Claire Harris | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Claire Harris

Claire Harris, poet (born 13 June 1937 in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad). Harris has written numerous collections of poetry since her first volume, Fables from the Women’s Quarters, was published in 1984. Her work has garnered national and international acclaim — she was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Poetry, Fables won the Commonwealth Award for Poetry. Harris’ poetry often voices the psychological struggles experienced by women of color who face oppression and violence.

Early Life and Career

Harris earned a BA from University College, Dublin, and a post-graduate diploma from the University of the West Indies, Jamaica. After emigrating to Canada in 1966, she taught high school English. A decade later, she began to publish poetry . Using such verse techniques as contrasting prose and poetry on the page, or alternating journalistic prose with the voice of prophecy, Harris dramatizes and makes public the psychological struggles experienced by women of colour who face oppression. This approach makes her poetic mission unique among Black poets writing in Canada today.

Style and Themes

Although Harris deals with such themes as mortality and female complicity in women's victimhood, she recurs often to the problem of Black women's search for identity and cultural belonging in Western culture. In "Nude on a Pale Staircase" (Fables from the Women's Quarters, 1984), she depicts the isolation and rising anger of an East Indian wife whose marriage to an Italian-Canadian man has degenerated into mere habit. The husband's contemptuous remark about his wife's home culture triggers in her a sudden and devastating awareness of her own otherness, to which she responds wordlessly by dropping the breakfast dishes on the floor. She cradles a broken cup handle as if it were precious, creating an image of her resigned acceptance of her broken sense of identity. However, in Travelling to Find a Remedy (1986), the speaker of the title poem takes an opposite route from that of the Indian wife. Instead of journeying away from her home, this speaker deliberately travels toward her ancestral Africa. Thinking she can "throw / [her] heart across alien centuries / and slavery," she discovers that she "was not born to it." Marriage to an African man will not be the solution to the problem of cultural belonging. Nor can Africa's culture-ways survive unchanged in North America: of an African mask brought home to Calgary, the poet remarks, "you are / left a fiction..." (Translation Into Fiction, 1984).

In Drawing down a Daughter (1992) and She (2000), two novellas of mixed prose and poetry, Harris adds a new urgency to the search for a cultural home. The speakers confront the demands placed upon mothers to transmit a cultural past to a child. In Drawing Down a Daughter, the pregnant speaker wants to remain in her adoptive Canada, while her Canadian-born husband wants their child to be brought up in Trinidad (see Caribbean People). The conflict remains unresolved. The speaker of She, a victim of multiple personality disorder, becomes a metaphor for the cultural absences and confusions faced by women of colour. The speaker and her alter personalities, which represent voices ranging from British English to Trinidadian Creole, can only resolve their conflicts by means of mutual awareness and medical assistance. In both of these works, the cultural identity the speakers want to communicate to children can only be achieved by recreating the self through what Harris speaks of, in "And So...Home," as "conjuring."

Claire Harris has won numerous awards for her poetry, including the Commonwealth Awardfor Poetry for the Americas Region (1985), the Writers' Guild of Alberta Award for poetry (1987), the Alberta Culture poetry prize (1988), and the Alberta Culture Special Award (1990).