By Nikayla Goddard, February 11 2021—
In celebration of Black History Month at the University of Calgary, the Faculty of Arts is hosting a variety of webinars over the course of February, including webinars on Black art, history, culture and literature.
On Feb. 25 from 3:30 – 5 p.m., Dr. Suzette Mayr will be presenting a webinar titled The Value of Black Literature, which will explore Black literature and history in Canada, specifically Black prairie literature, and will also discuss her latest work in progress, The Sleeping Car Porter, a historical novel about a Black, queer railway porter.
A creative writing professor in the Department of English, Mayr has written five previous novels, most of which tend to focus on Black queer narratives, Mayr says, such as her most recent book, Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, which is about a Black queer professor. Her talk will be drawing from The Black Prairie Archives: An Anthology, edited by Karina Vernon, and speak to the importance of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) works.
Mayr described her talk as focusing on “the value of recognizing ourselves within literature and how important that is for Black people, but also for people who aren’t Black. Because if you only read literature that doesn’t include the presence of Black people then you are only reading half the literature and you’re not getting an honest reflection of the world that you live in.”
Mayr will also be speaking to her novel in progress, The Sleeping Car Porter, which is set in 1929 and is about a sleeping car porter on a train travelling from Toronto to Vancouver, a 88-hour trip. Mayr explained that not a lot of people know that these porters were primarily Black men, and only allowed to have 2-3 hours of sleep a night.
“Part of my writing about him is trying to dig into the archives and find people like me there. Who are my ancestors, who are my family in terms of people who are Black and queer in Canada,” she described.
When asked about how she thought the university handled and celebrated Black History Month, Mayr responded that she has always had a problem with Black History Month in general.
“I think it’s something that should be all year,” she explained. “But besides that, I think that this year the university is doing really good work. There seems to be better advertising or something, but there are way more events and seem to have a lot more press around them. I’m really really pleased with the hiring of Malinda Smith, who is making all kinds of changes already even as somebody who is here to listen and lobby for our opinions on what’s going on. I think it’s small steps. I think there could always be more BIPOC faculty hired, that’s always a fact I think, and in the Faculty of Arts as well. But, small steps. And I realize that we’re also in a strange economic time.”
Mayr provided several Black author and reading recommendations, and vouched for Vernon’s The Black Prairie Archives: An Anthology, which covers writing by or about Black people in the prairies. Mayr also recommends Shut Up You’re Pretty by Téa Mutonji, which contains Black queer characters, Frying Plantain by Zalika Reid-Benta, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, anything by Toni Morrison, and works by Lawrence Hill such as The Book of Negroes and, Mayr’s favourite, Some Great Thing. Mayr says she has also always been a fan of writers from the Harlem Renaissance, such as Zora Neale Hurston and Their Eyes Were Watching God, James Baldwin and Giovanni’s Room, Ann Petry and more.
“There’s just so many, I think we’re spoiled and people don’t know enough about these writers,” she added. Cheryl Foggo and her work Pourin’ Down Rain: A Black Woman Claims Her Place in the Canadian West has been a personal influence for Mayr, and is the story about Foggo growing up in Bowness.
“It was a really valuable book for me,” she described. “I had always kind of assumed I was one of the first Black people in Calgary, and here was this book about somebody who is about ten years older than me, and it was like […] I belong here, I have a place here. There were people before me here.”
For more details on The Value of Black Literature webinar and to register, check out the Faculty of Arts event page here.