Ifeoma Chinwuba

The Letters: Postmark Prejudice in Black and White, by Sheila White, Yorkland Publishing, Toronto, © 2023, 433 pp.

Review by Ifeoma Chinwuba

How does one effectively categorize The Letters? Is it a biography? Is the author ghosting for the main protagonists? Indeed, White claims that the book is an account of her parents’ lives based on diaries and documents voraciously and meticulously kept by her mother, Vivian Keeler White, but with a profuse infusion of imagined situations. In literature, The Letters would belong to the genre of faction.

A corollary of the above is that the book appears to be more than the mere love story of two enamoured people. It is a tale of whole families, associates, trends, congregations and towns. The huge amount of people and events described, can be overwhelming. The editor should have triaged more to expunge the narrative of tedious, repetitious minutiae that do not add much to the main story. Arranged into thirty chapters, the book contains a prologue, an epilogue and an Afterword, with thirty-three pages of photos and images, buttressing the avalanche of information. Albeit, Ms. White has excelled in capturing the zeitgeist of the time and must be congratulated for such literary bravura.

The Letters is in the line of literature of prohibited love. Think Romeo and Juliet. Think The Heart has Its Reasons. Think Spare. Since time immemorial, families and associates, have interfered in the intimate choices of their offspring, and established guardrails to love based on race, social class, family shenanigans and whatnot. That this biracial couple stood its ground, in spite of the youth of the female is a testament to Vivian’s character and Bill White’s wooing prowess. The relationship perseveres and blossoms into marriage, despite the hard knocks from various angles.

The protagonists ‘elope’ to Toronto to give vent to their love. From this perspective, The Letters is an ode to Toronto, for whilst Nova Scotia was dripping with innuendoes of slavery, white privilege and racial polarities (They’re animals. You’re naïve if you think otherwise. Peggy tells Vivian at page 84), Toronto was already a melting pot,  an Eldorado for diverse people of the continent, and on the way to overcoming inequalities and embracing egalitarianism and world brotherhood. Certainly, vestiges of prejudice still existed (as they do till today). Witness the notice on the door of a show: No Jews. No Negroes. No Orientals. No Indians. (p. 365).

Much as The Letters is epistolary in nomenclature, it is redolent with verse in the love poems that Bill White crafts to his inamorata almost at the drop of a hat.

Scintillate, scintillate, globule Vivianic!

Fain would I fathom thy nature specific (p.38).

There is a revolving door of musical renditions, concerts, soirées, rehearsals and performances with artists, that The Letters comes across as an almanac of le tout Toronto. In the end, it is not only the biography of a forbidden love that we have before us, but also the social calendar of an era. The Letters will, therefore, appeal to musicologists, anthropologists and historians as it adds to the cornucopia of works on race relations in Maritime Canada, in particular.

Ms. White’s use of language is refreshing.  Uncanny similes and metaphors jump at you;

Guilt rushed back over her like a waterfall. (p.14)

The fact that a Black man is named White is ironical and the prejudice he suffers is Austenian.

A couple of inconsistencies rankled; in the title, the phrase is …Postmark Prejudice in Black and White. However, in her prologue, the author substitutes the ‘and’ with the squiggle, &; …Postmark Prejudice in Black & White. (p.2) Consistency in the title of a work is primal. Again, since the George Floyd-induced race riots, convention writes Black with a capital ‘B’. This practice has not been observed in this book that seeks to plead the Black cause. Finally, some grammatical errors escaped the editing process:

I have to be stay true to my boyfriend (sic) p.69.

All in all, The Letters is a magnificent biographical novel that exudes such authorial omniscience that the reader forgets that the author is but her parents’ ventriloquist.

Ms. Ifeoma Chinwuba was the 2021-2022 Writer-in-Residence of the Department of English and Film Studies, University of Alberta, Edmonton. A retired diplomat, she is the author of five books, made up of novels, poetry in dialogue, and a juvenile novella. HerMerchants of Flesh” and “Waiting for Maria” have, at different times, won the Prose Prizes of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), while “Waiting for Maria” was on the Long-list of The Commonwealth Writers Prize, 2008. Ms. Chinwuba’s latest novel, Sons of the East, will be released in November, 2023, by Griots Lounge Publishers. Email: ifeomachinwuba.com Web: Ifeomachinwuba.com