Dionne Brand 1953-
Trinidadian-born Canadian poet, novelist, biographer, short-story writer, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Brand's career through 2003.
An emigrant from the Caribbean nation Trinidad, Brand has been recognized as one of Canada's most important contemporary writers for articulating concerns traditionally silenced by mainstream society. Brand's writings typically foreground matters of race, gender, and cultural imperialism. A radical social activist, she has frequently blended standard English diction with Caribbean dialect in her work, often preferring the latter to the former. Since arriving in Canada, Brand has defended a number of black, feminist, and labor causes, including those of the Canadian Communist Party and the International Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. In addition, Brand was a founding member and editor of Our Lives, the first black women's newspaper in Canada.
Born in Guayguayare, Trinidad, on January 7, 1953, Brand was raised by her grandmother. She attended Naparima Girls' High School in San Fernando and graduated in 1970. Upon graduation, Brand emigrated to Canada and enrolled at the University of Toronto where she earned a bachelor's degree in English and philosophy in 1975. In 1978, Brand published her first poetry collection, 'Fore Day Morning. Distressed by the dearth of children's literature about the black experience she discovered while working with the Black Education Project, Brand wrote Earth Magic (1980), a children's poetry book. Following the publication of Primitive Offensive (1982) and Winter Epigrams & Epigrams to Ernesto Cardenal in Defense of Claudia (1983), Brand traveled to Grenada to assist the revolution until the United States invaded in 1983. Her experience of and outrage at the invasion inspired her fourth poetry collection, Chronicles of the Hostile Sun (1984). Upon returning to Toronto, Brand worked at various black and feminist community organizations, including the Immigrant Women's Centre, the Black Youth Hotline, and the Toronto Board of Education. In 1986, Brand co-wrote with Krisantha Sri Bhaggiyadatta the essay collection Rivers Have Sources, Trees Have Roots. During the late 1980s, Brand pursued graduate studies at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, which granted her a master's degree in history and the philosophy of education in 1989. That year, Brand also published her first short-story collection, San Souci, and contributed to the production of the National Film Board of Canada documentary Older Stronger Wiser. In 1990, Brand published No Language Is Neutral, a poetry collection which was nominated for the prestigious Governor General's Award. Using her preliminary research for a doctorate degree that she eventually abandoned, Brand collected interviews with working-class black women in No Burden to Carry (1991). She contributed to several other documentaries before publishing the essay collection Bread Out of Stone in 1995. In 1997, she published her first novel, In Another Place, Not Here, and her sixth volume of poetry, Land to Light On, which won the Governor General's Award for poetry. Since then, Brand has written the novel At the Full and Change of the Moon (1999), the fictional autobiography A Map to the Door of No Return (2002), and the poetry collection Thirsty (2002).
Brand's poetry generally centers on issues concerning race, gender, and cultural politics, particularly in relation to Brand's status as an exile from both her native and adopted homelands. For example, 'Fore Day Morning deals with memories from Brand’s childhood in Trinidad and her painful separation from her beloved grandmother while recalling the blatant racism and cultural imperialism that prompted her emigration to Canada. Echoing the militant sentiments of the 1960s Black Power Movement, Primitive Offensive tracks the origins of the African diaspora, celebrating its contributions to Western civilization and extolling its unity in the face of oppression. Suffused with wit and irony, Winter Epigrams & Epigrams to Ernesto Cardenal in Defense of Claudia describes the life circumstances of black Canadians, suggesting that the frigid climate corresponds with the injustice and sexism of Canadian culture. Based on Brand's experience of the revolution in Grenada and the subsequent American invasion, Chronicles of the Hostile Sun narrates a history of Caribbean revolutions from a female point of view. Comprising free verse and prose poems written in both standard and Caribbean English, No Language Is Neutral demonstrates how racism, classism, and heterosexism affect speakers' attitudes toward the English language. Land to Light On bemoans the injustice and inequality of Canadian society, lamenting the worldwide collapse of socialism and the pervasive violence of contemporary times. Like her poetry, Brand's fiction also contains a strong political message that echoes concerns about gender, race, and class. The short stories of Sans Souci draw upon Brand's childhood with her grandmother in Trinidad, her relocation as a young adult to Toronto, and her return to the Caribbean during the revolution in Grenada. Celebrating the struggles and triumphs of immigrants, many of these stories also use the Caribbean vernacular in dialogue and incorporate the imagery and style of poetry. Brand's first novel, In Another Place, Not Here, encompasses the colonial and postcolonial history of slavery and its consequences, narrating the relationship between three women. Alternating from settings in the Caribbean to Toronto and back again, the novel articulates the anguish of oppression perpetrated by whites upon blacks as well as the liberation of one of the women, who comes to terms with her lesbianism. Similarly, the novel At the Full and Change of the Moon spans the decades between the 1820s and the 1990s, recounting the generational and geographical effects of a slave woman's refusal to submit to white domination, while the fictional autobiography A Map to the Door of No Return represents Brand's search for her own ancestry woven from fragments of personal memories, travel memoirs, and newspaper articles. In addition to poetry and fiction, Brand's oeuvre contains several nonfiction collections that reflect concerns about racism and cultural imperialism. An extended essay interspersed with interviews, Rivers Have Sources, Trees Have Roots addresses discrimination against black and female Canadians, while No Burden to Carry transcribes a series of oral histories by black working-class women who lived in Ontario from the 1920s to the 1950s. Comprising thirteen essays, Bread Out of Stone gathers essays on such diverse topics as the politics of writing, the theoretical applications of cultural appropriation, and the similarities between racism, sexism, and homophobia.
Critics have generally praised Brand's writing as much for its political content as its rhetorical strategies, particularly for prominently using Caribbean dialect and street slang rather than conventional English diction and syntax. While some commentators have recognized Brand since the mid-1980s as Canada's “first major exile female poet,” others have traced her consistent attempts to give voices to people marginalized by their race, gender, class, or sexual orientation. Some literary scholars have studied Brand's work as both a response to and an extension of Modernism's principles, observing the creation of an original subject position and an authentic alternative voice. Similarly, feminist critics have examined the communal approach to cultural memory exhibited by Brand's writings. Such scholars closely align her work with the subversive traditions of women's storytelling that embrace struggle against and encourage resistance to patriarchal establishments. In addition, other critics have evaluated the historical contexts of Brand's work, particularly its exploration of the connections between various kinds of oppression in both the colonial past and the postcolonial present. Although the majority of critical reaction to Brand's writings has typically emphasized the ways in which it fosters racial unity and understanding, a number of critics have begun to assess her body of work on aesthetic merits alone.
'Fore Day Morning (poetry) 1978
Earth Magic (poetry) 1980
Primitive Offensive (poetry) 1982
Winter Epigrams and Epigrams to Ernesto Cardenal in Defense of Claudia (poetry) 1983
Chronicles of the Hostile Sun (poetry) 1984
Rivers Have Sources, Trees Have Roots: Speaking of Racism [with Krisantha Sri Bhaggiyadatta] (essay) 1986
Sans Souci, and Other Stories (short stories) 1989
No Language Is Neutral (poetry) 1990
No Burden to Carry: Narratives of Black Working Women in Ontario, 1920s-1950s (biography) 1991
Bread Out of Stone: Recollections, Sex, Recognitions, Race, Dreaming, Politics (essays) 1995
In Another Place, Not Here (novel) 1997
Land to Light On (poetry) 1997
At the Full and Change of the Moon (novel) 1999
A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging (novel) 2002
Thirsty (poetry) 2002
Joan Sangster (review date September 1992)
SOURCE: Sangster, Joan. Review of No Burden to Carry by Dionne Brand. University of Toronto Quarterly 62, no. 1 (September 1992): 120-29.
[In the following excerpt, Sangster examines Brand's attempt to give voice to a marginalized group of women in No Burden to Carry.]
Exercising control over the definitions and creation of one's history can be a powerful means of establishing one's right to exercise power, speak with authority, or simply live in one's community with a sense of dignity. Definitions of the ‘important’ events, people, and themes in Canadian history have for many years been shaped by a white, male-dominated academic and cultural elite which has...
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Diana Brydon (essay date 1992)
SOURCE: Brydon, Diana. “Reading Dionne Brand's ‘Blues Spiritual for Mammy Prater’.” In Inside the Poem: Essays and Poems in Honour of Donald Stephens, edited by W. H. New, pp. 81-7. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1992.
[In the following excerpt, Brydon suggests that “Blues Spiritual for Mammy Prater,” which appears simple and accessible, is a complicated exploration of issues of identity and agency in the construction of the subject.]
