George Elliott Clarke at the Vancouver Public Library

George Elliott Clarke at the Vancouver Public Library: reads from new novel “George and Rue”

 

7:30pm

February 16th, 2005

Alice Mackay Room

 

George Elliott Clarke is an amazing speaker.  This
award winning poet, author of Canada Reads' “Whyllah Falls,” and
Governor General Awards' “The Executioner's Song,” is always
entertaining, his warm exuding manner makes any literary event seem to
be an intimate gathering of friends.  At Wednesday night's reading at the Vancouver Public Library's Central Branch, he greeted friends upon arrival.  After
an almost embarrassing laudatory introduction by VPL's Mary Paz, he
himself recognized and introduced friends and his Harper Collins
representatives to the packed audience of 60.

 

But
on Wednesday night, the natural good-heartedness of the author
contrasted with dark violent story of his latest work, George and Rue.
It is a novel based on real life events in which the cousins of
Clarke's mother commit a heinous and unforgivable murder in Halifax
that rocks the Afro-Acadian community in Nova Scotia.

 

I
first became a fan of George Elliott Clarke when I serendipitously
popped into a Vancouver Public Library's Alice Mackay room one evening
in Fall 2003, to find Shelagh Rogers moderating a panel about the jazz
opera “Quebecite,” organized by the Coastal Jazz and Blues Society.  On stage with Shelagh were poet/opera librettist Clarke, musician/composer D.D. Jackson, and two of the singer/performers.  The music and performances were so amazing, I went to the last of the two weekend performances.  It
is a wonderfully Canadian story about a Canadian woman of Chinese
ancestry falling in love with a Nova Scotian of African heritage, while
their friends an Indian immigrant woman and a Haitian immigrant man
also meet and fall in love – all in Montreal. Oh – the wonders of our
multicultural tapestry.

 

The story of George and Rue, is also a part of our Canadian intercultural landscape.  Only two generations removed from American slavery, two brothers in 1949 murder a white taxi driver out of sheer greed.  They
are both later hanged, and a crowd of thousands turns out in the
streets of Halifax creating a carnival atmosphere that includes the
Salvation Army band, and the Ku Klux Klan.  Clarke
fictionally explores the social climates that raise these two brothers
of African and remote MicMac First Nation's heritage.

 

Clarke's novel reading style spits out words with hard short hits of sounds that stick in the air then cut to the ground.  It reveals his true calling of poet, and fascination and meticulous attention to the sound of words.  After
reading several passages of the novel, he tells a story (he always
tells stories about stories) about how he loved the way his uncle
described the exploits of cousins George and Rufus. How he loved the
way his uncle and his father used words.  How he loved the way the rhythm of the Haligonian African-Canadian language expressed itself.  How he loved the way it revealed a time and place in Canadian culture.

 

I
asked a question referring to his comments about how it was important
to explore the topic or racism, and the impact of the murder in his
family history.  “Like the internment of
Japanese Canadians in Joy Kogawa's “Obasan,” the head tax and Exclusion
Act of Chinese Canadians in Wayson Choy's “Jade Peony,” and the
Residential School issues of First Nations peoples, it seems that it
takes a few generations to go through the initial negative identity and
shame, before we can talk about it.  It appears that now it is okay to talk about racism, whereas we couldn't talk about it twenty years ago.  Can you please comment on its impact on Canadian literature and society?”

 

George
obviously enjoyed the question, and turned to the audience and
playfully asked, “Is it okay if I give my patriotic speech now about
how great it is to live in Canada?”

 

“Canada
is the greatest county to live in,” Clarke began and went into an
explanation about how 40% of Americans don't have health care. “But it
is important for us to address our own issues before we criticize
others,” he said.  “Racism is part of our history, it has shaped us.  I
don't want to hear another mention about the Underground Railroad,
about how great we are as Canadians because of the Underground Railroad
that helped American Blacks escape to Canada.  I want to know about what happened when they got here, how they were treated with similar inhospitable attitudes.  Slavery
was abolished in New England before it was in Canada, and there was an
underground railway from Canada to New England where slaves fled to.”  Clarke
then went on to name each of the years when slavery was abolished in
the United States, the British Empire and Brazil in the 1890's. 

 

“That's only just over one hundred years ago.  There are people in Brazil today, whose parents were slaves.  You can't just abolish slavery and expect everything to be all-okay, its effects linger on, and it takes time to deal with it.  My father's grandfather was a slave in America.  I'm only the 3rd
generation removed from being a slave,” remarked the English professor
from University of Toronto – before he went on to talk about his
disgust of racial profiling experiences at banks and by the Canadian
government's department of Justice. 

 

 

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