How She Read

Chantal Gibson

How She Read is a collection of genre-blurring poems about the representation of Black women, their hearts, minds and bodies, across the Canadian cultural imagination.

Drawing from grade-school vocabulary spellers, literature, history, art, media and pop culture, Chantal Gibson’s sassy semiotics highlight the depth and duration of the imperialist ideas embedded in everyday things, from storybooks to coloured pencils, from paintings to postage stamps.

A mediation on motherhood and daughterhood, belonging, loss and recovery, the collection weaves the voices of Black women, past and present. As Gibson dismantles the grammar of her Queen Elizabeth English, sister scholars talk back, whisper, suck teeth, curse and carry on from canonized texts, photographs and art gallery walls, reinterpreting their image, re-reading their bodies and claiming their space in a white, hegemonic landscape.

Using genre-bending dialogue poems and ekphrasis, Gibson reveals the dehumanizing effects of mystifying and simplifying images of Blackness. Undoing the North Star freedom myth, Harriet Tubman and Viola Desmond shed light on the effects of erasure in the time of reconciliation and the dangers of squeezing the past into a Canada History Minute or a single postage stamp. Centrefolds Delia and Marie Therese discuss their naked Black bodies and what it means to be enslaved, a human subject of art and an object of science, while Veronica? tells it like it is, what it means to hang with the Group of Seven on the walls of the Art Gallery of Ontario amongst the lakes, the glaciers, the mountains and the dying trees. Supported by the voices of Black women writers, the poems unloose the racist misogyny, myths, tropes and stereotypes women of colour continue to navigate every day.

Thoughtful, sassy, reflective and irreverent, How She Read leaves a Black mark on the landscape as it illustrates a writer’s journey from passive receiver of racist ideology to active cultural critic in the process of decolonizing her mind.

“With How She Read, Chantal Gibson has created a searing and a soaring poetic and visual meditation, which acts as a balm for our aching souls. How She Read offers a rich, multi-flavoured one-pot meal to restore the body and mind and ignite creative flight. By turns outraged, elegiac, and loving, Chantal Gibson meditates on blackness, womanhood, betrayal, denial, resilience, and freedom. How She Read flings open the back door to Canada. It sparks an inquiry and packs a wallop in every line and on every page.”
—Lawrence Hill, author of The Book of Negroes and The Illegal

How She Read is no subsidiary diary, but the output of an insurrectionist, a Black Woman who taketh the alphabet apart, who breaketh Imperialists into wimps, whimpering. Doctorated in Liberation Letters, in Freedom Grammatology, Chantal Gibson has read her Brand, her NourbeSe, her Black (Canuck) Herstory and is gonna hit you with the Truth, whether ya like it or not. From deconstructing the pigments available in a classic Laurentien Colored Pencils Case to voicing Viola Desmond’s outrage at the thought that anyone can buy her silence by placing her on a Canuck $10 bill, Gibson doesn’t hesitate to wield black ink and even stenographer markings to project a distinctly indelible black voice onto the still-too-white pages of Can Lit. Maybe these lines from ‘homograph’ help declare her powerful fusion of polite cogitation and damning street-talk: ‘I heard the lawyer argued you were coloured by your emotions. Quite naturally. What other reason would you have to beat a white bitch down?’ Amen. How She Read is T.N.T.—no matter how you translate these poems.”
—George Elliott Clarke, seventh Parliamentary Poet Laureate (2016–17)

“In this incendiary collection, How She Read, Chantal Gibson subverts and reconfigures language and education—the root of so much misinformation and racism—with style, fierceness, and sly subversion. Not only does this writing take control of the narrative, it burns the colonial gaze to the ground. This book is the most brilliant kind of backtalk.”
—Wayde Compton, author of The Outer Harbour

“Chantal Gibson beautifully infuses history, poetry, and art into an incredible genre-breaking collection. How She Read speaks not only to Black girls, but skillfully gives voice to those left to stew in silence. Through conversation and dialogue, through art meeting science, she wraps us in a heavy quilt lined with poetic grammar inventions. Gibson takes each reader on a journey as she writes, then gifts us an important piece of missing history.”
—Chelene Knight, author of Dear Current Occupant

“Chantal Gibson conjures a ‘sassy semiotician’ whose ‘tap of her pen be the beat of an ancestor’s drum’ in her debut collection, and sassiness and rhythmic flair—as well as experimental wordplay that extends to the visual—are on display throughout. […] In ‘Veronica?,’ she contemplates an unnamed Black woman’s portrait alongside a Lawren Harris landscape in the Art Gallery of Ontario and writes: ‘you’ve been placed here … to challenge//the climate of the centre.’ That’s exactly what this fierce, inventive collection does.”
The Star

“Gibson turns the very act of reading into a form of resistance, and by the end of this potent collection, a means to liberation.”
Quill & Quire

• Finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize (2020)

• Winner of the Pat Lowther Memorial Award (League of Canadian Poets 2020)

• Winner of the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize (BC and Yukon Book Prizes 2019/2020)

• Second place for the Fred Cogswell Award for Excellence in Poetry (Royal City Literary Arts Society, 2020)

• Longlisted for the inaugural Nelson Ball Poetry Prize (2020)

• Longlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award (League of Canadian Poets 2020)

• Longlisted for the Raymond Souster Award (League of Canadian Poets 2020)

• Finalist for the inaugural Jim Deva Prize for Writing That Provokes (BC and Yukon Book Prizes 2019/2020)


“Chantal Gibson invites scrutiny of where language maps, or fails to map, the quiddity of the world. Here the English language carries and transmits the burden of its service to the imperial ‘adventure’, in schoolbooks, in literature, in historical artifacts and through image and portraiture in paint and photograph. Her interanimation of the visual and the verbal energises a private mark-making, a resistance poetry to the coded, at times subliminal, oppressions of history. To detox the soul then, to be free and creative as citizens, we deserve to read each mark with schooled attention. And trust in our own mark making, our right to speak it the way we see it. This is a fabulous primer, ludic and ferocious, in the grand tradition of liberation handbooks.”
—Jury, Griffin Poetry Prize 2020