The Black Prairie Archives: An Anthology

By Ian Williams

edited by Karina Vernon
Wilfrid Laurier University Press
2020/$44.99/580 pp.

The very thought of reading an anthology for pleasure triggers memories of microscopic font, monotonous white writers, all-nighter essays, MLA format and a sandwich-crushing weight in one’s backpack. Yet, for all the ground it covers, Karina Vernon’s anthology, The Black Prairie Archives, is readable, engaging, lively, polyphonic, political and literary, and simply impossible to reduce to simple periodization or even to a set of aesthetic values.

What is it, exactly? It is an anthology, an archive, a repertoire (a word that respects oral texts such as rap lyrics and spoken word) that retrieves Black writers from obscurity while correcting the misconception that prairie writing is predominantly realist and exclusively white.

Indeed, the existence of this anthology is a kind of victory, when so many early Black writers have been erased by discriminatory canonization, by the burial of their work, by the ephemeral nature of their oral art. After the introduction, Vernon inserts a black page, like a memorial, like a moment of silence, to acknowledge all the voices that have been lost.

Acknowledging that Black people wrote on the prairies is an understatement; it’s like saying there’s life on the Galapagos Islands. Vernon uncovers a great variety of Black life. The identities are complex: some writers are born in Canada, others in America, Africa or elsewhere in the diaspora; some are crossed with white or Indigenous ancestry; some claim Blackness as an identity, others resist the one-drop rule. The Black Prairie Archivesdoes not shuffle familiar writers into new packs but introduces us to unknown writers—dozens of them. It invites the question, Why have we never heard of some of these writers? The answer takes us close to the systemic issues involved in canonizing Canadian identity.

The anthology is also widely inclusive in terms of genre. Poetry, fiction, non-fiction and drama are all represented, alongside a miscellany of curious writing from agricultural notebooks, letters, lyrics, requests for brand registration etc. The biographical/contextual headnotes are often as interesting as the entries themselves (how else would you glean the insightful detail that although the affluent and educated Mildred Ware married a rancher with over a thousand head of cattle, “Mildred never learned to ride a horse.”)

What is literary? Under what conditions do Black people write on the prairies? The early documents tend to be historical (we find this trend in unhyphenated-Canadian and American literature as well). The writers are not necessarily lifelong prairie people. Some of them, such as Esi Edugyan and Kaie Kellough, are better associated with other parts of the country. For Vernon the prairie is not simply geographical.

The anthology celebrates roughly 150 continuous years of Black writing on the prairies. It eschews period divisions as an organizational device, although Vernon’s introduction does identify four waves of Black migration. By gathering diasporic, female, male, queer, multi-ethnic Black voices, Vernon challenges the assumption that prairie writing is “rarely gendered, never raced, and definitely not black.”

In its current form The Black Prairie Archives is partially complete. When fully realized, the project will comprise two volumes, the second being a critical companion to the anthology itself. The missing half is somewhat poetic. It mirrors the absence of Black writers from prairie literature and, until recently, Canadian literature more generally. Perfectly published during a time of increased demand for Black books, Vernon offers us more than a book; she offers us a library.

—Ian Williams is an associate professor of creative writing at UBC. His novel Reproduction won the Giller Prize in 2019.

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