The author’s book is an exercise in excavating the imperialist ideologies in old primary school readers and vocabulary spellers.
“I hope readers will un-learn hegemony.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Chantal Gibson. Gibson is an artist-educator living in Vancouver.Her book is How She Read.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Chantal Gibson: There’s a lot of negativity surrounding the current political and social climate—in Canada and the US. I don’t want to privilege those narratives. I want to focus on the positive. There are many great books about Black women by Black women and for Black women (not to mention women of color, LGBTQ and trans women)—so many voices being published, being heard. We need more diverse voices. In Canada, my book is among several recently published by Chelene Knight, Canisia Lubrin, Juliane Okot Bitek, Aisha Sasha John, Whitney French to name just a few. I’d like How SheRead to lead readers to new works and new worlds created by other Black Canadian women writers.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I’m not sure. I’m a writer and a teacher. I teach writing and design communication. I try to teach design students how to unpack ideas and ideologies embedded in everyday things. I’ve used poems, stories and song lyrics in my classroom to make larger conversations about cultural and societal issues more accessible. I’d like my book to function like that, to be of service. An arts center in Nova Scotia is currently using How She Read to design educational materials for local schools and community events. I like the idea of my poems being used as a place for inquiry, to promote discussions around art, literature, history and Black culture.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
Writing this book was an exercise in un-learning English, challenging the rules of grammar and spelling that were taught to me as a child. It was an exercise in excavating the imperialist ideologies in old primary school readers and vocabulary spellers and examining the socializing functions of educational literature.
In one lesson, children learn how to spell the word n-e-i-g-h-b-o-u-r by filling in the blanks, while learning about the f-r-i-e-n-d-l-y relationship between a hungry Indian and the gift-giving Pilgrims. Seemingly harmless stories of tiny, exotic brown people and clean, civilized white people were marked with racist imagery and historical erasure.
I know it is easy to go back to the 30s, 40s, 50s and ‘cherry pick’ examples of racism, sexism and homophobia in history books. My concern is that the cultural texts of our parents and grandparents harken to an idealized past, to notions of the good-old-days, in the present—a false nostalgia that is floating toxic in the contemporary moment.
I hope readers will un-learn hegemony and question what we learn and how we learn.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
In many ways How She Read is an homage to the many distinguished Black women writers that have lifted and enlightened me for over 20 years. American writers Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Rita Dove and Canadian writers M. NorbeSe Philip, Afua Cooper and Lorena Gale. Together I call them the aggravating-sisterhood.
I remember reading The Bluest Eye in an AmLit class during the third year of my undergrad. I found a paperback copy from 1970 in a used bookstore. Pecola Breedlove was my first literary encounter with a young Black girl. That book changed me, and it changed the way I saw my late mother, who grew up as a young Black girl in Halifax, Nova Scotia in the 50s. That book taught me about love, that book taught me about empathy—I still have it on my bookshelf.
I met Rita Dove in 2008 at a Callaloo writing retreat in St. Louis. I went there to learn how to write a poem. In a buffet line, I thanked her for the poem “Canary,” told her the last two lines became my grad school survival mantra. I remember she had a single strawberry on her paper plate. She told me, “When you write your book, make them work for it—you don’t have to explain everything.” I remembered that, too.
Most notably, I owe a great debt to poet, novelist Dionne Brand whose work and words, elegant and incendiary, keep bringing me back to the questions “What justice? Whose justice?” questions I wrestled with while writing my book. And author, journalist Lawrence Hill whose novel The Book of Negroes inspired my visual art practice, and whose insights on craft and care for the reader are woven through every poem.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
How She Read is about the representation of Black women, women I’ve come to know and love through life and literature. My late mother, born and raised in 1950s Nova Scotia, exists alongside Canadian historical figures such as Harriet Tubman, Nova Scotia activist Viola Desmond, Marie-Joseph Angélique, the slave accused of burning down old Montreal in 1734, and Veronica?, an untitled woman whose portrait sits at the center of the Art Gallery of Ontario amongst the iconic Group of Seven.
The work is buttressed by the thoughts and ideas of Black women writers and thinkers who’ve sistered me. The women in my book are fearless, staring down the colonial gaze, from paintings, portraits, photographs and postage stamps. They rewrite and reclaim their narratives—clear out the myths, wipe off the tropes—and refuse to be objectified. How She Read is a world where the voices of Black women are privileged, where old ways of thinking are questioned and new ways of knowing emerge. I think this is a world worth imagining.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for thePolitical Theology Network. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the new book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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