Quill & Quire
Poet and scholar Wayde Compton’s collection of essays on race in Canada is a refreshing series of investigations into the national myths that have resulted in Canada being dubbed a “post-racial” nation. Focusing on the province of B.C., Compton exposes the discomfort that matters of race continue to elicit in our national discourse. Building on the Compton-edited essay collection Bluesprint (2002), After Canaan offers an alternative epistemology for thinking about race in Canada, and a way of interpreting Canadian mixed-race identities that allows for contradiction and multiplicity, as opposed to essentialist tactics or an insistence on racial authenticity.
Compton argues that the term “racial passing” (a mixed-race person presenting as white) is often misused because it assumes racially ambiguous folks are always actively trying to be something they’re not. Instead, he suggests a new term – “pheneticizing” – that shifts the focus from the viewed to the viewer, and dispels the gross assumptions at work in attempts to slot Canada’s racial populations into easy binaries. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “phenetics” (one of several terms Compton includes in a self-reflexively ironic “Very Short Glossary of Racial Transgression”) as “the classification of organisms on the basis of their observed similarities and difference ... without reference to functional significance or evolutionary relationships.” Compton expertly weaves this concept through each essay, providing a multi-faceted look into B.C.’s interracial past.
Fascinating connections are made between the arrival of American blacks in Canada in the 19th century and the process of integration that ensued. He also addresses the connection between the 1970 destruction of Hogan’s Alley (a largely black neighbourhood in Vancouver) and the misunderstood legacy of black Canadian writers; the politics and poetics of hip-hop and turntabling; and, of course, the significance of Barack Obama.
After Canaan locates Canada’s place in the future as dependent upon an honest dialogue with its history. Compton expertly riffs on the concept of Canada as a promised land, arguing for a strategic engagement with race, one that can function along poetic – open-ended, potentially radical – rather than post-racial lines.
Though refusing to offer a script for what the Canadian mixed-race experience should look like (or worse, degenerating into a simple celebration of multiculturalism), Compton’s book struggles to find an effective methodology for understanding the interracial experience. At the same time, the text engages critically and materially with race in a way that hasn’t been done before, courageously critiquing Canada’s refusal to account for or legitimize the experience of racial ambiguity.
In After Canaan,
Compton arguesin lucid, compelling prosefor a vigilant racial complexity. In these pages, nothing is as it appearsand the myth of a fixed and essential racial self is shattered forever. Compton pushes us to look beneath the surfacepast those comforting tales of nationhood and racial solidarityto the more nebulous and ever-shifting truth. This is a brilliant and original work that should be mandatory reading for any student of race and history.
Danzy Senna, author of Caucasia
Wayde Compton is among the most brilliant and accomplished black Canadian writers of his generation, and the release of his first collection of essays is great cause for celebration. After Canaan
explores with equal passion and acuity the archives of history and the live acts of contemporary culture. It links a unique landscape of black presence to the most urgent global debates on the politics of race and space. These are exemplary essays: culturally rooted, intellectually borderless, and brimming with soulful style.
David Chariandy, author of SoucouyantAfter Canaan
offers an alternative epistemology for thinking about race in Canada ... [It] engages critically and materially with race in a way that hasn't been done before, courageously critiquing Canada's refusal to account for or legitimize the experience of racial ambiguity.
Quill and Quire
Compton has assembled a varied and nuanced set of essays reflecting on the varied and nuanced state of being black in this corner of North America.
A refreshing remix of scholarly and poetic investigations into the various national myths that have dubbed Canada a "post-racial" nation ... After Canaan
arrives at a timely moment in history, offering new writings that re-imagine Canada's interracial milieu.
Open Book: Toronto
An excellent and essential document that asks us to consider many open questions about race and writing in British Columbia and beyond.
PRISM internationalAfter Canaan
is an important work, and possibly even essential reading, as Compton delves into territory that for so long has been pushed aside, ignored and deliberately overrun. Wayde Compton writes some damned intelligent and thoughtful explorations on the conflux of various points along historical and cultural lines. If you haven't paid attention to his work so far, this is where you need to begin.
rob mclennan's blog
The overriding themes in Wayde Compton's poetry, performance art, and writing are hybridity and border crossing. In the Introduction to After Canaan
, he says that "looking to the margins rather than the centres has a unique value" because on the periphery "where there are fewer local expectations of what 'the black experience' ought to be, radical experiments of identity can be tried" and "new systems of thought against racism might be expected to emerge." These essays are, first and foremost, essays of ideas rather than style, and Compton's ideas are always fresh and often downright exhilarating.
In After Canaan
, Compton brings to the essay form all his gifts as a poet, an archivist, an activist, and an intellectual. The result is a beautiful and intelligent collection of essays a major contribution to black cultural studies in Canada.