"Defining Canadian Urban Fiction" ~ Part One

How do you define Canadian Urban Fiction?

It's a question I've been asking myself lately, as a fan of urban fiction authors like Sister Souljah, Terry McMillan, Omar Tyree, Eric Jerome Dickey, and the countless other African-American authors who have successfully carved a new niche of literature over the past two decades.

"Urban Fiction"--whether everyone agrees with the perception of the genre, the use of the word urban itself, or the other connotations and controversies that the terminology may bring--exists, it's booming, and it's dominated by American voices.

On Saturday, February 2, 2013 at the Toronto Public Library (Malvern Branch), I've gathered a group of Toronto writers and urban cultural advocates to help define what we believe "Canadian Urban Fiction" to be. The panelists of writers includes: relationship blogger Telisha Ng, Christian non-fiction author Tanika Chambers, urban /scholar educator Camille Ramnath, hip hop artist General, children's author Angelot Ndongmo, and Life Fiction author D.A. Bourne.

Co-sponsored by the Toronto Public Library, this group will join Kya Publishing (my urban fiction publishing company, the first of it's kind in Canada) to define the type of writing we should be producting, and our intentions as writers.

Journalist Angela Walcott--who will be moderating the discussion with me--believes that "the Urban Canadian voice is an important one in this genre of literature because it reflects a relevant element of society that needs to be heard."
"As it is, Urban culture in Canada would benefit from more documentation because cultural significance of place is key to understanding the complexities that exist within this demographic. While hip-hop has maintained its stronghold in urban stories for decades through music, we are witnessing a renaissance of these complex stories presented via literature," Angela said.

"Today, the market for novels that are real and explore the urban experience honestly and authentically is growing. The subtext of the Urban Canadian culture, as an emerging voice, has had great impact on the way that we perceive the Black Canadian experience. It is the new voice--the voice of now, that isn't going anywhere because there is something very significant."

Panelist Camille Ramnath commented on the field of urban studies in general, and what it means in a Canadian context. As a graduate of the University of Toronto's Urban Education Master's program, and a teacher with the Toronto District School Board, Camille has taught elementary school students in an urban context for over ten years, and believes that literature plays a huge role in their development as individuals, as well as their identity as Canadians.

"The word 'urban' in education is something I am still working out," said Camille. "There is indeed a need to call it something, however, I struggle with 'urban' at times because I feel the term has had some negative connotations in education, which has perpetuated a deficit, limited, or misunderstood perception of what it is to live and work in these settings. Underserviced, rich, poor, perilous, vibrant, creative are all terms that could describe an urban school community."

"In education, we try to look at these characteristics and begin from a strength-based perspective. We try to learn from the resilience and bravery that people exhibit for example, as they make their way in a new place with a new language. We look to them to inform us as to where education needs to go so that it can be relevant and supportive of their human rights and freedoms. We do this through the use of inclusive materials such as historical fiction, and non-fiction texts recounted in many voices, across all disciplines."

"We seek across the curriculum to insert and validate the voices, concerns, and experiences of the different groups of people we often have co-existing within a community. Stories are a way of engaging people's hearts, allowing them to consider, even if for a moment, the reality of someone very different from themselves. This is so significant because it means new possibilities for peace, for solidarity, and for action," Camille said.

Camille and Angela are only two of the voices who will be approaching this subject on February 2nd. The Canadian publishing landscape is already rich with history, and full of talented authors from various regions of this country, and from international locations who have called Canada their home for years...so we will strive to see what the role of urban fiction is in today's landscape.

There are already many legends of Black Canadian literature like Dionne Brand and Austin Clarke, Althea Prince and George Elliott Clarke, and contemporary writers like Sophia Shaw, Kayla Perrin, and Dalton Higgins. But the Urban Fiction authors are few and far between...possibly because the genre that would contain them has not yet been classified. They exist in limbo because there's no infrastructure for this specific genre of writing where ethnicity or skin colour alone can not describe the content of what they are trying to communicate.

Every February as Black History Month approaches, intellects publically engage in conversation to advance perceptions, increase knowledge, and bring awareness to subjects and concerns that may otherwise get lost in every day discourse year-round. It is my hopes that minds like Angela and Camille will help to make the definition of "Canadian Urban Fiction" a little bit clearer, as a result of this discussion.


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