Winner of the 1991 Archibald Lampman Award
Selected for Canada Reads 2002
I’ve written on this site before about my love of George Elliott Clarke. He is a master writer, a brilliant public reader and speaker, a top notch literary scholar, a genuine nice guy, and Toronto’s Poet Laureate. His writing is a mix of down-home Nova Scotia charm and rich African-Canadian historicism – which he dubbed “Africadian”. Whylah Falls is Clarke’s second book and one of signature works. This volume is the narrative of the residents of the fictional Nova Scotia black village of Whylah Falls, focusing primarily a young lady named Shelley and her immediate family. This book has the notable distinction of being selected for the first edition of Canada Reads held back in 2002 (defended by sci-fi author Nalo Hopkinson, finishing second only to the winning title In the Skin of a Lion) and still remains one of only two books of poetry to be featured on the competition.
Whylah Falls is a book of poetry but it is a mixed-genre book; it uses traditional narrative poems, prose poems, sermons, dramatic monologues, theatrical scenes, newspaper-style articles, letters, and photography. This collection is often referred to as a novel told through poetry, but I think a better description is a cycle of stories told through poetic forms as each section focuses on different groups of characters in the village.
This has become an important and landmark book in Canadian literature and is now solidly in the canon of Black Canadian writing. I read a selection of these poems in a Canadian Lit course at Saint Mary’s University in 2003 but I had never read the whole volume from start to finish despite the fact I’ve had a first edition sitting on my shelf for years (oddly enough the first edition cover is really terrible and both the 10th and 20th anniversary editions are much nicer). I really really wanted to love this book. I recently re-listened to Canada Reads 2002 and Hopkinson’s impassioned defense ignited a desire to immerse myself into Clarke’s best known world. But. But, in the end, I wasn’t blown away like I was hoping I would be. To this reader, Whylah Falls was just ok. And here’s why.
Firstly, I absolutely adored the love poetry in the two sections titled “The Adoration of Shelley” and I loved the whole section “The Martyrdom of Othello Clemence.” The imagery in the love poems was beautiful, sensual, and tastefully erotic and the narrative in “The Martyrdom” was powerful and vivid. Overall though, I was a little underwhelmed by a lot of the book. I think the primary problem was the huge cast of characters; I was continually lost and had to keep referring back to the Dramatis Personae. Unlike a novel or a play where there is ample narrative introduction and development of primary characters, this format didn’t really allow for that, so you are simply thrown into the middle of this dynamic little town (almost the identical problem I had with Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town).
I want to be clear that my rating of “just ok” doesn’t mean that I didn’t like the book. The quality of writing was very high and the innovative nature of the volume was superb. Ultimately though, Whylah Falls didn’t grab me the way Execution Poems did. Maybe I was just the wrong audience or I read the book at the wrong time. All that being said though, this is still one of the most important books in contemporary Canadian literature and maintains an important place in African Canadian culture.
Winner of the 2001 Governor-General’s Award for Poetry
I have had the pleasure of seeing George Elliott Clarke read his poetry on several occasions; the first time in 2002 at a presentation he did for a Canadian poetry class I was taking at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. Clarke is definitely one of the most entertaining readers I have seen. He does more than just read, he performs, he puts his heart and soul into the presentation of his work. In his 2001 collection, Execution Poems, this passion leaps off the page. In this short book, only around 30 pages of writing, Clarke tells the story of brothers George and Rufus Hamilton, who were actually Clarke’s cousins, who killed a taxi driver in Fredericton in 1949 and were hanged for their crime only a few months later. This book has been on my “to buy/read” list for a long time so when I finally ordered it a few months ago I was very excited. The street I grew up on, Hamilton Street, is actually named after the Hamilton family of which George and Rufus were a part of. Clarke in this small collection looks at racism, desperation, and examines whether things really have changed almost a half-century since the hanging.
