Tuesday, October 30, 2018

JCUF VOL 5 NO 1 (2018) - THE WAY WE USED TO BE: Cultural Short Stories About Being a Black Teenager in 1990s Toronto

THE WAY WE USED TO BE (1999) - This collection of short stories was written from approximately 1993 through 1997, while I was a high school student and had my eyes and ears open to the events, occurrences, and activities around me. From relationships to drug usage, teen pregnancy, coming of age, and peer pressures, I tried to explore all of the common topics through story. Some of the stories in this collection were written as English class assignments (like "Girlfriend"), while some were exploratory based on real-life scenarios around me. Others were cautionary tales, and some were exercises in fantasy and entertainment. Collectively, the pages of this book were a safe space for me to document what I believed to be the real lives of adolescents and teenagers in the Greater Toronto Area during the 90s. The technology, the terminology, and the mentality clearly articulate that not only were the words crafted by a teenager, but also that the ideals and circumstances were reflective of the time period.

In the first edition of New Dawn, the OISE/UT publication released in the spring of 2006, editor Rinaldo Walcott outlined the importance of documenting Black Canadian life. He said: "As scholars, artists, and other interested parties, our task is to make sense of, to document, and to engage the terms, conditions and manifestations of Black Canadian life in its broadest possible sense. Since the slave narratives, Black diasporan peoples have been consciously aware of the political importance of documentation."

The stories of "The Way We Used to Be" were written primarily for entertainment purposes, however, there was definitely an intrinsic need for the specifics of these experiences to exist in print. They felt important. They felt unique. They also felt necessary. There were moments in time that would pass, phrases that would be communicated, and occurrences that would take place that felt needed to be documented. According to author Donna Bailey nurse, the "seeds of contemporary Black literature were sown in the mid-sixties with the novels of Austin Clarke," which also ignited the "concomitant flowering of a self-consciously nationalistic Canadian literature." The seeds were planted in the 60s, however, there is still a need for the stories of Black Canadians to be recorded...in real time. The Canadian national identity changes with each generation, and even the smallest nuances are worth documenting.

Donna Bailey Nurse was referenced in Leslie Sanders' review of her book "Revival: An Anthology of Black Canadian Writing." In the spring 2006 edition of New Dawn, Sanders pointed out that the "cultural expression of every group has its own richness and complexity." What may be a liberating and familiar story to one teen, may not resonate at all with another. This was the primary focus when the stories of "The Way We Used to Be" were being constructed, realizing that with this particular group of students and readers (Black Canadians, living in Toronto), the specific stories of their lives had yet to exist in literature.

It was important to document these first-generation Caribbean-Canadian cultural stories, in an attempt to validate and amplify the emotions and daily occurrences, as well as to highlight the unique way in which Black teens experienced high school, in comparison to their counterparts of other backgrounds. In her review of Nurse's anthology, Sanders went on to say: "Born in struggle and adversity, courage and defiance, Black diasporic cultures continually challenge whatever place they inhabit, recognizing the provisional nature of their arrivals and belonging but recognizing, too, that their struggles against racism and oppression have profound resonance beyond themselves."


"Babymoms": Dawn gets pregnant at seventeen, in the midst of a tumultuous relationship

"Bad Man": Lucas fights to save his reputation, surrounding rumours about his sexuality

"Drink With Me": Mina experiments with drugs, in an attempt to impress her best friend

"Girlfriend": Latisha's new boyfriend, a drug dealer, forces her to test her character

"I Got It Like That": Trish vows to end her promiscuity, after making a new acquaintance

"No Regret": Sara, while away at summer camp, tests her loyalty to her boyfriend Marcus

"Rahim": Bria fears her boyfriend's new associates, unfamiliar with their lifestyle

"Run Away": Perrine, a reclusive tomboy, encounters her first romantic relationship

"The Ex": Malene's possessive ex-boyfriend causes an annoyance as she tries to move on

"Tie The Knot": Shanita cheats on her boyfriend when presented with an exciting option