For the past two years I have been teaching Canadian poetry in the context of issue-oriented courses designed to interrogate the construction and representation of postcolonial women's identities, rather than in the more...
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Lynette Hunter (essay date winter 1992/1993)
SOURCE: Hunter, Lynette. “After Modernism: Alternative Voices in the Writings of Dionne Brand, Claire Harris, and Marlene Philip.” University of Toronto Quarterly 62, no. 2 (winter 1992/1993): 256-81.
[In the following essay, Hunter compares Brand with writers Claire Harris and Marlene Philip as outsiders writing within the structures of the dominant discourse while articulating the ways in which their experiences have typically been excluded from that discourse.]
As Lorris Elliott notes in the introduction to Literary Writing by Blacks in Canada, there has been an ‘outburst of literary activity by Blacks in Canada’1 since the 1970s, and the...
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Brain John Busby (review date 1995)
SOURCE: Busby, Brain John. Review of Bread Out of Stone, by Dionne Brand. Canadian Ethnic Studies 27, no. 2 (1995): 222-23.
[In the following review, Busby contends that Brand's essays have much in common with journal entries in that they reveal the author's personal feelings without documenting the sources of those feelings.]
A film-maker, short-story writer, feminist and Black activist, Dionne Brand is best-known as a poet, as reflected in the subtitle of this [Bread Out of Stone], her first collection of essays. For the author, poetry is dependent on politics, it “must be relevant, charged, politically conscious, memorable” (p. 167). Like her...
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Guy Beauregard (review date autumn 1996)
SOURCE: Beauregard, Guy. “Making Bread Out of Stone.” Canadian Literature 150 (autumn 1996): 113-14.
[In the following excerpt, Beauregard praises the range of cultural issues covered in Bread Out of Stone, but faults Brand's representation of Canadian reading audiences as unsophisticated.]
Bread out of Stone collects thirteen essays, nine of which appear here for the first time, and provides a cohesive yet flexible context within which Brand can address a wide range of theoretical, cultural, and literary issues. The political function of writing; desire and the black woman's body; the complex intersections of racism, sexism, and homophobia; and...
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Kathleen J. Renk (essay date October 1996)
SOURCE: Renk, Kathleen J. “‘Her Words Are Like Fire’: The Storytelling Magic of Dionne Brand.” Ariel 27, no. 4 (October 1996): 97-111.
[In the following essay, Renk explores images of fire and rage in the short stories in Sans Souci and Other Stories.]
An oracle and a bringer of joy, the storyteller is the living memory of her time, her people. She composes on life but does not lie, for composing is not imagining, fancying, or inventing.
Her words are like fire. They burn and they destroy. It is, however, only by burning that they lighten. Destroying and saving, therefore, are here one...
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Michael Thorpe (review date spring 1997)
SOURCE: Thorpe, Michael. Review of In Another Place, Not Here, by Dionne Brand. World Literature Today 71, no. 2 (spring 1997): 446-47.
[In the following review, Thorpe asserts that In Another Place, Not Here is a work that leaves no middle ground between the two extremes of self-hatred and retaliation against white oppression.]
In Another Place, Not Here, Dionne Brand's first novel, explores the relationships between three women, set successively on an unnamed Caribbean island (Brand is from Trinidad), in Toronto, and on another nameless island, where an abortive “revolution” is crushed by American military intervention. Grenada, where Brand...
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Suzanne Ruta (review date April 1998)
SOURCE: Ruta, Suzanne. “Archetypes of Exile.” Women's Review of Books 15, no. 7 (April 1998): 12-13.
[In the following review, Ruta describes Brand's violation of the conventional distance between characters and narrator in In Another Place, Not Here. Ruta notes that even the narrator speaks in the rural Trinidadian vernacular, and claims that the overall effect Brand achieves is successful.]
It's all very well for the characters in your short stories to use their down home dialect, the writer Caroline Gordon warned her protégée, Flannery O'Connor, but the narrator must speak the English of Samuel Johnson. In her remarkable first novel, poet and filmmaker...
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Dionne Brand and Beverley Daurio (interview date 1998)
SOURCE: Brand, Dionne, and Beverley Daurio. “Writing It: Dionne Brand.” In The Power to Bend Spoons: Interviews with Canadian Novelists, edited by Beverley Daurio, pp. 31-41. Toronto: The Mercury Press, 1998.
[In the following interview, Brand discusses relationship between her politics and her writing.]
Dionne Brand is the author of several books of poetry, including Chronicles of the Hostile Sun and Winter Epigrams and Epigrams to Ernesto Cardenal in Defense of Claudia, as well as a collection of short fiction, Sans Souci and Other Stories; she is also the author of a book of essays, Bread Out of Stone (1994). A community activist,...
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Heather Smyth (essay date April 1999)
SOURCE: Smyth, Heather. “Sexual Citizenship and Caribbean-Canadian Fiction: Dionne Brand's In Another Place, Not Here and Shani Mootoo's Cereus Blooms at Night.” Ariel 30, no. 2 (April 1999): 141-60.
[In the following essay, Smyth discusses the idea of exclusion based on sexual orientation within the novels of Brand and author Shani Mootoo.]
I have lost my place, or my place has deserted me. … The pleasure and the paradox of my own exile is that I belong wherever I am.
George Lamming, The Pleasures of Exile1
Madivine. Friending. Zami. How...
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Pamela McCallum and Christian Olbey (essay date summer 1999)
SOURCE: McCallum, Pamela, and Christian Olbey. “Written in the Scars: History, Genre, and Materiality in Dionne Brand's In Another Place, Not Here.” Essays on Canadian Writing 68 (summer 1999): 159-82.
[In the following essay, McCallum and Olbey discuss the historical context of In Another Place, Not Here, suggesting that the distant past associated with slavery informs the more recent past represented in the narrative.]
In January 1794, during the heart of the Parisian winter, three new deputies from the Caribbean colony of San Domingue arrived to take their seats in the Convention governing revolutionary France. The three men—a Black former slave who had bought his freedom, a mulatto, and a white—were welcomed by the fraternal embrace of the president and the applause of the French deputies, one of whom commented to the assembly: “Since 1789 the aristocracy of birth and the aristocracy of religion have been destroyed; but the aristocracy of the skin still remains. That too is now at its last gasp, and equality has been consecrated” (qtd. in James, Black 139-40). On the following day the Black deputy, Bellay, addressed the Convention: in an inspiring speech he committed his people to the Revolution and argued for the abolition of slavery. There followed one of those moments where the energy of the Revolution seemed to animate the actions of the deputies, and the Convention enthusiastically acted on Bellay's words, advocating immediate freedom for the slaves in the French colonies without so much as requiring the resolution to go through the formality of further debate. The Jacobin deputy Levasseur observed that, “When drawing up the constitution of the French people we paid no attention to the unhappy Negroes. Posterity will bear us a great reproach for that. Let us repair the wrong—let us proclaim the liberty of the Negroes” (qtd. in James, Black 140). The abolition of slavery in San Domingue, Guadeloupe, and Martinique gave Blacks throughout the Caribbean a compelling reason to take the side of the French against the more reactionary English and Spanish colonizers.
When the great Black historian and political theorist C. L. R. James, whose account we have been following, tells this story, there is more than a hint of irony in his words. While the French deputies presented themselves as the authors and sustainers of emancipation (“Let us repair the wrong—let us proclaim the liberty of the Negroes”), James points out that the impetus toward the abolition of slavery in the colonies is framed by two crucial popular movements. In 1791 a slave rebellion, the first that would bring to prominence Toussaint L'Ouverture, had broken out in San Domingue, emptying the plantations of their workforce and blackening the sky above Cap-Haitien with the smoke from burning sugarcane fields. During the same period the French people—servants, peasants, labourers, and their allies—had pushed their country toward the Jacobin government led by Robespierre and Saint-Just and, perhaps most crucially, had developed a rudimentary race consciousness, what James, citing contemporary sources, describes as a “virulent hatred against the ‘aristocracy of the skin'” (Black 139-40). It is the impetus toward social transformation from these two popular movements, and not simply the enlightened radicalism of the deputies seated in the Convention, that pressured the Jacobin government to make such a startling and unexpected change to their island colonies so far away. Issues raised by this critical historical moment and its polar opposite—the Napoleonic decree reinstating slavery in the French colonies—shape broad questions that work their way into Dionne Brand's novel, In Another Place, Not Here. How has European colonialism marked, and how does it continue to mark, colonized peoples and spaces? How are the troubling legacies of Enlightenment revolutions still manifest in emancipatory social movements some two centuries later? How do the complex relations between colonizer and colony persist in an age of global transnational capitalism? In what follows we will read Brand's text through the lens of history, arguing that it is a narrative in which the distant past (the sufferings of and resistances to slavery, the colonization of the Caribbean) is layered onto the more recent past (the impasses reached by 1960s left movements in North America, the brutal U.S. invasion and repression of Grenada in October 1983) to produce a vivid sense of overlapping and interlinked histories. In our exploration of In Another Place, Not Here, we draw on several historical and cultural materialist critics—C. L. R. James, Walter Benjamin, Raymond Williams, Fredric Jameson, and others. Our purpose, however, is not so much to use critical writings to explicate Brand's text as to foreground a dialogue between critical and creative writings. In Another Place, Not Here, we argue, engages urgent questions and crucial issues for cultural materialism.
