An Interview with Donna Bailey Nurse, Literary Journalist and Editor

By Sadiqa de Meijer

You have been a reviewer of Canadian and international literature for almost two decades now and have spoken to scores of writers about their work—how do you view current literary review culture?

I think the review culture is very vital, more so than when I began reviewing in the mid 90s. That has partly to do with the escalation of book culture across the country: the proliferation of awards, festivals, galas, competitions, and of course the increase in prize money. It also has to do with Canada’s international literary profile: chiefly Munro, but also Atwood, Ondaatje—that group. All of this attention on books produces an ideal climate for reviewers. This is why it seems strange to me that space for reviewing has been so radically reduced.

The writer Roxane Gay found that, in 2011, nearly 90% of the books reviewed by The New York Times were written by white writers (her study appeared on therumpus.net). Similar findings fuelled the founding of CWILA—namely, the disparity between the number of books written by women and the percentage of reviews of devoted to them. Of course, the situations – centered around race and gender respectively – are not straightforwardly the same. What do you see as the common ground and/or the differences?

It is hard for me to compare the way women’s books are reviewed to the way black books are reviewed because I am always dealing with both those issues at the same time. But I’ll try. It seems to me that, especially when it comes to fiction, women reviewers are under-represented. Male reviewers seem a little anxious to make sure that they are assigned the major Canadian novels, most of which are written by women. In other words, they seem nervous about losing jobs to female reviewers. At the same time, anxiety about the number of women writers may cause an editor to inflate, perhaps unwittingly, the amount of space allotted to books by men.

And as regards to books by black Canadians, you can’t rightly claim they are represented in the book pages at all. Actually this goes for black books from anywhere. Many times I would suggest an African American title to an editor only to be told that the book is too American. However, I noticed that books by white Americans were never described in that way.

What are your thoughts on the reception and representation of books by women of colour in the national press?

Black women’s writing is among the most popular and prominent writing in the world. Except for in Canada, that is: black women remain outsiders to the cultural establishment. Black men are much more easily accepted across the board. For most of the time that I’ve been reviewing, Dionne Brand has been the accepted female presence; little room has been made for anyone else. Nalo Hopkinson is popular inside and outside the country, but we only know of her because an American publishing house recognized her first. I was enormously relieved when Esi Edugyan won the Giller. I think that has been a game changer. In Revival, my anthology, I do point out the significant number of award-winning black women writers, but they do not have major literary profiles in the country or in the book pages.

Toni Morrison commented in a CBC interview last year that critics have generally seen her work as “not literary, but sociological.” What are your thoughts on that bias in the press? Have you observed any change over the years?  

Yes, reviewers tend to review black novels from a sociological perspective rather than a literary perspective. Of course, black novels are rich in context, so you never want to altogether ignore their sociological or historical or economic aspects. But neither do you want to consider these aspects at the expense of literary context. A lot of white reviewers, more and more, consider race a sexy subject. However, they read too few black novels to discern what the literature is about. Also, it can be difficult for white reviewers to leave themselves behind. I am used to seeing the world from a white perspective as well as from a black perspective. I couldn’t survive otherwise. But, as a rule, white reviewers don’t have to consider another racial perspective and it can show in their critique of black books. I do think it has gotten better, especially as everybody becomes more comfortable discussing race and as everybody reads more black literature.

How do you approach choosing which books to review? Is it often your decision or do editors assign the reviews?

I used to choose books more when there was more space. Now, most often, the editor assigns a book.
Do you have titles to recommend? Books that impressed you but did not receive coverage?

There are so many books by black authors that come my way that I do not have an opportunity to review. I mean dozens and dozens (and dozens). It would be impossible (and unfair) to mention just a few. But I will say there are a lot of fabulous titles from around the world that would enrich black Canadian readers, and it is a crying shame that they are not exposed to them.

Your growing body of work—from What’s A Black Critic To Do, volumes I and II, to the recent anthology, Revival—seems to me an eloquent answer in itself to the question of how to connect readers with a full range of outstanding work. Based on your experience, what needs to be done?

Black culture is hugely influential in North America and we need to give it the space it deserves. That goes for black literature too, the written word as well as the spoken word.

In follow-up to that last question, what are your thoughts on CWILA’s initiative to create a critic-in-residence position?

I think the position of critic in residence is a marvellous idea. There is no literary culture without criticism (and there never has been).

 

Sadiqa’s de Meijer’s poetry, short stories and personal essays have appeared in a range of literary journals and magazines, as well as in the Best of Canadian Poetry in English series and the anthology Villanelles.

Donna-Bailey-NurseDonna Bailey Nurse is a literary journalist who specializes in the work of black Canadian writers and artists. Her articles exploring race, books, and culture have appeared in national publications including the Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Toronto Star and the Ottawa Citizen. She is a contributor to the Literary Review of Canada and is an occasional interviewer and critic for the Toronto Public Library, CBC Radio and CBC.ca. Donna is the editor of Revival: An Anthology of Black Canadian Writing and teaches Art Journalism at George Brown College in Toronto.

Published February 21, 2013

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