Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2766
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 made and remade Canadian history in its own image. In the past twenty years, this image has been increasingly challenged by writers with different priorities, visions, and experiences: women, the First Nations, people of colour, for instance, have suggested that their history must be researched and acknowledged, and that Canadian history must be rewritten with attention to the power dynamics of race, gender, and class. These challenges have not always been received well: a recent backlash by a few prominent male historians with access to the mainstream media, for example, has made it clear that even the smallest challenge to traditional historiography and definitions of political and social ‘importance’ can be threatening to established elites.
Dionne Brand's No Burden to Carry, an edited collection of oral narratives of Black working women in Ontario, extends this challenge even further, for in her introduction, she reminds us that the experiences of Black women have been marginalized, if not ignored, not only in traditional historical accounts, but also in the few histories of Black Canadians and in the women's history written to date. Her criticisms are well taken, and her book offers an important, initial attempt to rectify the absence of written history about Black women's lives. In order to produce a new, more inclusive women's history, she also implies, one cannot simply take an ‘additive’ approach, tacking the category of ‘race’ or Black women onto existing themes and models. Rather, our aim should be to question all existing assumptions and paradigms and to encourage analysis of the interlocking and overarching dominations of race, class, and gender shaping the contours of all Canadian history.
The recognition of the importance of history to one's sense of identity, pride, and place in society is recognized with great clarity by the women Brand and other interviewers spoke with in the process of producing No Burden to Carry. One woman, Violet Blackman, used the symbolism of statues to make her point. In Toronto, she tells her interviewer, a statue of a Black person, a ‘soldier who gave his life to save his battalion,’ is hidden away at ‘Portland and Queen,’ while the statues of white (and upper-class) notables adorn the impressive University Avenue. ‘Now I'm damned sure that if it was the other nationalities,’ she points out, ‘that statue wouldn't have been stuck back there in that park, it would have been on University.’
This acute awareness of the social and historical marginalization of Black Canadians is a poignant theme in a number of women's testimonies. Many women emphasize the importance of education as a means of instilling cultural self-esteem in Black children; some note with great sadness the way in which the educational system denied their children that esteem. As one mother pointed out, when she tried to encourage her child to do a school project on Black heroes, particularly women, his response was: ‘Were there any black heroes?’—a telling comment on the presentation of history and society...
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already absorbed by her son.
Another women explained in her interview that the most important thing she could give her daughters was ‘pride in themselves’: this was an essential legacy for a Black woman who had to live in a society premised on male and white power. These women's testimonies do communicate pride in their wage and mother work, and especially in their contribution to the survival and cultural development of their community. Their sense of accomplishment illustrates well how women's own self-worth can persist alongside of dominant racist images. As Patricia Hill Collins, a historian of Afro-American women, notes in Black Feminist Thought (1991), Black women's protection of their culture and sense of self-worth reminds us that ‘the ideology of domination,’ as a force in their lives, ‘is much less cohesive or uniform than imagined.’
The key theme used by the editor and interviewers to define this collection of narratives is women's labour outside of the family. As Brand points out, work for wages was essential to the lives of Black women in the period she centres on, the 1920s to the 1950s, and so she uses this as a focal point of the book. In reading these accounts of women's work, we see noticeable similarities to the oral histories of other working-class women in this same time period: their need to leave school at an early age to contribute to the family economy, their sense of few occupational choices, and their retrospective fear, often voices at the beginning of the interview, that their own histories are ‘uninteresting’ or unimportant are all examples of these commonalities. (This comparison is based on oral histories I have done with working-class women in Peterborough for exactly the same period.)
Despite these common experiences, however, Black women's lives were significantly different from those of white working-class women. The recollections of Black women's attempts to find work, change jobs, or train for occupations, for example, reveal the very rigid division of labour, shaped by race, class, and gender, that Black women encountered. Until the Second World War, they really had only three choices: domestic work, agricultural work, or service work, such as waitressing; moreover, some employers were quick to judge their employees based on racial stereotypes.
Black women's distinct experiences of work are also revealed in many women's recollections of the ‘landmarks’ of Canadian history, such as the depression and the Second World War. One woman, for instance, claims that ‘the Depression was hard, but not as hard for Black people because we were closer knit … [and we shared resources] and because we were used to doing without.’ In her memory, the Depression was not a sharp break with the past, but rather signified continuity in the economic difficulties, and especially the trouble securing housing, experienced by Toronto's Black families: ‘Black people couldn't get housing in a decent area and that lasted long after the Depression.’
Most Black women found it almost impossible to obtain factory jobs until the war opened up some blue-collar work. These women, however, were not simply ‘moving up’ the blue-collar ladder, as other working-class women did during the war; they were securing factory employment for the first time. Not surprisingly, these women often remember their increased wages and freedom from the necessity of taking domestic wage work as extremely positive—though their relative ‘independence’ was shattered by attempts to push them back into domestic work after the war. Moreover, wartime government policy which spoke of utilizing all the country's womanpower for the war effort carefully avoided and excluded the recruitment of Black women. As one woman who tried to get into the Canadian Women's Army Corps put it, ‘they kept giving me a hard time … They tried to make out that their basic concern was: would I get along’; she finally gave up.