We begin with James's analysis of the Haitian revolution to underscore the persistence of historical modes of domination and strategies of resistance into the present, a process that engages Brand throughout In Another Place, Not Here. “This amounts to catching up with the past,” writes Himani Bannerji of Brand's poetry, “to sense out the present mainly in order to seize the future” (47). The novel is structured around the stories of three characters, who, while portrayed with nuanced psychological realism, attain a kind of allegorical status. Verlia, an immigrant from the Caribbean to Toronto, is a Black-Power-movement activist in the 1970s who returns to volunteer as an organizer in Maurice Bishop's New Jewel Movement in Grenada and dies in the invasion of the island by the U.S. military. Abena, Verlia's lover in Toronto, remains to continue her mentally and physically exhausting work at an inner-city immigrant women's centre. Elizete, a peasant woman and Verlia's lover in Grenada, travels to Toronto in search of her lover's former life. Together, their positionings revolve around and through various longings and conflicts that haunted attempts for social transformation in the particular moment of the 1960s and 1970s: the “First World” activist's desire for the apparent simplicity and clear-cut conflicts of the “Third World”; the tension between the necessary tasks of seemingly endless routine work and the more intoxicating, provocative lure of demonstrations in the streets, of underground actions at the edge of the law; the constantly shifting relationships between a political movement and the people it serves and leads; the weary efforts to remake one's own subjectivity for the new world that social activism promises. In each of these ongoing situations, the past haunts the present, marking the living with the consequences of other times.
In what is possibly the most densely articulated figure of history in the novel, Verlia's collection of clippings, carefully saved in a shoe box under her bed, constructs and represents the pressures and possibilities that shape her moment (160-61). Like the fragments that characterize the materialist historiography of Benjamin, Verlia's clippings are images that at a particular moment in history gain powerful resonance. They encompass a diversity of subjects: some portray political leaders from various cultures and countries (Mao Zedong, Ghandi, Fidel Castro); some represent performers and cultural figures, individual and group “stars” (Nina Simone, James Brown, Otis Redding, the Supremes, and Cassius Clay); others depict an ordinary person whose seemingly individual stand issued into extraordinary social events (Rosa Parks); still others show anonymous subjects (Black Panthers in front of a courthouse, the victim of a lynching in the southern states); another is a trace of Verlia's first steps into political action (a protest letter written when she was a high school student). The final clipping in Verlia's shoe box reaches back into history before the advent of photography: a drawing of the Black general and major figure of the Haitian revolution, Dessalines, at Cap-Haitien. A slave who joined Toussaint L'Ouverture's rebellion in its early years, and one of those who led it to victory after Toussaint's death, Dessalines concretizes a longing for freedom and a commitment to act in transforming social and political relationships in the Caribbean.
It would be misleading, however, to read Verlia's diverse collection as a linear progression from the San Domingue rebellion and Haitian independence through the civil rights movement to the Black Panthers, the latter presided over by the successful revolutions of Mao and Castro just as the former might have provided a model for China and Cuba. The moments represented in the clippings depict interventions by individuals or groups whose actions transform the past and open possibilities, whose efforts, in Benjamin's words, “fan the spark of hope in the past” (255). When Rosa Parks refuses to move to the back of a southern bus, her action gives hope to the mute suffering in the broken body of the lynched man; when Cassius Clay—not yet Muhammad Ali—redefines the positioning of the Black athlete, his actions focus the connection between the cultural and political spheres and map a route whereby Black cultural figures in general can contribute to the processes of social transformation; when the Black Panthers begin to organize in the ghettos, their actions give hope to the countless blunted lives and needless deaths in America's inner cities. “The past can be seized,” Benjamin writes, “only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again” (255). What he suggests in this visionary formulation is a crucial moment in the present when a moment from past history can be extracted and activated for contemporary struggles (his example elsewhere in this chapter is the appropriation of republican Rome by the French revolutionaries ). For Verlia the clippings depict “a moment or a fortnight at the most” (161) when a sense of collectivity and connection with others would animate the desultory lives of her family and her village: “they'd spring to life in the glow of these clippings or in rumours of some set of coloured people somewhere beating some colonial power down” (161). Lovingly collected, tucked away in the darkness of the shoe box, the clippings are a past awaiting a time when they might illuminate a future present.
Born into a family whose members accept a dreary and monotonous existence, Verlia is haunted by an unrelenting anxiety that refuses to release its grip: “she can't remember ever sleeping soundly or without fear” (121). Superstition and obeah combine with the brutality of betrayed relationships and sexual violence to create an unrelieved atmosphere of dread. In Brand's similes, this persistent fear that torments the village by the ocean is portrayed as natural, as something that has been accepted as an inescapable part of life: “she, despite trying, caught peril like any disease in childhood, drank it as a newborn” (125); “she remembers stillness and anger moving in like weather, hanging, parting the spaces among people” (126). Like the organisms that cause childhood illnesses, like the uncontrollable shifts of weather patterns, the apprehension enveloping Verlia's family is accepted as natural, as a given that cannot be altered. And yet it is possible to locate a specific history for this apparently inexplicable dread. More than a century after emancipation and the formal end of slavery, the village seems to be still suffused with the atmosphere of plantation economy and slave life. Trapped in an existence in which the future is blocked, always in fear of whipping and more terrible punishments, always on guard for the irrational outbursts of an overseer's anger, the slave negotiates a lifeworld shot through with anxiety. Although born a citizen of a free country in the second half of the twentieth century, Verlia—like Elizete and her ancestor Adela before her (“All the marks on marks on she … me is for thinking of leaving” )—is marked by the persistent psychological scars of slavery. And it should come as no surprise that, like many slaves, her longing is to run, to take flight (the figure of “flying,” in various forms, is associated with Verlia throughout the novel). Indeed, like the American slaves who travelled the Underground Railway, she flees for Canada.1
With the allusion to flight Brand locates herself in “a literature, a genre, a tradition,” as she puts it, “and that tradition is the tradition of black writing” (Interview 273). More precisely, to situate Brand's literary practice of, in Bannerji's words, “retrieving or salvaging from the past whatever is relevant for now” (51), we turn our attention to genre and to her text's relation to the contemporary emergence of the neoslave narrative. This generic label is used to refer to novels that retell the stories of slavery in narratives marked by postmodern formal innovations, and it encompasses works such as Margaret Walker's Jubilee (1966), Ishmael Reed's Flight to Canada (1976), Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987), and, we will argue, Brand's In Another Place, Not Here (1996). While some of these texts deploy postmodern narrative techniques to collapse temporal and spatial boundaries (Reed's slave narrator, Raven Quickskill, for instance, effects his flight to Canada aboard an Air Canada jet), Brand's novel does not explicitly seem to address the history of antebellum slavery. In Another Place, Not Here, however, is concerned with the representation of the profound and deep-rooted physical and psychological effects of slavery as they persist in contemporary forms of superexploitative labour practices endemic to the contemporary process of capitalist “globalization”, which, as Samir Amin notes in Spectres of Capitalism, is merely a “euphemism for that forbidden word, imperialism” (45). Like other writers of neoslave narratives, Brand draws explicitly on conventions and narratorial strategies developed by the antebellum slave narrators in order to take up the challenge of representing recent history.
