Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

OBT Black History Series: Dalton Higgins

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OBT Black History Series: Dalton Higgins

As part of the Black History Author Highlight Series, Open Book: Toronto sits down to speak with renown Canadian writer, cultural critic and educator Dalton Higgins.

Open Book:

When did you first discover the power of words? Did you write as a child?

Dalton Higgins

I was raised in a very Jamaican household, so was swept up by the power of Miss Lou and nation language. I was always the best speller in public school, partly due to the way literacy is treated in Jamaica; it’s a more rigid teaching system informed by the British colonizers, and that’s how my mother taught me—the way she was taught. I also grew up in a household, and lived in an area in Toronto where many of my peers took great interest in human rights, or more specifically civil rights, so I would listen to and enjoy reading the speeches of great orators like Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey, all the way to Angela Davis and Shirley Chisholm in my early high school years. Certainly growing up in the Black church, my appreciation of words began with my taking in the weekly fire and brimstone put forth by my pastors in the pews. By high school the wordsmithing I enjoyed most carried a soundtrack, so we’re talking about me listening to oodles and oodles of hip hop, Rakim and KRS One. And the artists they sampled were even greater freedom writers/riders, Fela Kuti to Gil Scott Heron. That’s how I became more attuned to the hyper-artistic use of rhyming couplets, all kinds of literary devices, iambic pentameters, metaphors and similes for days. I make the case that rappers are the new literati, they are the nu streetcorner seers. Modern day griots. Listen to a 16-bar verse from Talib Kweli and put that up against some so-called CanLit, and see what excites and stimulates you more.

OB:

You are recognized as one of Canada’s foremost experts on hip hop culture. What initially prompted you to write Hip Hop World, the most current book on the subject?

DH:

I was putzing out in Germany in 2004, I was there for a music conference. So I’m checking into this hotel, and this young chap working at the front desk is staring at me, perhaps thinking that I was not from Essen, and rightly so. In some parts of Europe, if you're Black, you tend to run into all these philistines who believe you can’t be anything other than a hip hop westerner or somehow related to Bob Marley. Like a caricature. In these more homogenous environments, ignorance reigns supreme because sometimes the locals don’t know any better, or don’t care to come out of their caves. Nevertheless, the guy can’t speak much English, and my German is lousy to non-existent, so he starts doing a human beat box routine and that’s how he chooses to bridge this great racial and cultural divide. By using one of the tools or elements of hip hop. A major a-ha moment for me, as a guy who’s been documenting hip hop cultures effects on the wider popular culture. As I write in Hip Hop World, “it’s a hip hop world, and you’re just living in it.”

OB:

In honour of this special Black History interview series for Open Book, how do you see the role of creative writing within the larger project of recognizing, preserving and promoting the contributions of Black peoples and their collective histories?

DH:

I work from the basic premise that Black history is human history. So the canon currently being taught in too many high schools, Canadian university English departments needs to be carefully dismantled, uprooted and retooled. It’s embarrassing really. Illogical. We should know better.

OB:

Didn’t we all come to be writers because of our literary ancestors? Or is the main role of the writer to remember/collect history?

DH:

Yes, when I began recording and writing pop culture puffery, it was for props. Now it’s for posterity.

OB:

Is it possible to ever truly be a novel (in the sense of cutting-edge) writer?

DH:

As an afro futurist and hip hoppy conceptual artist, I am very big into “sampling,” offering up ideas on how modern day creators stitch together new and old source materials and form these newer digitized sonic quilts, so my idea of what is cutting-edge is oftentimes different than that of the status quo in Canada. I am reading excerpts of Marcus Boon’s In Praise of Copying, which argues that copying is an essential part of being human. A crucial argument to take on, given the grey areas concerning intellectual property.

OB:

Can you tell us about your fourth book, Fatherhood 4.0: iDad Application Across Cultures?

DH:

Unlocking the mysteries of fatherhood is what drives me more now than ever. Whereas deconstructing Kierkegaard might’ve given me more thrills a decade or so ago, my 11-year-old daughter Shiloh intrigues me, as does my four-year-old son Solomon’s daily rituals. For this book I tracked down a motley crew of multi-culti personalities, public figures, intellectuals, entertainers, athletes, and activists to share their stories, memories, insights, and revelations about fatherhood. What I got back ranged from the comic to the tragic. It was a book I had to write, and Fatherhood 4.0 is a movement I had to invent. I’ve become obsessed with tracking down where cross-cultural fatherhood rituals intersect with the worlds of technology, hip hop, and hipster culture. It’s a way for me to acknowledge and bring light to a cool diverse dads movement happening in Canada.

OB:

What do you think about electronic reading devices (like the Kindle, etc.)? Are these symbolic of the end of book culture? Or do they represent the book’s resurrection?

DH:

I don’t think about them actually. When their price points come down, I will! I think these mobile reading devices will transform the educational publishing market more quickly. Lugging around heavy texts is sooo '90s. And hey, many people still read scrolls on papyrus-like paper for religious observances. It all depends on one’s POV. What is best in the West might not be the best for the rest of humanity. Oral traditions still excite me, so it’s all based on one’s frame of reference.

OB:

You are gearing up to be a regular columnist with Open Book: Toronto. What sorts of topics can we expect to see you write about?

DH:

My aim is to be a lightning rod of controversy, across subjects. Illuminate the publishing world’s darkest corners, give voice to the turquoise elephant in the room. Add some chocolate to the vanilla y’know. And to celebrate some literary things that are so bad, they’re good.

OB:

Are you currently at work on any new projects? Where can we go to hear or find your work?

DH:

Babylonia: The Death of Common Sense is my next book project. If you google me bi-monthly you will be treated to an audio-visual assault on the senses.


Dalton Higgins is a widely read blogger utilizing a wide array of sobriquet’s including Daltpak Chopra and Usain Dalt. Higgins is considered one of Canada's foremost experts on popular culture and his other books include Hip Hop World, Hip Hop and Much Master T: One VJ’s Journey. Higgins co-directed and produced More Than a Haircut, the critically acclaimed documentary about Black fathers and barbershop culture.

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