School's out for summer, but that only means it's a perfect moment to reflect on the academic year ahead. And to that end, Chelene Knight—whose most recent book is Dear Current Occupant—recommends eight books that deserve a place in every Canadian classroom. Teachers (and students!), take note!
After a lengthy conversation with my then 15-year-old about his frustration with not only the current high-school curriculum, but with the lack of teaching around identity, Canadian History, Black Canadian History, and political unrest as it pertains to the victims and not just hidden rage of the oppressors, I replied, “It’s all in the books they deny you.”
This is my list of eight Canadian books that need to be in every single classroom. These books open the doors to a history that unfortunately was so easily erased and now—inaccessible. These books are conversations schools don’t seem to want to have with their students about race, violence, poverty, tough life decisions, political strife, and identity.
Brother, by David Chariandy
I am a strong advocate for using novels—especially those written by people of colour—as textbooks. This book holds true to so many of our youth’s lived experiences. From poverty, and struggles within an unconventional family, to facing the often rough and violent waves of peer pressure outside of the home, belonging is a necessary thread woven throughout.
Policing Black Lives, by Robyn Maynard
Policing Black Lives speaks to racism in a way of filling in the gaps and spaces where history was erased. Angela Davis describes the book as “meticulously-researched and a compelling analysis of state violence challenges prevailing narratives of Canadian multiculturalism and inclusion by examining how structures of racism and ideologies of gender are completely anchored in global histories of colonization and slavery.”
The Marrow Thieves, by Cherie Dimaline
Having Cherie Demaline’s The Marrow Thieves in every classroom would be a game-changer on so many levels; it would allow students to learn about Indigenous history and its complexities via a novel written with sheer compassion and expertise. This book is a gift to everyone it’s placed in front of.
How Poetry Saved My Life, by Amber Dawn
Amber Dawn’s How Poetry Saved My Life is a book that I would have benefited from as a young girl who faced tough life decisions while navigating life in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Amber Dawn takes you into her world and shares open and honest stories of survival. Mixing poetry and prose, she proves that genre can be broken and stories can be told in the way you want them told.
Execution Poems, by George Elliott Clarke
George Elliott Clarke’s work is stunning and raw. If any of his books (Execution Poems in particular) were required texts, they would not only teach youth what poetry can be, but they would infuse Black Canadian history, lived violence, and more into an already “wiped clean” narrative. The truth would be told in an accessible way.
The Best Place on Earth, by Ayelet Tsabari
Ayelet Tsabari’s, award-winning The Best Place on Earth comprises 11 spellbinding stories that often focus on Israel’s Mizrahi Jews, featuring mothers and children, soldiers and bohemians, lovers and best friends, all searching for their place in the world. To me, it's a necessary book about history and strength.
Tomboy Survival Guide, by Ivan Coyote
Ivan Coyote’s Tomboy Survival Guide is a necessary book for every teen today. Tomboy Survival Guide “warmly recounts Ivan’s past as a diffident yet free-spirited tomboy, and maps their journey through treacherous gender landscapes and a maze of labels that don’t quite stick, to a place of self-acceptance and an authentic and personal strength.”
Thirsty, by Dionne Brand
Dionne Brand’s Thirsty is a book that I recommend to everyone. Her words taught me to embrace poetic language. Her words led me to own my stories and how to write through trauma and uncertainty. Thirsty is described as being “written in the margins, like a medieval manuscript with shades of light and darkness.”
From Vancouver-based writer Chelene Knight, Dear Current Occupant is a creative non-fiction memoir about home and belonging set in the 80s and 90s of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.
Using a variety of forms, Knight reflects on her childhood through a series of letters addressed to all of the current occupants now living in the twenty different houses she moved in and out of with her mother and brother. From blurry non-chronological memories of trying to fit in with her own family as the only mixed East Indian/Black child, to crystal clear recollections of parental drug use, Knight draws a vivid portrait of memory that still longs for a place and a home.
Peering through windows and doors into intimate, remembered spaces now occupied by strangers, Knight writes to them in order to deconstruct her own past. From the rubble of memory she then builds a real place in order to bring herself back home.
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