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Uche Umezurike: 5 Alberta Books That Inspire Me
Uche Umezurike is a Nigerian author and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Calgary, as well as a columnist at Read Alberta. His short story collection, Double Wahala, Double Trouble (Griots Lounge Publishing, 2021), explores the lives of characters struggling to live, desire, love, and thrive against the eddy of troubles in their world. As part of the Black History Month celebrations in Canada, Uche will be moderating two readings by African Canadian writers on February 7 at SpokenWeb at the University of Alberta and on February 11 at Writing Across Nations at the University of Calgary.
In honour of Black History Month, Uche shares a list of five Alberta books that inspire him and why:
Literature is a thing of wonder, for how it conjures worlds out of words and leaves us at times in a state of awe. The worlds may be strange or familiar, but I am introspective anytime I have finished reading some literary work. This is because one of the aims of literature is to orient us toward introspection, to think about our place and connections with others. Whether prose or poetry, stories often invite us to wonder what it means to be here, belong in this world, among fellow humans, in the presence of nature. Stories, for me, can orient us to a reality much different from what we feel sure about.
Similarly, some stories can disorient us so that we come to appreciate better what we have, who we are or would become, what we dare not lose just yet. This year’s Black History Month offers me—a guest on Indigenous land—much to reflect on: home and belonging, justice and empathy, responsibilities and relationships. The following books of prose and poetry by Black Canadian writers attune me to how crucial literature is to recuperate marginal lives or narratives, which dominant culture might redact or erase from its archives.
1. Pourin’ Down Rain
In her captivating memoir Pourin’ Down Rain (Brush Education, 2020), acclaimed filmmaker Cheryl Foggo recounts childhood experiences in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, revealing her consciousness of racial politics on the prairies. Foggo weaves tales of family, history, and culture to show multilayered fabrics of Black life in Western Canada. Her tone is brisk, conversational, and witty as she offers us a rich tapestry of joy, loss, resilience, and triumph in spaces of antiblackness. The book celebrates and adores everything Black—body, mind, and soul while dispelling the stereotypes of the dysfunctional Black family in the popular imagination.
2. I Am Still Your Negro
Valerie Mason-John’s I am Still Your Negro (University of Alberta Press, 2020) is a poetry collection that pulsates with vibrancy and myriad voices redolent of African and Caribbean rhythms. The poems in this collection recollect the beautiful, energetic prosody of Léopold Sédar Senghor, Aimé Césaire, Syl Cheney-Coker, Agostino Neto, Christopher Okigbo, and Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo: poets who fed my passion for writing. Mason-John’s poetry blends Creole and English in its idiom, bears the scars of history and the memories of forebears, and reminds us that the moment is still tainted with colonial violence. Yet Mason-John asserts that we are all children of the earth, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, nationality, and religion.
3. The Response of Weeds
The Response of Weeds by Calgary-based author Bertrand Bickersteth (NeWest Press, 2020) is a witty, weighty, and altogether magnificent poetry collection. Bickersteth unfurls a tapestry of overlooked lives to show that Black presence on the prairies is neither myth nor fiction. Throughout his poetry collection, Bickersteth humorously but insistently prods us to look back at the sweeping fields and lively rivers of Alberta, all the while knowing that many of us would rather keep our gaze level on the horizon. The past rarely makes for a beautiful spectacle to behold; there are stories we wish left sunken in the rivers of the past. The past is not a single narrative either, particularly spun or brandished by a group of gallant ancestors, but rather a composite of stories illustrative of our motley connections, albeit in a world beset by hegemonic ideals.
4. This is How We Disappear
This is How We Disappear by Titilope Sonuga (Write Bloody North, 2019), Edmonton’s ninth Poet Laureate, highlights female misery, worsened by political apathy in postcolonial Nigeria. This poetry collection powerfully reimagines the fate of the 276 Chibok girls kidnapped by Boko Haram terrorists in northern Nigeria in 2014. Sonuga’s poetry brims with tenderness, clarity, and conviction as it surfaces the stories of these girls excised from their familiar spaces into lairs of terror and the trauma that befalls both parent and child.
This is How We Disappear
Published: Apr 26, 2019 by Write Bloody North
5. Dreaming of Elsewhere
Dreaming of Elsewhere by Esi Edugyan (University of Alberta Press, 2014), who was born and raised in Calgary and now lives in Victoria, BC, radiates empathy for anyone struggling to define what home means to them. In this terse but remarkably insightful essay collection, Edugyan challenges our certainties about home, encouraging us to think about the limits of home, the perils of identities rooted in fixed notions of home, and the politics around citizenship. Edugyan shows that stories can help us appreciate the struggles of migrants and their children in Canada. This book is also about how we can remake ourselves beyond the stories we have inherited from our ancestors or those foisted on us by hegemonic cultures.