I returned to my collection of Canadian literature and baseball books for February reads to commemorate Black History month. Lists from previous years published online recommended such well known Canadian authors as Lawrence Hill (Book of Negroes), and Esi Edugyan (Half-Blood Blues) both of which I have read and enjoyed. In perusing my shelves, I identified three fiction writers and a non-fiction baseball book to tackle.
When you look for lists of books to read for Black History month, David Chariandy’s name appears regularly, typically with his earlier novel, Brother, which won the 2017 Writers Trust Fiction Prize. I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You was published very shortly afterwards and is oft mentioned as a necessary read. It became my first book for the month and its stated purpose established the message for the rest of my February indulgences.
The book is a letter to Chariandy’s daughter to talk about the history of his family, their mixed Black and South Asian background, and their slavery experience in Trinidad before arriving in Canada as migrants. Chariandy describes his childhood growing up in Scarborough to help his daughter understand her current world and as a plea for a more inclusive existence where “we will finally learn to read and respectfully discuss our differences”.
The small book is a quick 120 page read with thoughtful imagery and compassionate, parental insight. I was also intrigued with the jacket art by Sandra Brewster whose work forms part of Seneca College’s permanent art collection. “Untitled Smiths 2011” is part of a series in which artist Sandra Brewster mocks the notion of a monolithic Black community: “The surname Smith takes up the bigger section of a Western telephone directory. Its volume conjures up ideas of sameness and commonality and invisibility as there are so many.”
Catherine Hernandez’s debut novel, Scarborough, was shortlisted for the 2017 Toronto Book Awards. Self-described as a book about community, Hernandez takes us through the lives of children and adults living in precarious situations, revolving around a community education project. The chapters alternate between the diverse characters, taking us into their homes and thoughts, spanning one school year in the at-risk neighbourhood. The people of the book represent the gamut of visible minorities within the city.
I found parts of the 255 pages to be heavy handed at times in its description and characterization of some of the people in the stories. Cory, for example, is the white, racist father of Laura who was dumped by her maternal parent. In the first chapter, Cory talks about “chinks”, “pakis”, “towelheads” and “crazy bitches” in his interactions with the people he meets trying to attend to the needs of his daughter. Near the end of the chapter, his actions are described as “awakened by his purebred, white trash instincts”. I did not need that label to understand the point; his actions and words alone would have clearly painted the picture. Nevertheless, the book did help me to understand a world which I have only witnessed from the periphery. The hopeful outcomes for some of the characters raises the importance of community togetherness and sends a message for survival and success.
February is also the start of spring training, signaling the beginning of another baseball season for watching and for reading. Henry Aaron passed away in January which prompted me to look for his biography. Howard Bryant published a work about the previous home run king, so I ordered it online. In the meantime, I remembered another baseball book by the same author on my shelves and thought to read it until the new one arrived.
Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston lays to bare the long-standing, organizational culture of racism against the inclusion of black ball players on the major league roster of the Boston Red Sox. The book details the rejection of Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays as possible recruits resulting in the team being the last one in major league baseball to field a black player in 1959. Starting at the top with the owner Tom Yawkney, the team overtly and subtly kept out black ball players, described in great detail by Bryant, against the backdrop of a city reeking with racial issues.
My challenge with the book is the structure. I found myself rereading the same points in subsequent chapters as if for the first time. It seems to me a better editor would have asked for the text to be tightened up. The most egregious example occurred on page 128 in a discussion of the pitcher, Luis Tiant: “There are a million stories about what Luis Tiant meant to the Boston Red Sox…..of how he kept the Red Sox loose and was the backbone of those exciting, perilously flawed teams. Tiant also knew how to keep a clubhouse loose.”
I also kept asking myself for comparisons and statistics about other baseball teams. Bryant hammered home the point about the number of years Jim Rice and then Ellis Burks would be the only black position players on the squad (a careful distinction because there were black pitchers) yet we are not made aware of the make-up of other teams. Only when Ellis Burks signs with the White Sox does the reader finally learn about another clubhouse with a “black presence” which included leaders like “Frank Thomas, Tim Raines, Lance Johnson and Bo Jackson, as well as Latino players…”. Similarly Bryant repeated in each chapter the inability of the Boston Red Sox to sign black free agents, when suddenly, on page 231 (of 252) he mentions that two had signed in 1993. Given Bryant spent several pages describing how the BoSox could not sign Kirby Puckett, you would have thought he could provide more than a sentence on the acquisition of Andre Dawson and Billy Hatcher.
Despite some of my issues with the structure and style, Shut Out is a significant contribution to the public acknowledgement of the racist history of the Boston Red Sox and baseball, a necessary precursor, as Howard Bryant describes, to rectify the wrongs of the past and change the direction of the organization and the league. For this reason alone, the book merits a read for baseball fans and social historians.
Frying Plantain is a collection of linked short stories, the debut work of Zalika Reid-Benta. It had been nominated for the 2020 Toronto Book Awards, the Trillium Awards and it was long listed for the 2019 Scotia Bank Giller Prize while winning a handful of less commonly known literary awards. No wonder the work made numerous lists for Black History Month. In an efficient 257 pages of unadorned, highly effective prose, the stories are told from the perspective of Karla growing up in Toronto’s little Jamaica, trying to navigate relationships with her mother, her grandparents, her friends and her neighbourhood.
The stories are relatable and a reader can easily imagine the situation or the conversations. The scenarios made me smile or nod my head and envision how they played out in some manner growing up. For example, there is a scene from middle school where a number of jaded students are brought to the gym to sit in a sharing circle for some group therapy led by two earnest counselors. A talking stick is introduced and is handed to the first student to talk about his biggest fears:
She gave him the stick and he immediately passed it to the person beside him, who handed it off to the girl next to her. Jason watched the Talking stick get transferred from student to student without pause. “Guys, remember, this is a safe space….” It was stupid of them to think that mattered, to think that something like that existed simply because they said it did.
Many of the incidents are specific to being a teenage girl and to living in the Jamaican community:
[Kara] hates the way [the dress] falls on her like it’s a sheet. Hates the way it accentuates her lack of breasts, lack of curves, lack of the voluptuous beauty that makes her aunts and cousins laugh behind their hands and say, Yuh sure you a Jamaican gyal?
Reid-Benata sprinkles the stories with pieces of information, single sentences to build the background, fill-in the story of Kara’s mother, Eloise. Each mention guides the reader to build the narrative in their own imagination. Flying Plantain allows the reader to feel the experience for themselves rather than be told by the author.
[Kara] opened the car door to leave but Eloise had grabbed her by the wrist, pulling her back into the passenger’s seat. “I just want you to imagine something,” she said. “I was your age when you were born.”
I very much enjoyed the book and would highly recommend it for others.
St. Patrick’s Day is March 17, so the books for next month will be by Irish-Canadian writers. As always, suggestions are welcome. Happy reading everyone.