Dionne Brand Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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).

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.