All these examples indicate the need for us to rethink women's history with attention to the diversity of women's experience, rather than taking white women as indicators of all women's experience. Even more significantly, they remind us that existing historical landmarks may themselves reflect assumptions and definitions which do not take the lives of Black women into account. As one woman in this book comments, on women's attainment of suffrage (surely an important symbol in existing women's historiography), ‘suffrage didn't even seem real’ to her in part because it did not address the continuing de facto segregation of Black women and men in Canadian life. We are thus reminded again of the need, not simply to add Black women to history, but rethink our very periodization, definitions, priorities, and overall conceptions of women's history.
While No Burden to Carry centres on the theme of work, these women's narratives also tell us much about family, community, and Church life. Women's stories reveal not only the important role that Black women played in the creation of community organizations, but also the very distinct reform and self-help priorities pursued by Black organizations as strategies for improving and aiding the whole Black community. In this period, Garveyism and the creation of the UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association) were extremely important, especially in the Toronto community: the UNIA's emphasis on self-determination and racial pride inspired Black men and women alike. Some Black women also formed their own organizations, seeing the need for a separate space to share concerns and work on issues such as education for young children.
Black women also played distinct roles in their churches, which were often an important focus for community building, for the creation of a Black identity, and for the provision of emotional and social support. At the same time, as Addie Aylestock's long struggle to become ordained reveals, the Church also perceived very different roles for men and women, with women taking on, in Brand's words, ‘responsibility but not necessarily power.’ Even after her historic ordination, Aylestock felt, unlike many men, that she had to ‘make a choice between family and work.’
Within the family too, women describe a division of labour which prepared them for mothering and domestic labour, and men for different kinds of work. In some cases (though not all), this led to a denial of girls' schooling as ‘unimportant’ in comparison to men's training. At the same time, women made needed and important economic contributions to the family economy. For women with children, this often meant working an arduous double day. As one farming wife pointed out, ‘we started at daybreak and worked right on with the lights on at night … When we came in, I'd been riding the tractor all day, but I fixed the supper, I washed the dishes, I got the kids ready for bed … because that was “women's work.”’
This double day, however, could exist at the same time that women saw the family as an important means of creating self-worth, rejuvenating their spirit, and nurturing others. Some American historians have argued that black families were not only structured differently than white families, but also came to embody different meanings and emotional values for Afro-Americans. Distinct familial structure and values, however, were misinterpreted, stereotyped (as the myth of matriarchy made clear) or measured against a supposedly desired white familial ‘norm.’ (See Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought, chapters 3 and 4.) While we cannot simply assume similar conclusions for the Canadian context, these narratives do point to the need for further exploration of the role of black women in the family and the different meanings that ‘family’ had based on ethnicity and race. As Angela Davis pointed out some years ago in Women, Race and Class, in a racist society the family took on a more comforting and rejuvenating roles for Afro-Americans; this is precisely why, she continues, Afro-American women had trouble identifying with early feminist critiques of the family as central to women's oppression. Similarly, as one woman in No Burden to Carry comments: ‘when I hear women say that they were raised to cater to men … I always think it doesn't apply to Black women. I don't feel Black women are raised that way at all.’
Given the kind of racism that Black women faced, the importance of strength gained through family and community becomes all the more significant. While a few women interviewed denied experiencing racism, others relayed examples of ‘unofficial’ segregation and insidious patterns of racism in everyday life. While many of the Ontario cities that these women lived in claimed not to have ‘official’ segregation, as did the American South, Black women were nonetheless discouraged from applying for many jobs, harassed when on the job, and ignored, stereotyped, or marginalized by other community members. The story of one woman made to wait and wait in one store, while other customers appeared and were served, is just one evocative example of the daily indignities of racism that women experienced.
Despite the many subjects revealed through these narratives, Brand has deliberately made this a selective book, attempting to uncover only one part of a much larger story. The book does not attempt to offer an overview of Black women's history in Ontario, let alone in Canada, but focuses on the experiences of working women in one time period. Nor does Brand offer extensive analysis or commentary on women's narratives; rather, she lets these narratives ‘reveal the world,’ rather than analysing the world through the narratives. While the focus on women's own words gives the book extraordinary power and resonance, there are times when I also wish Brand's voice would intervene to offer more commentary. How, for example, do we explain some women's denial of race as a meaningful factor in their lives (as one woman said, ‘I'm just a woman and colour has nothing to do with it’), and why does one woman speak critically of later Black immigrants who came after the 1950s? Were there emerging class differences within the Black community, as American historians document in this time period? A fascinating and important, pioneering effort to restore Black women's history, this book, one hopes, will be only the beginning of many other attempts to reclaim Black women's history, answering these and many more questions.
