It is uncommon on this unceded Coast Salish land called “Vancouver” to see the radiant faces of so many black people in one room; more familiar are we with those rare, unexpected moments when we see another solitary “i” in this city, as Ian Williams so aptly notes in “Our eyes meet across yet another room,” that the on-stage dialogue last June between Dionne Brand, Christina Sharpe, and David Chariandy felt like a long-awaited gift. We left invigorated. What was the work of words for us as students, activists, creators? David Chariandy—our professor for only three months that summer but someone we now envision as a lifelong mentor—encouraged us to follow this thread. He connected us with The Capilano Review’s former editor, Andrea Actis, another new mentor, and thus this special issue of TCR on “the work of words” was born.
When we began to curate this issue, we were unsure of how the submissions might come together, as might be the case with any collaborative venture. We’d invited contributors with the prompt What is “the work of words” for black creators now? and excitedly awaited their interpretations of the question. Despite our uncertainty, we were awestruck by the conversation that we saw between the pieces. This issue is not just held together by blackness, nor does it attempt to provide a definition of blackness. These pieces capture a multiplicity of black joy, fear, desire, communion, sorrow, and life. (Emmanuelle Andrews and Katrina Sellinger, “Editors’ Note”)
Guest-edited by Emmanuelle Andrews and Katrina Sellinger, The Capilano Review 3.34 (Winter 2018) centres itself around, as the editors suggest, the “work of words” for black creators, including works by a wide range of contemporary writers and artists including Sonnet L’Abbé, Emmanuelle Andrews, Phanuel Antwi, Juliane Okot Bitek, Deanna Bowen, David Bradford, Dionne Brand, Lila Bristol, David Chariandy, Wayde Compton, Pedro Daher, Caleb Femi, Jalen Frizzell, Joy Gyamfi, Aisha Sasha John, Lucia Lorenzi, Canisia Lubrin, Cecily Nicholson, Katrina Sellinger, Christina Sharpe, Ian Williams and Mariko Yeo. One of the highlights has to be a conversation between Brand, and Sharpe after they delivered the 2017Shadbolt Lecture at Simon Fraser University on June 9, 2017, “an edited excerpt from their onstage dialogue moderated by David Chariandy”:
DC: Earlier, Christina was generous enough to visit my class. Some of my students are here right now. And there was a moment in which you invited us—in this powerful way—to contemplate what is the weather like here, how do particular ecologies of anti-Blackness work out in specific sites of the African diaspora?
CS: Right. How do you have microclimates where you can actually get something else done, so that there are lateral moves where you have a kind of microclimate. You’re working toward liberation, but you have these micro-moments—like in Bail Out Black Mamas in the US. You’re working toward prison abolition, and you’re working toward the end of cash bail. But you have these moments where, in the midst of working toward that, you also do this other thing, I think of those as microclimates within a larger climate of violence in which you try to create a sustainable life. In which you don’t accede to everything that would try to suffocate you, to all of the forces that are intent on that kind of suffocation.
DC: Which is why, I must say, I find work written by both of you so profoundly important in that you allow us to chart those connection between those microclimates, those different spaces, landscapes, and geographies. Your projects have never been confined to specific national or regional spaces. They prove themselves global in orientation while demonstrating close attention to specific places.
DB: I also think that just writing, itself, is that. It creates those microclimates, if you will. Because to make a poem, for me, is to create the space where not only the vulgar and brutal exists but language opens places where someone might actually recognize themselves outside of the short instrumental stereotypic location that in public they occupy—or in the public they occupy. So, I think writing is in itself a space where that happens or can happen.
When Drake hosted Saturday Night Live in 2016, he appeared in the sketch “Black Jeopardy,” which attempted to highlight the fact that American “Blackness” can be a very different thing than Canadian “Blackness,” in part due to an entirely different set of experiences, references and ideas, despite whatever commonalities might exist. And yet, this is something that seems less obvious than the fact that a myriad, even a cornucopia and potential series of contradictions, of “Blackness” exist within each country, much of which is still being articulated, whether by Morgan Parker, Eve L. Ewing, Tonya M. Foster, Shane McCrae, Danez Smith and multiple others in and across the United States, and by Canadian writers including those in the current issue, as well as Kaie Kellough, JustJamaal the Poet and George Elliott Clarke (and so many, many others). This is a small part of a large, evolving and ongoing conversation, and one that I am pleased to engage with, as both reader and listener. As Ian Williams writes as part of his poem “Where are you really from”:
While a white man waits for me to answer he is searching
his inner Wikipedia for a fact or a current event about the
island or continent I am. Carnival, genocide, pirates, cruise
lines, a woman he used to work with, blood diamonds on
the soles of her shoes, a-wa a-wa. The list could be longer.
He knows a lot about where I am from whether I am from
there or not.