This book has a strong narrative arc with most of the poems told from the point-of-view of either George, Rufus (or Rue), or both. The writing is done in a conversational tone which greatly enhances the desperation of the characters circumstances. The central pair seems to be fairly well-education, or at least well read, in comparison to their socio-economic contemporaries. The author sets a scene of fear for the pair: beginning with a fear of starvation and eventually ending with fear of the consequences of their actions. The poem “The Killing” is my favorite in this collection, and I think this is actually one of Clarke’s best poems in his entire library. Clarke has the power to paint a vivid picture and expose a man’s deepest feelings with only a few words. Here is a power example from this poem:
Rue: Here’s how I justify my error:
The blow that slew Silver came from two centuries back.
It took that much time and agony to turn a white man’s whip
into a black man’s hammer.
Geo: No, we needed money,
so you hit the So-and-So,
only much too hard.
Rue: So what?
In nine lines Clarke manages to embody generations of the African-Canadian experience.
The actual book is work of art as well. Published by Gaspereau Press, publishers of this year’s Giller winner The Sentimentalists, this paperback has thick paper with a pronounced grain, a dust jacket, and the paper blocks are sewn as well as glued, you can tell that a lot of love went into making these volumes. In 2005 George Elliott Clarke released a novelization of this story entitled George & Rue; this novel was released to much popular and critical acclaim, being nominated for several prestigious awards. For anyone interested in the African Canadian experience of Atlantic Canada, or as Clarke has dubbed them, Africadians (combination of African and Acadian), then this book, along with his best known collection, Whylah Falls, should be on top of your list.
Winner of the 1998 Warner Aspect First Novel Contest
Winner of the 1999 Locus Award for Best First Novel
Shortlisted for the 1998 Philip K. Dick Award
Selected for Canada Reads 2008
Nalo Hopkinson is one of Canada’s most prominent science-fiction writers. She has been shortlisted for and won several prestigious international sci-fi awards. Brown Girl in the Ring is Hopkinson’s first novel, which was released through a contest where the winner received a publication agreement. The story revolves around a Toronto of the not-to-distant future that has been abandoned by government and police and overrun by gangs and drug addicts hooked on a substance called buff. This novel is a cross between a typical sci-fi and fantasy story; there are many scenes that lean heavily on Caribbean religious beliefs and spirits.
The book starts out very fast and is very intriguing. In the opening chapters the way the history of how Toronto fell into utter decay is very well done; it is given through newspaper headlines that another derelict is using for an artistic piece. Unfortunately the book slows to an almost unbearable pace after the opening 30 pages. The ensuing 120 pages or so are very richly described and detailed but the forward momentum of the novel simply grinds to a halt; once you get past this point the novel progresses at a speed which almost overwhelms the reader. The central characters, Ti-Jeanne, Mami, Rudy, Tony, and Mi-Jeanne, all weave a complex family and community steeped in the culture of their Caribbean roots. The pacing aside, Brown Girl in the Ring is an interesting book. It plays around quite a bit stereotypes, i.e. the good-for-nothing-boyfriend that the girl still loves, the wise old grandmother, and the evil crime boss out only for himself; but the characters themselves are not the memorable part of book. For me, what I will remember, is the idea of Toronto collapsed in on itself and the vivid descriptions of the city. Hopkinson uses real street names and places in the book very effectively, including the CN Tower for the final showdown.
All-in-all this was a decent read. I do not read a lot of sci-fi but it is a genre I enjoy. I have always had a lot of admiration for the writers of this type of work; it is one thing to create a story out of nothing that is of this world, but to create this universe without boundaries whether it is told through a scientific or spiritual lens is amazing to me. The imagination this would require is far beyond what I think I could muster for my own writings. One thing that should be mentioned as well in speaking about this book is the power of the CBC Canada Reads competition. Brown Girl in the Ring was a selection for the 2008 show and introduced Hopkinson, who herself was an advocate for Whylah Falls on the 2002 show, to a whole new set of readers, including myself. This being her first novel I am positive that her other works will continue to improve and I look forward to picking up one of her many other pieces.