ too: the novel, the narrative, and in eating incorporate the voices and this story into ourselves, and perhaps then find something approximating answers – or perhaps just satiation.

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