In her essay on Shirley Anne Williams's novel Dessa Rose, Deborah E. McDowell notes that the emergence of the neoslave narrative is primarily a “post-sixties phenomenon” and that, since the publication of Walker's Jubilee in 1966, “novels about slavery have appeared at an unstoppable rate” (144). “Why the compulsion to repeat the massive story of slavery in the contemporary Afro-American novel,” McDowell asks, “especially so long after the event itself?” She continues: “what personal need, what expressive function, does re-presenting slavery in narrative serve the twentieth-century black American writer? Is the retelling meant to attempt the impossible: to ‘get it right,’ to ‘set the historical record straight?’” (144). McDowell and others (Beaulieu xiv) are undoubtedly correct to suggest that this intriguing literary development seeks to contest dominant historical representations and interpretations of slavery. Taking our cue from Brand's novel itself—“the struggle is not just about the dashiki and the romance of the skin, not just the satisfaction of getting history right and dancing at the Paramount” (175)—we suspect, however, that there is something more at work in the contemporary emergence of the neoslave narrative than merely the clarification of the obscured and distant past of slavery. To a certain extent, McDowell's manner of framing the question itself can be misleading insofar as it implies that a contemporary literary interest in historical representation is strictly an African American affair since—as the work of Linda Hutcheon and others on historiographic metafiction makes clear—the question of historical representation in the current postmodern moment is very much on the agenda of contemporary historians, literary critics, authors, and cultural producers in general.
Widening the frame of reference within which we reflect on the emergence of the neoslave narrative brings to the fore larger questions of its relation to a more general crisis of, or perhaps better, struggle over, the act of historical representation. Further, this broader approach enables us to perceive the development of the neoslave narrative as Black writer's specific responses to the difficult challenge of writing history in a cultural moment of postmodernity marked by features such as extreme relativism, undecidability, and profound scepticism regarding the possibility of material referentiality, let alone the desirability or even possibility of social transformation. Contemporary Black writers' seizure on the genre of the neoslave narrative, then, is a more complex textual strategy than merely finding a means to re-present or reinterpret historical experiences of oppression. Indeed, what becomes readily apparent in Brand's deployment of the neoslave narrative is that this generic emergence is a strategic means of building on past cultural constructions of oppression and liberation in order to speak more effectively to contemporary forms of oppression and liberation. In Postmodernism: Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Jameson notes the difficulty of representing the fluid, complex, and contradictory forces unleashed in the expansion and consolidation of global transnational capitalism. The “whole world system of present-day multinational capitalism,” whose configurations, he argues, are overseen by “some immense communicational and computer network,” is extremely difficult to represent since we “do not yet possess the perceptual equipment to match this new hyperspace” (37). Although it is difficult, if not impossible, to map the current movements of capitalism through the chimerical regions of hyperspace, this process of globalization is also registered in the more material sites of the bodies and psyches of its victims. Invoking the generic contract of the antebellum slave narrative, contemporary Black writers such as Brand confront this representational challenge. Taking full advantage of innovative postmodern narrative techniques while simultaneously reworking strategies developed in the antebellum slave narratives to resist the more disempowering aspects of postmodern disengagement and political impotence, Brand both avoids the “metaphorization of postcolonial migrancy,” where “politically charged words such as ‘diaspora’ and ‘exile’ are being emptied of their histories of pain and suffering” (Krishnaswamy 132, 128), and represents instead two key factors “that fracture immigrant experience: the exigencies of neo-colonial global capitalism determining the dispersal of ‘Third World’ peoples, and the distinctly class- and gender-differentiated nature of immigrant experience” (132).
Jameson's discussion of the significance of generic appropriation further helps to explain why the neoslave narrative emerges as such an important form for contemporary Black writers. “Genres,” he writes in The Political Unconscious, “are essentially literary institutions, or social contracts between a writer and a specific public, whose function is to specify the proper use of a particular cultural artifact” (106). He goes on to argue that generic choices work in a text much as gestural signals (body language, intonation, facial expressions, etc.) function to secure appropriate reception in oral communication, and that writers must utilize specific literary conventions if their texts are “not to be abandoned to a drifting multiplicity of uses” (106). Of course, over time, “as texts free themselves more and more from an immediate performance situation,” it gets increasingly difficult to “enforce a given generic rule” on readers. Nevertheless, Jameson maintains that much of the “art of writing” is “absorbed by this (impossible) attempt to devise a foolproof mechanism for the automatic exclusion of undesirable responses to a given literary utterance” (106-07). The evocation of the antebellum slave narrative in the form of the neoslave narrative retrieves and redeploys in the contemporary sphere the conventions of a genre initially defined by its capacity to intervene in actual material struggles for social transformation. “Literature has been the most powerful weapon,” bemoans the Southern Literary Messenger of 1856, “which the enemies of African slavery have used in their attacks” (qtd. in Davis and Gates xvii). A generic hybrid forged in the heat of emancipatory social struggle, wielded in the service of liberation from the gruesome materiality of chattel slavery, and all but forgotten until the turbulent period of the 1960s, the antebellum slave narratives, as James in his opus American Civilization notes of abolitionist intellectuals in general, were the literary expression of a “direct social movement … the movement of the slaves and free Negroes for freedom” (85).
These brief reflections on how the original slave narratives worked as weapons within a specific historical struggle enable us to respond to McDowell's questions about the emergence of the neoslave narrative in a way that goes beyond the “personal needs” of contemporary Black writers, and beyond the limited, though undoubtedly important, function of constructing a less distorted interpretation of the distant past of slavery. With the emergence of the neoslave narrative, we see the process whereby a literary genre that developed out of the most explosive social struggle of the nineteenth century is layered over and pressed into service in one of the most turbulent periods—called the “African American Rebellion” by Cornel West, and the Civil Rights movement by traditional history—of recent social struggle. In the attempt to both represent and contribute to expressions of resistance engaged by social groups trapped in complex contemporary webs of superexploitation and oppression (the forms of “new slavery in the global economy” as Kevin Bales puts it in the title of his recent book), this literary practice, consistent with the spirit at work in the vision of Benjamin, gives fresh breath to the faded coals of a genre forged out of the historical conflagration of American slavery and abolition.
Just as Verlia draws strength from the clippings carefully preserved in the shoe box under her bed, In Another Place, Not Here invokes the generic contract of the antebellum slave narrative with its connection to an earlier moment of Black struggle. James Olney's catalogue of conventions in his essay “‘I Was Born’: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature” throws light on Brand's particular appropriation, reconfiguration, and redeployment of some of these nineteenth-century strategic literary practices. Of Olney's twelve identifiable conventions, three—flight, the description of work, and the omnipresence of the whip—along with a fourth to which he alludes but does not explicitly list—the construction of collectivity—are crucial to Brand's novel (153).
Olney notes that the depiction of flight from the slave South to the free North is a stock convention of the antebellum slave narrative. As Frederick Douglass puts it in My Bondage and My Freedom, when commenting on the failed escape conspiracy acted out by himself and five other slaves, “we meant to reach the north—and the north was our Canaan” (278). However, Olney's explication of the convention of flight can be made more specific once we recall that after the American passing of the fugitive slave bill into law (1851), the slave narrator's depiction is not just of some general, abstract notion of flight but of flight to a specific and concrete geographical and national space—Canada, as Ishmael Reed so perceptively realizes. Of the thirty most widely read slave narratives, observes historian Robin Winks, Canada is mentioned in all but four (241). For these past writers constructions of Canada are always already utopic ones, standing as ideal antitheses to the material reality of the slave states of the U.S. “There is no country in the world, so much hated by slaveholders, as Canada,” writes the fugitive slave narrator Samuel Ringgold Ward (who, during the 1850s and early 1860s, would copublish with Mary Ann Shadd in southern Ontario the antislavery newspaper the Provincial Freeman), “nor is there any country so much beloved and sought for, by the slaves” (158). The flight to Canada and the organization of the Underground Railroad to facilitate this desperate migration of oppressed peoples is, of course, one of the most important examples of material resistance to slavery registered before the Civil War.
Building on this convention and historical migration, Brand inscribes the “flights” of all three of her female characters (for Abena it is the previous “flight” of her mother) over this historical flight to Canada made by fugitive slaves. This layering is concretized by the fact that Brand's characters arrive in the precise geographical location (the strip of southwestern Ontario that runs along the Canada-U.S. border from Windsor, opposite Detroit, all the way up to Toronto where the stories of the three converge) that marked the earlier terminus of the Underground Railroad. In Another Place, Not Here makes this interlinking of a distant past of flights from oppression with more recent, similar forms explicit through its marking of the South, or Grenada, as a site of neoplantation labour and the psychological inscriptions of slavery that Verlia and then Elizete must “run away” from to a free North. Elizete recalls her desire to “escape” the “captivity” of the man she was “given to,” whose name, Isaiah Ferdinand (biblical patriarch and Spanish king), further links distant histories of patriarchal and colonial oppression with current exploitation and who functions in a role similar to that of master/overseer: “He tell me never let him catch me at the junction,” remembers Elizete, “I didn't believe him but I find out soon when I catch the end of his whip. … I don't even remember when I stop trying to run away, stop trying to reach that junction” (8). Of course, the status of Canada as utopia is highly ambiguous, no less for Verlia, Elizete, and Abena than for the nineteenth-century fugitive slaves, and Brand works this ambiguity in several ways.
