Wayde Compton, editor
(Arsenal Pulp) $19.95
Available at www.arsenalpulp.com.
Little is left unmapped in the world. We're finished with the land, and have sounded the depths of all the oceans. Soon, even our own insides will be accounted for, once the constellations of our genes are revealed. Vancouver, B.C. poet Wayde Compton, then, may be one of the last great explorers working in uncharted territory.
His world is not of jungles, gems, or sea creatures. Compton's cartography is of the cultural. He is mapping the history of black literature in B.C., and his new book, Bluesprint: Black British Columbian Literature and Orature, is causing quite a stir north of the border because he has, essentially, discovered a lost land.
Blackness as a site of consideration and research is not the same in Canada as it is in the States. Particularly in B.C., the historical other--while certainly open to flux--tends to be our indigenous peoples, whom we call First Nations. Black people, when thought of, are considered anomalies or anecdotes. On a bitterly cold day in Vancouver, Compton had tea with me and talked about trying to address this absence.
"There really isn't a body of literature that orients you here, if you're black. I imagine if you're a writer from, say, Virginia, you've got this huge canon of literature that you know about, and everybody knows about. But here, there wasn't anything." While doing his B.A. in English, Compton encountered U.S., African, and Caribbean writers, and while he appreciated their work, they didn't reflect or speak directly to his own experiences as a black Canadian. However, George Elliott Clarke's first book, Saltwater Spirituals and Deeper Blues, was an important catalyst. "He was trying to capture the essence of the entire community, all of black Nova Scotia. He was doing a sort of survey, trying to find what's out there, how far back does our influence go. I wanted to do something like that. Actually, what I wanted to do was find something like that [in B.C.] and write on it."
When he went looking for black B.C. writers, Compton found mostly caves and mountains of indifference. It was then that he realized the primary research just hadn't been done.
"A professor asked me, 'What are you doing your thesis on?' and I said, 'Black British Columbian literature,' and he guffawed. He laughed. And then he caught himself and said, 'Well, I don't suppose there's much.' And as far as I'm concerned, that's the first line of success with the book. Now if anybody has that experience again, they can say, 'Look, here it is. There are 44 [authors] in this book right here.'"
He began excavating while working on his first book, 49th Parallel Psalm (Advance Editions). This book (which is among my personal favorites) used fairy tales, newspaper headlines, biography, and "scat soliloquy" to examine the first wave of black migration to B.C. in 1858, when some 600 black people left California for B.C. at the invitation of Sir James Douglas. Compton asked himself, "Had there been black writers in the past? I didn't know. And then I realized, actually, that I don't even know anything about the history. So I started researching, and then I found out about the exodus from San Francisco to Victoria in 1858. I had no idea that an entire population had come up at once. I was inspired and amazed."
Compton found the writers he was looking for, like Priscilla Stewart (the first black B.C. poet), Nora Hendrix (Jimi Hendrix's grandmother), and Truman Green (the first black B.C. novelist), but not on library shelves. Often they were unpublished, self-published, or archived away in historical studies, their work not considered literature. Compton recalls, "There's all this stuff out there, but nobody knows about it. It's not centrally located anywhere, and no one's done any real serious critical work on it. I wanted to see the critical work on it, but then I realized, you can't really do that until you understand what's there first and do some kind of survey." His subsequent body of research led to Bluesprint, the first map of the new world.
Toward the end of our conversation, as the warmth was draining from our hands and our tea, we began to talk about how, in many respects, the history of the Pacific Northwest isn't well served by focusing on national boundaries. Government money, particularly on the Canadian side, has kept the maps stopping at the 49th parallel. But as the migrations detailed in Compton's work suggest, there's much uncharted territory that runs across that line. I often suspect that our common histories, as outposts for utopians and dreamers, as wild places, are begging for their own excavations. For now, we have those like Compton who map the bloodlines, the secret footsteps, and the lost lands.