Thursday, 7 June 2018

Pioneering African Canadian Filmmaker Launches First Book

By Neil Armstrong

Photo credit: Ethar Ismail      Roger McTair with his new book, "My Trouble With Books."

One of Canada’s pioneering Black documentary filmmakers has fulfilled his lifelong aspiration to write a book.

Roger McTair, 75, a Trinidadian-Canadian who immigrated to Canada in 1970, has been in the vanguard of telling stories about the Black and Caribbean communities in Canada.

On May 25, family, friends and well-wishers packed The Theatre Centre in Toronto for the launch of McTair’s book, “My Trouble With Books,” a collection of 13 short stories set in Trinidad and Tobago, Toronto and the tourist fringe of Barbados.

The idea for the book was a long time in the making and became a reality at the prompting of his son, Ian Kamau, and Roger’s sister, Dionyse McTair, who collaborated on the project.

Kamau said back in the early 2000s his father was diagnosed with an illness that was potentially life-threatening.
McTair spoke a lot about how he felt grappling with mortality because the doctors had given him a limited time.

“One of the things that he spoke most about was his writing and that he didn’t necessarily have the opportunity to be able to release a book of his own work,” said Kamau, noting that the launch was “my father’s actualization but also my own and our own.”

McTair told his son that when he retired the thing he wanted to do was to write a book and Kamau promised to help him achieve that goal.

What he didn’t expect was that his father would retire abruptly from teaching media writing at Seneca College at York University for 18 years in the summer of 2014.

His health had declined to the point where he was no longer able to write, type, and read, as well as he faced challenges concentrating.
Kamau, who is a hip hop and spoken word artist, said completing the book was a fight because his father is a perfectionist and would go over the same story several times believing in the mantra “writing is rewriting.”

Photo credit: Ethar Ismail  The audience at the launch of Roger McTair's book, "My Trouble With Books," at The Theatre Centre in Toronto.

The night of the launch was one of storytelling, he said, noting that there are unpublished writings of his father, including many poems and short stories.

Carl James, Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community and Diaspora; Dionne Brand, award-winning poet and novelist; Dionyse McTair and Kamau read stories from the book.

Veteran librarian, Rita Cox, said the space of The Theatre Centre was important because it was the Queen & Lisgar library in the 1950s – precursor of the Parkdale library – which is in a different location.

McTair resided in Parkdale and the library was where she saw him most in the late 60s, early 70s,” said Cox, who started what is now the Rita Cox Black and Caribbean Heritage Collection in 1972 at the Parkdale library.

“We were overawed at the early success of those films that they [McTair and his then wife, Claire Prieto, film director and producer] made and we were very proud of their work. They dealt with subjects that hadn’t been dealt [with] before.”

His films include: Journey to Justice (2000), Jennifer Hodge: The Glory and the Pain (1992), Home to Buxton (1987), and Home Feeling: Struggle for a Community (1984).
She said McTair’s films are important and she is glad that his writings have finally
found their way in print.

“I treasure Roger’s laconic sense of humour.”

Brand said McTair, who is also a poet and writer, schooled her in poetry. In editing one of her books, he said to her, “Dionne, the world really need that line?”

As a professor in the School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph this is now something she asks her students in poetry classes.

Brand said McTair helped to make and nurture “Black life-making in this city” and thanked him for “building the imaginary life of Black people in this city.”

She lauded him for his precision, genius, fastidiousness, and congratulated Kamau for prying “this book out of his hand.”

James said McTair likes writing and he always felt that the filmmaker didn’t write enough.

Kamau, who is a writer in residence at The Theatre Centre, said he is working on a project that he and his father wrote.

At the end of the night McTair said he has more stories for books that his sister will edit.

“I’ve written all my life. I’ve made films all my life – that’s what I do,” he says in a video that was shown at the launch.

His sister concurred: “That’s his life, his breath. He is a writer.”

 “My Trouble With Books” is self-published and available on Amazon and at A Different Booklist in Toronto.

[This story has been published in the North American Weekly Gleaner, June 7-13, 2018.]

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