Canada's conventional status as utopia within the antebellum slave narrative is first alluded to—its opposition to the neoslavery of Grenada, its role as haven holding out the promise of freedom from patriarchal oppression and the brutal forms of precapitalist agricultural labour—then steadily deconstructed by Brand, not only through representing the activities of virulent racists such as the Klan but also by depicting the blunted expectations and stunted lives of her immigrants. Verlia (who in order to save her sanity must return to the Caribbean), her aunt and uncle (“two Black people broken to the wind in Sudbury” ), Abena (who suffers abuse from her own mother who is psychologically damaged by migrating into a white society shot through with systemic racism),2 and, most importantly of all, Elizete, whose experience of Canada as an illegal immigrant—always on the run, working in sweatshops (one form of “neoslavery”), barred from access to health care—all show signs of lives lived under constant threat. By deploying the convention of the “flight to Canada,” Brand finds a generic framework within which to represent the highly ambiguous phenomenon of migration as it fits into the dynamics of North-South relations in the current moment of capitalist globalization, and to deconstruct the persistent notion (attested to in the waves of legal and illegal immigration by peoples of the South into the North) of the wealthy nations of the North as already being utopia.
The second point at which Brand draws on conventions of antebellum slave narratives lies in her evocation of plantation slavery through her description of the work performed by Elizete and later Verlia in the sugarcane fields of Grenada. For the writers of the antebellum slave narratives, one central reason for the representation of work and the whip was to reveal the oppressive nature of the process by which labour was extracted from the slaves, to communicate the physical and psychic damage endemic to their forced labour, and to strip bare the brutality—masked by the spectacular wealth and aristocratic “genteel culture” of the slave-owning South—embedded in the commodities their forced labour produced. In addition, by detailing the work of the slave population, the nineteenth-century slave narrators strive to ground their texts in the material relations of labour and economic exploitation as a powerful way of resisting the tendency for the discussion on slavery and abolition to be abstracted into less concrete, and therefore less urgent, realms of morality, ethics, and philosophy. Further, antebellum slave narratives are themselves generic hybrids, relying heavily on a mixture of generic conventions of autobiography, romance, picaresque, and melodrama. Descriptions of the materiality of slave experience can also be understood as a textual strategy that works to resist the all too easy collapse of these texts into generic categories presumed to be entirely fictional, a collapse characteristic of proslavery commentators on the narratives. The textual power that they feared is expressed by an 1849 reviewer of Henry Bibb's narrative who sees the slaves' stories as “an infallible means of abolitionizing the free States. … Argument provokes argument, reason is met by sophistry. But narratives of slaves go right to the hearts of men” (qtd. in Davis and Gates xvii).
In Brand's text the representation of Elizete and Verlia engaged in the backbreaking work of cutting and harvesting sugarcane reflects the persistence of past exploitation into the present by depicting a form of labour usually thought to be banished from the world when chattel slavery was abolished. Brand emphasizes this connection when Elizete performs a labour similar to that of her ancestor Adela during slavery; the plantation, too, is owned by a descendant of the original slave owner (“Oliviere many times this one father” ). Further linked to her evocation of historical slavery is the description of work in sweatshops that Elizete performs in different factories in Toronto. Like the scars on her legs from the bladelike leaves of the sugarcane stalks and the whip of the man she was “given to,” this sweatshop labour is recorded on her body by the loss of her hearing. When Elizete seeks to escape the physically exhausting and psychologically damaging work of the sewing factory by taking a job as a housekeeper (another type of work with distant connections to plantation slavery), she is raped by her employer, and Brand again marks the materiality of this oppression in the residue of physical and psychic scars: “He knows that the fingers of her left hand will be numb for some time to come. They are swollen. Her eyes are bloody, almost closed. There is a bruise near her waist, under a rib” (93). Like countless Black women enduring the sexual predations of their “owners” over the centuries of slavery, Elizete, an illegal immigrant, has no legal recourse and is again left with only the singular option of flight. Through her deployment of the representation of work, which links contemporary forms to past forms of exploitation and further links superexploitative labour practices in the impoverished global region of the South to similar oppressive forms in the wealthy capitalist North, Brand grounds the unrepresentable movements of global capitalism in the transnational migration of Elizete. In addition, the brutally oppressive materiality of capitalist globalization is represented in the scars marking Elizete's body, even as possibilities for resistance and the construction of alternative futures are depicted in Elizete's still unconquerable desire to transform her world (a desire represented in her consistent habit, itself learned through the oral history of her ancestor Adela, of renaming the objects of her world according to their use value).
In addition to its capacity for interlinking past and present forms of exploitation, along with the further linking of superexploitative labour practices across “Third” and “First” world locations, Brand's deployment of the convention of work performs the crucial function of defending her text from being explicated at a merely individualistic level of the romantic interaction between Verlia and Elizete. Brand achieves this “defence” by consistently grounding their romantic relationship in the work processes of the plantation and political struggle. For example, in the opening sentences of the novel the traditionally romantic scene of the first glimpse of the beloved is both embedded in and saturated by the work process. “From the word she speak to me and the sweat running down she in that Sun,” Elizete recalls of her initial sight of Verlia, “one afternoon as I look up saying to myself, how many more days these poor feet of mine can take this field, these blades of cane like razor, this sun like coal pot. Long as you have to eat, girl. I look up” (3). Elizete's first vision of the woman who will become her lover is of Verlia sharing with her the backbreaking and dangerous work of the cane fields. She perceives Verlia as a sliver of freedom, as “grace,” penetrating the realm of necessity. Countering the heat of the day, Verlia is “like a drink of cool water,” and Elizete's romantic vision of her beloved—“The four o'clock light thinning she dress, she back good and strong”—is shot through by the work process that cannot be separated from her apprehension of Verlia's beauty: “the sweat raining off in that moment when I look and she snap she head around, that wide mouth blowing a wave of tiredness away, pulling in one big breath of air, them big white teeth, she falling to the work again, she, falling into the four o'clock sunlight” (3). The romantic images of sunlight through the dress and the mouth of the beloved are undercut by being inextricably bound up with the materialities of sweat, fatigue, and work. In addition, the descriptive convention of water spraying off the body of the beloved (an image both as ancient as Aphrodite rising from the sea and as current as any number of contemporary photographs where spray bottles are used to give a model that glistening, sweaty look deemed “sexy” by advertising agencies) is further subverted when, at the very moment Elizete is beckoned by her perception of Verlia to momentarily detach herself from the labour process—“I see she. Hot, cool and wet.”—the latter fiercely reinscribes its painful presence into her body: “I sink the machete in my foot, careless, blood blooming in the stalks of cane, a sweet ripe smell wash me faint. With pain” (3). With this initial perception of Verlia we see the narrative striving toward the familiar generic category of the romantic love story until the wound itself and the scar it leaves behind regrounds the narrative in the reality of arduous and dangerous work. This tactic of subverting romantic expectation through the representation of work, appropriated from the antebellum slave narratives, is depicted poignantly in one of the few love scenes Brand includes in the novel.