"Tru Playa": Garfield, the school playboy, is challenged when enticed by an older woman

THE GENERAL THEME OF "THE WAY WE USED TO BE": Cultural short stories about coming of age as a first generation Black/Caribbean-Canadian teenager in the 1990s, in the Greater Toronto Area

Over the years, I feared the content was too trivial. I questioned whether or not the themes were still relevant. Logical doubts for any artist, but also inquiries of relevance as I hoped to create socially beneficial documents while also hoping for literary importance. Sherrod Tunstall wrote an article for the Webster Journal in February of 2012 questioning "Urban Literature: Is it Beneficial Reading?" where he also questioned whether or not urban fiction was "real" literature. Noting that the genre is as much defined by the race and culture of the characters, as well as by the city landscape, it is a common discussion amongst literary experts as to whether or not this underground genre is progressive...or simply novelty. Sherrod's conclusion: that the genre of urban fiction has helped a lot of children who live in urban cities to read more, instead of other less desirable activities like playing video games, or catching up in bad company.

"As a 25-year-old Black, educated man, I find reading urban literature gives readers some insight on where the writer comes from, and what they went through in their own lives. Even the slang, sex, and profanity, it reveals some piece of their environment, while the character is trying to reach his or her goals..." Tunstall said. He continued to state: "These types of novels can be very educational, because they can tell you what's going on in your own backyard." Like many other young adult novels, the author's main focus is to help young people who may be going through what a character is going through. The difference with urban fiction: the language, the subject matter, and the overall culture may not be socially acceptable, or even deemed as potentially destructive in some instances.

With adult novels: anything goes. With young adult books, you have to be more conscious about the direction you are leading the young mind in. For example, I remember that high school, for many, was a time of experimentation with the consumption and the distribution of recreational drugs and liquor. This is true to the 90s experience, as well as the contemporary one. Looking back at the text of  "The Way We Used To Be" it is evident that underage drinking and marijuana smoking were common place. This will be of no surprise to any teenager, but yet many "harsh" realities are not often communicated in young adult literature for fear of the consequences.

As an adolescent and teenager, I had the opportunity to consume young adult novels filled with pleasantries and difficulties of the heart and mind, but I seldom discovered books that really openly discussed teenage sexuality and other raw and inappropriate misdemeanors. As an adult, I doubt I would create texts with these themes, but as a teenager, it was natural for me to document what I witnessed around me, and what I heard about through social grapevines and word of mouth.

What is now evident--but not intentional at the time of writing--was the impact of technology and communication on culture, and looking back you can see the difference in behaviour and interaction as a result of their limited options. This urban Toronto Black cultural status and state of mind is also achieved in the text by outlining what group membership consists of, what behaviours look like, and outlining the defined roles amongst the teens, the role conflict, and how these roles are interconnected. Also, looking at the historical traditions of the character's parents (as outlined in the 60s Black Canadian literature of Austin Clarke, for example), and how the contemporary counter cultures challenge them. Hopefully, this book can one day serve as a historical record of this particular moment in time, accurately reflecting the mood and cultural realities of this demographic.

How does "The Way We Used To Be" differ from other young adult publications? It is my hope that the specific element of first-generation Black Canadian, urban Toronto culture is evident. Through language: the use of Caribbean-inspired phrases and pronunciations. Through norms: the predictable interactions, common rituals, and social stigmas experienced by the characters and their peers. Through shared values, beliefs, and ideologies: what the characters hold to be true, and why, and the conflicting or complimentary elements of their circumstances that they are striving to understand. Most importantly, as a social collective, I hope to explore the cultural values of the teen characters in these novels through their collectively produced symbols and the negotiation of their behaviours and standards. This will differ from urban Winnipeg, to urban Montreal, to urban Halifax. In the particular story, it is intrinsically Torontonian, and hopefully a clear and authentic record of the state of mind and state of culture during this period.

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Journal of Canadian Urban Fiction."

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