Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Scribe, No Jive

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Dalton Higgins

In Toronto, Black History Month in February is one of the few times during the year where there seems to be a bit more engagement with multi-disciplinary black arts practices, including an engagement with literature by blacks. Given the scarcity of black literary figures living in the Toronto public view, I will generally accept most invitations from schools that sport diverse student bodies, only because I know that for many of the local school kids, it might be the first time that they’ve seen an author in person that looks like them. And there’s this saying in the black community that goes, “if you see it, you can be it.”

So why not encourage these young burgeoning wordsmiths to tackle head-first this writing profession that comes with questionable earning potential! All of which leads me to my next point. Honestly, when people ask me what it’s like to be a black writer in Toronto, I point them to another colour on the colour wheel. Green. As in dinero. Dough. Hey, I flip off words on paper in book form much like a rapper rips rhymes to be placed on CDs, so being the raging hip hopper that I am, sure, part of me got into this business to peddle as much Daltoganda and useless information as is humanly possible. But I also got into the literary game to make some bank. When you come into this literary game like I did, from low income environments with broke pockets, as the un-Scott Griffin, you tend to preternaturally revert back to your hip hop POV with no forewarning. And that means living out your latent obsession with cash, like Russell Oliver. And aiming to generate mad royalty ducats like Jay-Z — minus a few zeros. The reality is this. I have kids to feed and a bank mortgage loan to repay. So while it’d be a privilege for me to say that I write for sport or for art’s sake, instead, my work tends to always involve some sort of social awareness-raising in combination with a shrewd business plan that involves generating greenbacks for my seeds. And if that means selling books out of car trunks or fur coats, on subways or on street corners during the lovely annual Harlem Book Fair, then so be it.

The wildly interesting thing about tackling the Canadian book business from a black point of view is that you might be coming at it from a wholly different perspective. For example, there’s been a lot of ink in recent months about the self-publishing boom, where some authors are consciously foregoing the song and dance with agents and publishers and are going DIY. And my reply has always been, never mind what seems like an upsurge in self publishing, black writers in Canada have been doing this for years out of necessity, given the dearth of publishing-house opportunities for authors who, say, write literary non-fiction with a hip hop twist.

For the small handful of black writers in Toronto who I really enjoy reading, who have managed to capture the attention of the mainstream — names like Dionne Brand or Austin Clarke — their audiences and my hip hoppy readership couldn’t be any more different. And I’m not altogether convinced that the overwhelming bulk of book critics here are tapped into the black/urban literature scene, or can understand its nuances. Even in a country like the US where diversity-linked publishing initiatives are more plentiful, organic and tend to be more tied to meritocracy than here (i.e. there are a whack of black and urban culture book imprints like Atria Books that are linked to major houses like Simon and Schuster because they sell), last year in a groundbreaking study by African-American author Roxane Gay, it was revealed that nearly 90 percent of the books reviewed by The New York Times were written by white writers.

It’s difficult for most writers to get a book published in general; however, if you are an African-Canadian writer in Toronto, the journey has been considerably more arduous. It really shouldn’t be this way. I have fond memories of participating in the short-lived 2004 Toronto Urban Book Festival where I got to conduct a one-on-one interview with influential NYC author Nelson George, and I left thinking that things might change, that a larger scene groomed by hip hop culturists with the support of a major publishing house or two would have developed. But that hasn’t been the case. To be the change I want to see, I will be hosting a much needed fact-finding mission this month to discuss where things stand for black writers today, and I am hoping that those of you who come will leave with some concrete ideas on how to help diversify the local publishing supply chain and ranks.

What: Drake, Race and The New Publishing Biz. Author Dalton Higgins will be discussing his new book “Far From Over” about actor/rapper Drake, and will illuminate where things stand for black writers in Toronto today.

Where: Ben McNally Books — 366 Bay Street (Bay/Richmond), Toronto

When: Saturday February 16, 2pm


Why: It’s Time To Kick start Your Own Publishing Revolution!

Dalton Higgins is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist and radio and TV broadcaster who blogs and therefore is. His latest book Far From Over: The Music and Life of Drake (ECW Press, Oct. 2012) sheds light on the cultural conditions in Toronto that helped create the Drake phenomenon. His four other books (Fatherhood 4.0, Hip Hop World, Hip Hop, Much Master T) examine the place where the worlds of technology, diversity, hip hop and hipster culture intersect. His daily Daltoganda, musings, rants, jabs, pontifications and fire-and-brimstone blather can be accessed from his digital pulpit on twitter: @daltonhiggins5

Click here to read Dalton's archived articles on Open Book: Toronto.

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