“The whip is all in all,” writes Douglass (qtd. in Jaynes 106), and Olney points out that the description of cruel masters, mistresses, and overseers, along with depictions of “the first whipping and numerous subsequent whippings, with women very frequently the victims” (153), is one of the most consistent conventions of the antebellum slave narrative. “My Grandfather … would tell us things,” relates the freedman Austin Grant, “To keep the whip off your backs, you know … children, work, work, work, and work hard. You know how you hate to be whipped, so work hard” (qtd. in Jaynes 106). While in bed Verlia is attracted to the scars crisscrossing up and down Elizete's legs. Drawn to the history of pain she discerns written into them, she touches and kisses them until Elizete, waking to what she perceives as Verlia's pity, pulls away. In a passage that captures the “overwhelming presence of the whip in the minds of the slaves and their testimony” (Jaynes 106), Elizete relates the history recorded in her scars: “All over from one thing to another, one time or another, is how Isaiah whip them for running, is how he wanted to break me from the bad habit” (55). Like the slave breaker Covey of Douglass's autobiographies, Isaiah tries to whip the desire for flight out of Elizete through the relentlessly rhythmic application of the lash: “Whip. ‘Don't move.’ Whip. ‘Don't move.’ Whip. ‘Run you want to run! Don't move'” (55). The violence cut into her skin by the whip is intersected by the danger of the labour into which she is coerced, “is how the cane cut them from working,” she adds, “Same rhythm” (55). Brand uses this convention of whipping to resist the explication of her novel at the sole level of a romantic relationship between Verlia and Elizete, and it underscores the impossibility of the romantic either to negate an oppressive history or to erase the indelible inscriptions of materiality: “She didn't want them kissed. It was too easy, too light. She knows that there is no kiss deep enough for that” (55). Brand's representation of the ubiquity of the whip reminds us of the connection between past and present forms of coercion. It also reminds us—as it was intended to do for nineteenth-century readers of slave narratives—that the production of commodities such as sugar from the southern global regions remains bound up with relations of domination secured by the relentless, brutal exercise of force. This strategy of the intervention of materiality, here effected through the representation of work that subverts the generic expectations of the familiar love story, continues throughout the novel, but nowhere more significantly than in the scene representing the U.S. military invasion of Grenada.
Near the close of the novel Elizete's perception of Verlia again steers the narrative in the direction of the conventional romantic love story when, in the midst of the U.S. invasion, she walks behind her lover, “watch[ing] the crease of sweat down Verlia's back. She wanted to lick it, she wanted to kiss her neck” (113). Elizete longs to escape the crushing materiality of the outside world signified by the clash of collectivities in the invasion: “She wanted rain to hem them in their room, make the floor damp so they would have to climb into bed under the window and sleep, sleep until it was over” (113). In addition to evoking this ardent desire for the individualistic romantic sphere of the bedroom sealed off from the world, Brand begins the passage with an idyllic description of the day in order subsequently to emphasize the irresistible momentum of the material as it floods into the narrative. “The day was beautiful, the heat dry, every tree in bloom,” she writes. “It would have been an ordinary day, a day for going to Grand Anse to swim in its turquoise lap (114).” The image of the two lovers together swimming away the heat of an exquisite Caribbean day triggers romantic expectation, but Brand again undercuts the convention, finishing the reverie by flatly stating: “It would have been that kind of day if not for the fear and the killing and everything that they believed in coming apart” (114). If there had been a chance for the romantic relationship between Elizete and Verlia to turn the narrative into a representation of the Caribbean as a lovers' utopia, it is decisively sealed off by the entry into the narrative of the global material conflict signified when the “Yankees crack the air, crack it wide open with plane and helicopter” (115).3 This further helps us to understand how Brand deploys the textual strategies of the neoslave narrative in the attempt to represent the current movements of capitalist globalization since, as Noam Chomsky notes, the Grenada invasion, despite the small size of the country, is no insignificant event, but rather signals the reinvigoration of the global offensive of transnational capitalism implemented through the exercise of U.S. military power. “The third major component,” points out Chomsky in Language and Politics, of this shift in American politics during the Reagan era “is an increase in global intervention, what they call an activist foreign policy, just a fancy word for international terrorism” (605).4In Another Place, Not Here explicitly connects the global expansion of transnational capitalism to the exercise of U.S. military power, a representational strategy underscoring the fact that the new “economic order,” as Amin notes in Empire of Chaos, “produced by the world market (a grand disorder, in fact) must be capped with a military order that ensures the efficient repression of revolts in the South” (16). By overlapping the distant past of a world system of colonial chattel slavery with an event in the recent past that savagely disrupts the personal lives of her characters, Brand powerfully depicts the interpenetration of subjective and objective spheres.
To further release her text from the individualistic subjective realm of the romantic relationship and, more importantly, to engage the representation of possibilities of resistance at this historical conjuncture, Brand mobilizes yet another convention of the antebellum slave narratives: the construction of collective subjects. “The central focus of nearly all the narratives,” observes Olney, “is slavery, an institution and an external reality, rather than a particular and individual life as it is known internally and subjectively” (154). This focus requires that the slave narrative writer's practice of autobiography transcend the parameters of the traditional recording of an individual life, since the truth of any particular life may or may not represent the truth of the objective reality of slavery. In an insightful essay on Reed's Flight to Canada, Ashraf Rushdy notes how “intersubjectivity” is reworked in Reed's “hoodoo” writing of the neoslave narrative. What Reed's fictional slave narrator, Raven, “discovers,” observes Rushdy, “is that he cannot control his story so long as it remains only his story. That personal story,” he argues, “has to become an expression of collective identity and a representation of a communal experience in order not to be appropriated” (124). Rushdy, illustrating the antebellum slave narrator's construction of collective subjectivities, quotes Douglass from the 1845 Narrative, where, speaking of the slave community, he explains: “[w]e were linked and interlinked with each other. … We never moved separately. We were one” (134). While agreeing that this is an effective defensive textual strategy, we would add that it is just as much a strategy of empowerment.
Brand's practice of this convention is best seen through her consistent use of images of collectivity to transcend the subjective dimensions of the experiences of her characters. For example, the peasant community on the island is one for which “no belonging was singular,” and where there is “no belonging squared off by a fence, a post, or a gate” (39). In opposition to the individualism endemic in relations dominated by private property in advanced capitalist countries of the North such as Canada, where “no one look[s] into your face and [says] ‘Oh! Is you again,’ ‘Aha, where your mother?’” (63), the oppressed peasant community “surpassed the pettiness of their oppressors, who measured origins speaking of a great patriarch and property marked out by violence … who discarded memory like useless news” (42). This individual notion of belonging is “too small,” writes Brand, “too small for their magnificent rage” (42). Like Douglass, who shows how the slave collectivity carries within itself the potential for social transformation, Brand represents the contemporary form of a similar potential when Verlia, working in the cane fields, “would watch a whole field, mile after mile of whirling, each person caught up in their own arc of metal and dust and flesh until they were a blur, whirring, seeming to change the air around them” (203). Her vision of collectivity and its transformative potential rises up as a momentary glimpse before “this world went away from her” (203), just as Douglass and his coconspirators are foiled.5 A trace of this sense of collectivity remains, however, and, combined with other similar images, elevates the individual stories of Elizete, Verlia, and Abena into the collective tale of oppressed “Third World people going to the white man country” (60) in search of a utopia that, never yet existing, remains to be struggled for.
The restlessness that drives Verlia to leave her home, to flee the diminished expectations and quietly accepting lives of her aunt and uncle, is partially relieved in Toronto where she works with the emergent Black Power movement. There is no doubt that she experiences the warmth of community in the movement (“Welcome sister … the words she has waited to hear” ). As Verlia experiences the collectivity and shared project of a political meeting, she feels the oppressive anxiety, the nagging dissatisfaction with herself, momentarily lift: “it was some sickness she was born into, this feeling small, small in her heart. The screel of that winch creaking from her heart, her chest not able to bellow air and only in this room the blood begins to spread in its way” (170). In this passage the referent for the preposition “from” is ambiguous (creaking from within her heart? Creaking away from her heart and therefore releasing it?). One possibility measures the depth of internalization of self-dissatisfaction; the other suggests the possibility of transformation. And, crucially, Brand's language reworks the organic natural metaphors earlier used to depict Verlia's anxiety (disease, weather) into the humanly made (the machinery of the winch), retrieving the possibility of change that naturalism suppressed. Perhaps most significantly, in a Black Power demonstration Verlia experiences the community of a visible collective group asserting its presence in the streets. She marches “near the front trying to look serious but wanting to laugh for the joy bubbling in her chest, the crowd around her like sugar, sugar is what she recalled, shook down her back by her sister, sticky and grainy and wanting you to laugh” (167). It is important to note here that Brand's simile represents a moment of childhood play whose lightheartedness has not previously been conveyed in descriptions of Verlia's family. And, just as the demonstration conjures a spirited collectivity out of frustrated individual lives, the metaphoric equivalence of sugar with sweetness, innocently accepted by the little girls and remembered by the adult Verlia, seems magically to transform the backbreaking labour of the cane fields where sugar is produced into a thing of delight. What is so crucial about both the experience of the meeting and the demonstration is their ability to undo seemingly fixed positionings, to open up the spaces of possibility, a space of imagining another way of living.
