23 January 2022

“every word she speak be a teeth-sucking act of resistance.”

How She Read

Shortly after I received How She Read by Vancouver artist-educator Chantal Gibson,I discovered In The Wake: On Blackness and Being byYork University professor Christina Sharpe. In addition to their searing content, both works include images that speak volumes about the lives of Black women. 

The cover of Chantal Gibson’s superb poetry collection How She Read showcases a photo of her mother, then about age six, seated at her school desk and juxtaposed against a map of North America. The dedication page of the volume reveals that Gibson’s mom died at age 36. 

Sharpe’s book features a vibrant portrait of her family—a prototype of Black success. Readers are stunned to learn, as Sharpe tells it, that everyone in the photo is dead. In doing so, she gives devastating voice to the rote erasure of Black folk throughout the African Diaspora. 

In the title poem, Gibson lays the foundation for the prevailing thrust of the collection—a poignant, powerful and provocative recasting of the Canadian narrative that has rendered Blacks invisible for eons. “every word she speak be a teeth-sucking act of resistance/every word she write be a battle cry/every tap of her pen be the beat of an ancestor’s drum.”

Taking a page from Aretha Franklin (compare her “Eleanor Rigby” to the original by The Beatles), Gibson reconfigures traditional Canadian primary school books, vocabulary lists and grammar lessons to address the experiences of racialized students. In “Faulty Parallelism” she writes, “your MacMillan Grade 4 speller/ a maple key/ a snowflake/ that tiny flake of scalp on your afro pick… the difference between an Indian and a Chinese sunburn.”

And this, from “Proper Noun”: “The North Star?/ It didn’t fall/ i dropped it.” 

In “Cease n Desist: From the Desk of Viola Desmond,” the author revises the storyline about the jailed African Nova Scotian businesswoman whose sunny visage now graces the $10 bill. “Don’t flatten me with your flattery,” Gibson writes. “… I can reconcilethe smile for the cause/but let’s get real: I was not smiling that night.”