As a child, growing up it was hard to find characters that looked like me, even in fiction work. I rarely saw Black characters, and their stories, depicted in novels. Every so often a new book is released that depicts Black characters during slavery or from the perspective of Black Americans. Given those books are difficult to find, it is an even bigger challenge to find Black novels from a Canadian perspective. Although Black Americans and Black Canadians share a number of similarities, we still have different lived experiences, and those experiences deserve to be told. Our political beliefs, our neighbourhoods, the ways we embrace our varying cultures, are all things we should be proud of and should be able to find characters and plots that resonate with us. Through telling our stories we can begin to see the similarities, across borders, in our fight for justice and liberation.
Below is a list of fiction and nonfiction books that Black Canadians, young and old, can relate to.
What We All Long For
What We All Long For is written by Black Canadian poet, novelist and essayist, Dionne Brand. The story follows a friend group of second generation, 20-something year olds Canadians as they go through life and support one another. The novel covers topics such as queer love, suicide, toxic parental relationships and interracial dating, to name a few. With such a unique group of characters, each with their own issues and successes, it is almost a guarantee that you will be able to relate somehow to one of the characters. Academic and writer Rinaldo Walcott gave a great analysis in the Globe and Mail about the novel, stating “We can now say with certainty that we no longer have to long for a novel that speaks to this city’s uniqueness.” Toronto, where the novel takes place, is unique in its diversity and the personal stories each and every resident holds. What We All Long For is the representation Black Canadians have been looking for.
Written by Toronto-based writer, Zalika Reid-Benta, Frying Plantain, is set in Toronto’s Little Jamaica neighbourhood and follows Kara Davis, a second generation Canadian from childhood to adulthood. Readers are able to follow along as she battles between her Jamaican heritage and growing up in predominantly white society. The story is one that many Black Canadians can relate to, going “back home” to a country that is not necessarily home, growing up with a single mother and then tensions that arise from the cultural expectations placed on us. The book, which was included in Indigos’s 50 Best Books of 2019, can easily relate to any second generation Canadian.
The Youth of God
Written by Hassan Ghedi, a journalist who emigrated to Canada from Somalia, The Youth of Godfollows a 17 year old boy during his life in a Somali dominant neighbourhood in Toronto. Nuur, the main character, has a personal battle between his “intellectual abilities” and his Islamic faith. This is a novel that many Black Canadians can relate to, growing up in Black dominant community that is unfortunately riddled with crime and unemployment but breaking through that mold placed upon them.
Shut Up You’re Pretty
Why get one novel when you can read Shut Up You’re Prettyand read a variety of great short stories? Tea Mutonji compiles a collection of stories in this Globe & Mails best book of the year. Including stories that discuss cultural traditions, reconnections with a mother and daughter and abortion, Shut Up You’re Pretty grapples with issues that the whole world has gone though, but with a Black Canadian context which is what we lack in most readings.
David Chariany’s book, Brother, set in 1991 is the story of 2 brothers, sons of Trinidadian immigrants in Toronto’s East end. Throughout the novel they are subjected to low expectations and prejudice due to their black skin. Touching on topics such as music and love, things unfortunately turn ugly leading to life being ended by gun violence. American novels that focus on crime, unfortunately have bits and pieces that can be completely un-relatable, in terms of laws, locations and important themes. Without glorifying crime, Brothers simply explores the honest truth about crime in Toronto.
Things Are Good Now
Djamila Ibrahim’s, Things Are Good Now is the second collection of short novels on this list. Many of the stories explore the lives of those who have emigrated to countries such as Canada or the United States in search of a better life. Topics range from a female ex-freedom fighters who moves to Canada only to clean public washrooms, and the varying impacts of 9/11 on Muslims living in the West.
Black Girl Shine
Canadian poet and wellness blogger, Aissatou Bah provides us with a book that is all about being unapologetically Black. With a focus on being comfortable in one’s skin and self love, this is the book we all needed. With the majority of poetry books describing skin that looks nothing like ours, and cities we’ve never been to, there is finally something for the Black Canadian girls. This reminds us that we do indeed shine.
Black by Uma Samari is another collection of poems that covers topics like Blackness, race, mental health and love. This is the contemporary, Black Canadian poetry book we needed.
Black Writers Matter
Black Writers Matter is an anthology of African-Canadian Writers. Whitney French, a Canadian writer and poet, calls “an invitation to read, share and tell stories of Black narratives that are close to the bone.” All written by up and coming Black Canadian writers, each story helps us understand the Black Canadian experience. The cultural and generational differences we often have to deal with among both our elders and the non-Black people around us.
Other Side of the Game
Amanda Parris’s Other Side of the Game, explores the relationship between Black women and their loyalty to their respective community. This includes women who fight for their communities, such as the character, Beverly in the 1970s, and the character, Nicole who after reuniting with her ex boyfriend gets stopped by the police. These are situations that Black people have experienced for years all over the world. These are stories that are rarely spoken about in Canadian contexts.