Little by little, however, Verlia's restlessness reasserts itself. If the dread that haunted her childhood can be read as the psychological traces of slavery, the pressures that haunt politics are the inheritances of the French Revolution and the Jacobin party. When the Jacobins began to assert their authority over the revolutionary processes in late 1792, they rapidly pushed France to ever more radical positions: the trial and execution of Louis XVI, the privileging of Paris over the provinces, the 1793 constitution, and, as we have already noted, the abolition of slavery. Jacobin France inscribed a model for a revolutionary party, later developed by Lenin in Russia and Mao in China, that is characterized by “extreme energy, decisiveness and resolution” (Gramsci 66) and “peopled with ‘universal’ subjects and conceptually built around History in the singular” (Laclau and Mouffe 2). It ought to come as no surprise, then, that as she struggles with the impassive face of global capital in the heart of Toronto's business district (“that glass-towered Canada Place where their chants bounced back and forth against the stalactites of business and money” [186-87]), with the violent racism (“arid and stark” ) she sees in the Klan members, with the trials and imprisonment of American activists (“Angela Davis in chains or Bobby Seale gagged and chained” ), Verlia is drawn to the idea of a small, Jacobin-inspired group whose energy and commitment will push the revolution forward from its apparent impasse. Quoting Che Guevara, Verlia notes in her diary that “the revolutionary ‘is consumed by uninterrupted activity that comes to an end only with death unless socialism is accomplished'” (212-13), a comment that echoes the words of the French leader Louis-Antoine Saint-Just (526), who in 1793 characterized the relentless energy of Jacobinism: “Ceux qui font des révolutions dans le monde … ne doivent dormir que dans le tombeau” (“those who make revolutions in the world … must rest only in the grave”). Frustrated with “waiting for the world to happen” (179), she takes up clandestine activities, eager to will the revolution into existence. “You have to leap sometimes don't you?” (186), Verlia asks, putting into play the figure that will haunt her death.
This is perhaps the place to raise the question of how the utopian might be at work in the novel. There is no doubt that utopian or “semi-utopian” (Smyth) moments are glimpsed, sometimes in the Caribbean, sometimes in movement politics. As we have developed our reading of In Another Place, Not Here, however, our stress has fallen on history and politics, on the brutalities of slavery, on the sometimes crippling legacies of Jacobin politics, on the persistence of past oppressions in altered but still potent forms that continue to shape present efforts to overcome divisions and domination. In his 1966 book Modern Tragedy, Raymond Williams draws on his generation's experience with Stalinism and the blockage of the potential utopian vision born in a moment of revolution to suggest that this very impasse constitutes tragedy in the modern period. He argues for the restoration of tragic affect to the moment of revolution, recognizing that the suffering, brutality, and injustices that come into being in a revolutionary effort to produce a more free and just society are fundamentally tragic in character. Fifteen years later in 1979 (precisely the moment portrayed in Verlia's involvement with the movement), in an afterword to a new edition of the book, Williams again takes up the question of modern tragedy: is it, he considers, a time to move from “a tragic to a utopian mode”? While he concedes that utopian visions are “a classical form of invigoration and hopeful protest” and that they offer “a necessary … area of social protest,” he concludes: “the fact is that neither the frankly utopian form, nor even the more qualified outlines of practicable futures, which are now so urgently needed, can begin to flow until we have faced, at the necessary depth, the divisions and contradictions which now inhabit them” (218). The significance of In Another Place, Not Here for an ongoing dialogue on cultural and political resistance may lie not so much in its utopian moments, powerful though they are, but in the articulation and exploration of the persistent markings of the past on the present.
In its frank and compelling exploration of how social transformation is blocked and deflected, In Another Place, Not Here enters into the pressing dialogue to face what Williams calls “the divisions and contradictions” inhibiting movement toward different futures. And yet, even such analysis of impasses and tensions remains bound up with a utopian vision. It is illuminating to situate alongside Williams's 1979 reflections in Modern Tragedy a contemporary cultural text from the Caribbean, the film La última cena (The Last Supper) by the Cuban director Tomás Guitiérez Alea. Made in 1976 La última cena depicts an eighteenth-century slave rebellion on a Cuban sugar plantation, a rebellion that ultimately fails as one by one the slaves are rounded up and killed. The final moments of the film, which was shown in North America during the late 1970s—at the exact period portrayed in Brand's novel—end with a striking scene: a thin Black man, his pursuers close behind, reaches the edge of a cliff, hesitates, and leaps.6 Like the death of Verlia, the small human figure outlined against vast space seems to be at once both the tragic death of an individual and the utopian hope that somehow the brutality so relentlessly in pursuit might not be victorious. That this figure, drawn from the “half-remembered oral histories, myths and legends that abound in the Caribbean” (Edmonson 105), is reinvoked first by a Cuban film director and a generation later by a Black Canadian writer eloquently demonstrates the persistence of centuries of history into the late twentieth century. By exploring the interpenetration and interlinking of multiple forms of oppression, by revealing how the weight of the distant past is felt in the historicity of the present, Brand's novel adds a crucial voice to ongoing discussions of pressing issues for cultural materialism. In Another Place, Not Here is a powerful testament to the fact that history, genre, and materiality are not separate and distinct modalities but rather intertwine and interpenetrate, and, like Dessalines's whip-marked back and Elizete's lashed legs, their complex intersections are written in a script of scars.
There is an unmistakable connection here to Brand's understanding of her own experience. When Makeda Silvera asks why she came to Canada, Brand replies, “To run away. To escape” (361).
In addition, psychological inscriptions of slavery, both old and new, are less visibly but still deeply marked onto Abena. As a child she had joined her immigrant mother in Toronto, only to discover that her peasant awkwardness had come to represent all the self-hatred and insecurities her mother hoped to leave behind. The violence of mother toward daughter—“her hand descended like a machete, so angular, so severe” (236)—brings together the brutality of backbreaking work with the internalized colonization of the mind. In Brand's simile a mother's hand striking a daughter becomes the very instrument of peasant labour on which she had turned her back; ironically, it is also the weapon of slave revolts led by Toussaint, Dessalines, and others, whose dreams have been worn away by the expansion of nineteenth-century colonialism and twentieth-century global capitalism. The simplicity of Brand's figure—one word—opens up into a layered evocation of domination, resistance, and repression through which the past persists into the present.
Fienberg provides a detailed website, listing further bibliographic sources, about the invasion that would be a very useful resource for teaching Brand's novel.
That the Grenada invasion is the first example of a renewed pattern of the exercise of U.S. military force against the victims of the expansion of capitalist globalization is certainly the understanding of Reaganite spokesman Norman Podhoretz, who notes that with this act the U.S. has overcome its “sickly inhibitions against the use of military force” (qtd. in Chomsky, Deterring Democracy 86).
Douglass makes this statement just before his description of the conspiracy between himself and several other slaves to escape. Throughout this episode he shifts out of the singular pronoun almost entirely, graphically inscribing the interlinking of the conspirators through the sheer ubiquity of the collective pronoun “we,” even to the point where the conspirators prefer collective imprisonment over individual freedom. Though the plot fails and Douglass is eventually sent back to Baltimore, he successfully communicates the sense of empowerment generated through the conspirators' brief experience of collective resistance. What this does for the narrative, however, is to activate an allegorical strategy wherein Douglass's future struggles against slavery, such as his well-known dramatic fight with the slave breaker Covey, transcend the boundaries of subjective experience and, through allegory, assume a collective and therefore potentially revolutionary dimension.
This image also draws on legend and folklore to suggest shape shifting and flying away to freedom. Brand's text alludes earlier to these traditional stories when Elizete comments on Adela: “She climb the silk cotton tree up there and fly all the way back to Africa” (23).
Pamela McCallum is grateful to James Ellis and Brenda Garrett for providing two specific references during the writing of this article, and to Himani Bannerji for many conversations about these issues over many years. Christian Olbey would like to thank Fred Moten, Eliot Butler-Evans, and Cedric Robinson for their intellectual generosity and encouragement over the last three years. He also thanks the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for their support during the last three years.
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———. Spectres of Capitalism: A Critique of Current Intellectual Fashions. New York: Monthly Review, 1998.
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Bannerji, Himani. “Dionne Brand.” Fifty Caribbean Writers. Ed. Daryl Cumber Dance. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1986. 46-57.
Beaulieu, Elizabeth. Black Women Writers and the American Neo-Slave Narrative: Femininity Unfettered. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999.
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Brand, Dionne. In Another Place, Not Here. Toronto: Vintage, 1996.
