Wayde Compton: Hybridity and Hogan’s Alley
As I head toward Little Italy, also known as Commercial Drive, to interview Vancouver writer and EVENT contributor Wayde Compton, I think about other cultural hot spots that exist in Vancouver. Compton starts off with telling me a bit about a hot spot I never knew about, Hogan’s Alley. It was the first and possibly the last local neighbourhood with a concentrated black population and a major inspiration for his book After Canaan: Essays of Race, Writing, and Region (2010).
Compton explains how Hogan’s Alley was not only a space inhabited by the local black community, but pretty much everyone who wasn’t Anglo was there, including many Italian, Chinese and Japanese Canadians. It was located around Union and Prior Street from approximately Main Street to Jackson Avenue, and was home to many businesses and the African Methodist Episcopal Fountain Chapel, Vancouver’s only black church at the time. Compton explains how the construction of the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts in 1972 was questionable and argued to be a form of structural racism that drove out much of the black community. “It happened during an era of civil rights movement,” he tells me. “Similar urban renewal plans happened in the United States about ten years earlier.”
We often hear about black history in the United States, but do those stories really relate to Canada and Vancouver in particular? After Canaan offers a local and personal narrative of our black history. “The narratives that existed in my twenties were civil rights and black power narratives, however it doesn’t necessarily fit in a place like Vancouver,” Compton explains. “I didn’t fit in those narratives. Let’s stop trying to borrow these answers from somewhere else and think about the conditions here. ”
Compton goes on to explain how the viaducts caused the community in Hogan’s Alley to disperse but not as a collective. “That I suspect has something to do with Vancouver’s unique black community,” Compton says. “There was racism against blacks in Vancouver, but that wasn’t the primary racism. The primary was against Asians and Natives. Blacks were like the afterthought, there wasn’t a big fear of the black community. It made it easier for blacks to integrate into society.”
Not only does Compton’s work offer a local and personal narrative of black history but a different way of thinking about race and hybridity. Compton introduces me to the word “pheneticization” which replaces the term “racial passing,” mainly referring to someone of mixed-race passing for white. There are many instances where someone doesn’t look like where they’re supposed to be from. Compton explains further that “pheneticizing” means to shift the focus from the viewed to the viewer to get rid of the constant dichotomization of race.
Both us of being mixed-race, Compton and I swap stories, mainly funny anecdotes of our experiences dealing with public confusion of our mixed-race identities. “My wife is white so no one’s ever going to look at my daughter and guess that she has any black heritage,” Compton tells me. “All we have to describe that is ‘passing,’ and to say that a baby is ‘passing’ for something seems incredibly wrong. I need to give her some kind of tool to start thinking about these ideas when she grows up. It’s not what she’s doing it’s what other people are doing.”
Compton goes on to express the importance of diversity and a mixture of voices in the local literary community. “From the research that I did of black writing, you definitely see a payoff of multiculturalism. From the 80s and back, there’s so little black writing being published, and all of a sudden, there’s so many black writers getting published. We’re seeing people pushing for diversity and demanding it. It’s absolutely vital in the arts. Diversity should be on the agenda all the time or people will forget about it. There is a lot of interesting work being done right now from voices that we’ve never heard.”
We end our conversation with a little bit of advice for EVENT readers and aspiring writers. “Writers need to keep in mind that their lives are interesting,” says Compton. “A lot of young writers don’t get how interesting their experience is and want to write about some other one. That’s what has worked for me, learning to read my own life and my place in the world and knowing that it can be worthy of literature instead of looking elsewhere.”
Coming up for Compton is his reading at the Vancouver Public Library on Tuesday, September 20, 2011 where he’ll be reading some of his many award-winning works and talking about his writing process. Click here to learn more about the event. Admission is free, but seating is limited! Compton has also been named a Finalist for the 2011 Vancouver Book Award! For more information on Compton’s work, visit his website at www.waydecompton.com
– By Nicole Freeston