———. Interview. With Dagmar Novak. Other Solitudes: Canadian Multicultural Fictions. Ed. Linda Hutcheon and Marion Richmond. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1990. 263-77
Chomsky, Noam. Deterring Democracy. London: Verso, 1991.
———. Language and Politics/Noam Chomsky. Ed. Carlos P. Otero. Montreal: Black Rose, 1988.
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Douglass, Frederick. My Bondage and My Freedom. 1855. New York: Arno, 1968.
———. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: Written by Himself. 1845. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1960.
Edmondson, Belinda. Making Men: Gender, Literary Authority, and Women's Writing in Caribbean Narrative. London: Duke UP, 1999.
Fienberg, Howard. The Revolution in Grenada. Fall 1992.
Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. New York: International, 1971.
Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988.
James, C. L. R. American Civilization. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1993.
———. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. 2nd ed. New York: Vintage, 1989.
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———. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.
Jaynes, Gerald. “Plantation Factories and the Slave Work Ethic.” Davis and Gates 98-112.
Krishnaswamy, Revathi. “Mythologies of Migrancy: Postcolonialism, Postmodernism and the Politics of (Dis)location.” ARIEL 26.1 (1995): 125-46.
Laclau, Ernesto, and Chantel Mouffe. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. Trans. Winston Moore and Paul Cammack. London: Verso, 1985.
La última cena. Dir. Tomás Guitiérez Alea. Cuba Film, 1977.
McDowell, Deborah E. “Negotiating between Tenses: Witnessing Slavery after Freedom.” Slavery and the Literary Imagination. Ed. McDowell and Arnold Rampersad. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989.
Olney, James. “‘I Was Born’: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature.” Davis and Gates 148-75.
Reed, Ishmael. Flight to Canada. New York: Random, 1976.
Rushdy, Ashraf H. A. “Ishmael Reed's Neo-HooDoo Slave Narrative.” Narrative 2.2 (1994): 112-39.
Saint-Just, Louis-Antoine. (Œuvres complètes. Ed. Michèle Duval. Paris: Gérard Lebovici, 1984.
Silvera, Makeda, ed. “In the Company of My Work: An Interview with Dionne Brand.” The Other Woman: Women of Colour in Contemporary Canadian Literature. Toronto: Sister Vision, 1992. 356-80.
Smyth, Heather. “Sexual Citizenship and Caribbean Canadian Fiction: Dionne Brand's In Another Place, Not Here and Shani Mootoo's Cereus Blooms at Night.” ARIEL 30.2 (1999): 141-60.
Ward, Samuel Ringgold. Autobiography of a Fugitive Negro. 1855. New York: Arno, 1968.
West, Cornel. Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Williams, Raymond. Modern Tragedy. London: Verso, 1979.
Winks, Robin W. The Blacks in Canada: A History. 2nd ed. Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP, 1997.
Susan Gingell (essay date summer-autumn 1999)
SOURCE: Gingell, Susan. “Still Need the Revolution.” Canadian Literature 161-62 (summer-autumn 1999): 182-84.
[In the following essay, Gingell reviews Land to Light On, maintaining that the power of the first-person narration in these poems makes it difficult for the reader to distinguish between author and narrator.]
For some years now I've been overhearing Brand as she talked in her poetry, fiction, and essays first and foremost to those in the Black diaspora. This writing has consistently given me a sharper sense of the various terrains on which she struggles: racism, imperialism, neo-colonialism, classism, sexism, heterosexism. It has also consistently...
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George Elliott Clarke (essay date spring 2000)
SOURCE: Clarke, George Elliott. “Harris, Philip, Brand: Three Authors in Search of Literate Criticism.” Journal of Canadian Studies 35, no. 1 (spring 2000): 161-89.
[In the following essay, Clarke reviews recent criticism of the works of three Trinidadian-Canadian writers: Brand, Claire Harris, and M. Nourbese Philip; and contends that few critics are willing to engage their works in terms of aesthetic considerations.]
FOR HARDIAL BAINS (1939-1997)
I think that Canadians find it difficult to assess literature by writers of colour because we abhor any suggestion that we may be racist or that racism, I mean Eurocentrism, has always...
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Jason Wiens (essay date spring 2000)
SOURCE: Wiens, Jason. “‘Language Seemed to Split in Two’: National Ambivalence(s) and Dionne Brand's ‘No Language Is Neutral’.” Essays on Canadian Writing (spring 2000): 81-102.
[In the following essay, Wiens discusses the poem “No Language Is Neutral” as an ambivalent work that deals with two cultural locations—Trinidad and Toronto.]
In his recent essay “Half-Bred Poetics,” Fred Wah locates the site of a racialized, transformative poetics in the hyphen, “that marked (or unmarked) space that both binds and divides,” a “crucial location for working at the ambivalences in hybridity” (60). For Wah, as for other writers working in...
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Maureen Moynagh (review date September-December 2001)
SOURCE: Moynagh, Maureen. “Uses of Cultural Memory.” Canadian Literature 170-171 (September-December 2001): 193-95.
[In the following excerpt, Moynagh discusses Brand's treatment of cultural memory and the legacy of slavery in At the Full and Change of the Moon.]
Dionne Brand's At the Full and Change of the Moon treats cultural memory as an abiding problem in the context of the African diaspora, in view not only of the forced oblivion imposed by the Middle Passage, but also of plantation slavery and its revolts, and of the dispersion of families across the “new” world. As one character living in Toronto observes near the end of the novel, “I felt as if...
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Sook C. Kong (review date spring 2002)
SOURCE: Kong, Sook C. Review of A Map to the Door of No Return, by Dionne Brand. Herizons 15, no. 4 (spring 2002): 31.
[In the following review, Kong praises A Map to the Door of No Return.]
In A Map to the Door of No Return, Dionne Brand embarks on a long journey into the ontological night, taking her reader to the edge between life and death, history and violence, politics and grief.
In a tour de force manner, Brand maps the injustice and the callous irresponsibility of a current world, divided into the haves and have-nots, those privileged to enjoy freedoms and those haunted by “the spectre of captivity,” and premature death. For...
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Ingrid Johnston (review date October 2002)
SOURCE: Johnston, Ingrid. Review of A Map to the Door of No Return, by Dionne Brand. Resource Links 8, no. 1 (October 2002): 56.
[In the following review, Johnston lauds A Map to the Door of No Return, praising Brand's exploration of slavery, identity, and discrimination in the book.]
Dionne Brand, the award-winning poet, has created a powerful exploration of identity and belonging in a culturally diverse world. A Map to the Door of No Return is a poetic and provocative look at her own origins and identity through the imagined and historic “Middle Passage” that brought slaves from their homelands in Africa north to the New World. For Brand, her...
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Ayn Becze (review date spring 2003)
SOURCE: Becze, Ayn. Review of A Map to the Door of No Return, by Dionne Brand. Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal 35, no. 1 (spring 2003): 210
[In the following review, Becze asserts that Brand's writing is compelling in A Map to the Door of No Return, discussing her examination of cartography, the black diaspora, identity, and the Caribbean-Canadian migration experience in the book.]
In her recent work, Dionne Brand is always cresting toward the door that will connect her to the original locus of the Black Diaspora. She arrives, however, just as that movement enfolds its own momentum and breaks into another direction and another journey along another map....
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Salamishah Tillet (essay date summer 2003)
SOURCE: Tillet, Salamishah. “At the Full and Change of the Moon.” Callaloo 26, no. 3 (summer 2003): 913-17.
[In the following essay, Tillet characterizes At the Full and Change of the Moon as a “Caribbean neo-slave narrative.”]
In the last decade, several Caribbean and African-American writers have written neo-slave narratives. Neo-slave narratives are novels based on the perspective of a fictional slave protagonist. Like its slave narrative literary ancestor, the neo-slave narrative uses the leitmotifs of resistance and freedom; however, unlike the sentimental and biblical prose of the slave narrative, the neo-slave narrative features...
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Brathwaite, Edward Kamau. “Dionne Brand's Winter Epigrams.” Canadian Literature 105 (summer 1985): 18-30.
Brathwaite examines Brand's use of the epigram form and places her work within the tradition of female exile poetry.
Brand, Dionne, and Frank Birbalsingh. “Dionne Brand: No Language Is Neutral.” In Frontiers of Caribbean Literature in English, pp. 120-37. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.
Brand discusses the development of her literary career and the other writers who have influenced her work.
Garvey, Johanna X. K. “‘The Place She Miss’: Exile, Memory, and...
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