Brand's resolution to allow women's narratives, not her own analysis, to dominate the book was a conscious decision based not only on the dearth of historical records (and the bias of existing sources) but also on a desire to have the women ‘speak for themselves’ as much as possible. Over the last decade, those people using and studying oral history have wrestled with questions of interpretation, selection, and ‘control’ (or, as the more critical would argue, ‘appropriation’) of other women's voices. In this case, it is significant that all the interviewers were Black, so that despite differences which came to the fore during some interviews—such as disagreements over politics—there existed a commonality of experience that encouraged the trust and forthrightness of the women telling their stories. To create this particular kind of historical text about the history of Black women, in which the personal and narrative are so central, this commonality seems important, at least at this particular political moment. This is not to argue that any collection of interviews can offer ‘pure’ and exact renditions of experience, for every interview is edited, and is a ‘process’ shaped by both the interviewer and the interviewee. Attention to questions of power, control, and intention, and careful analysis of the relationship between those interviewing and those interviewed, must thus remain central to our analysis.
Feminist social scientists collecting the oral histories of women have been especially sensitive to these complex issues of control and interpretation. Some commentators, such as Daphne Patai and Judith Stacey in Women's Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History (ed Gluck and Patai), argue convincingly that the use of oral testimonies can never be an ideal, ‘ethical’ kind of research in a world characterized by racial and class inequalities, for these power imbalances mean that the women interviewed will often have less authority and control than those doing the interview. Unlike some of the postmodern anthropologists, whose solution seems to be to downplay or deny their own authority in this process (e.g., James Clifford and George Marcus in Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography), these feminist researchers conclude that we must continue to collect women's testimonies, while honestly addressing and mediating, as well as we can, any power inequities shaping the interview process.
The use of oral narratives and the debates about the extent to which they are unmediated or, conversely, ‘constructed’ representations of women's experience have especially preoccupied those writing about peoples of the Third World. Researchers are coming to terms not only with the many levels of power and privilege which can characterize their writing about Third World women but also with what Patricia Hill Collins (in Black Feminist Thought) calls the great ‘divide between historical positivism and relativism’: can we speak positively of any certain ‘truths’ of history reflecting objective conditions and experiences, or can we only speak, in this postmodern world, of relative truths and constructions of experience?
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3434
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 conventional context of a course specifically organized around genre and nation. Such a focus can change our understanding of Canadian poetic traditions, shifting attention from continuity to disruption and from homogeneity to heterogeneities. Students who may once have seen a poem as an object foreign to their lives may find themselves re-experiencing poetry as a process in which they as readers are invited to become intimately and painfully, as well as pleasurably, involved. Such involvement happens when the focus shifts from “Literature” as an entity to be studied and valorized as the achievement of the great ones among us, to writing as one of the most powerful discursive modes for constructing ourselves in relation to our communities and our environment; and to reading defined as active participation in those discursive processes.
My course, “Reading Women in the Postcolonial Context,” advertised itself as “designed to introduce students to the study of contemporary feminist theory and a wide variety of women's texts, encouraging them to bring theory and reading practice together in a co-operative and questioning spirit.” We began by considering the multicultural, postcolonial nature of Canada—moving from exploratory readings in work by women (First Nations and immigrant), from our own culture—out into readings in poststructuralist feminist theory, and then on into some of the different postcolonial contexts of other parts of the English-speaking world.
The twenty-four students who took the course came with varying backgrounds and levels of expertise in critical practice. For most of them, this course was their first encounter with poststructuralist theory. We used Chris Weedon's Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory to provide us with our initial orientation and then as a touchstone for our progress throughout the course. Her call for a “theory of the relation between language, subjectivity, social organization and power” (12) became our working agenda.
Dionne Brand's “Blues Spiritual for Mammy Prater” reformulated those relations for us in a particularly powerful way. Deceptively simple in language and construction, it initially appears completely accessible to the reader, only to throw that sense of accessibility into question through its self-conscious reenactment of the scene of reading. Brand's speaker describes the moment of her own interpellation as Black woman, implicated in African-American diasporic history, as she finds herself captivated, in “turning the leaves of a book,” by the eyes of an old Black woman in a photograph. The White reader of Brand's poem finds herself outside this interlocking gaze, participating vicariously in its emotional intensity but outside the “pact of blood across a century” and the cultural traditions it has generated.
We readers “see” the photograph only through Brand's construction of her own complex response to it. In its focus on describing Brand's encounter with the image of an individual ex-slave woman, the poem forestalls our bringing of our own cultural responses to slavery into play, allowing Brand space to establish her own perspective. This is an important tactical move. In my experience, most White students bring to Black writing a complex mixture of emotional expectations based on guilt, fascinated horror for the evils of slavery, and a genuine curiosity about cultural difference. Such emotions, left unexamined, may lead unwittingly to further objectification of the very other they wish to embrace in compensation for the past process of victimization. Brand's poem prevents the bringing into play of such emotions by establishing immediately her own, and Mammy Prater's taken-for-granted, subjectivity and agency. They determine the terms on which they will be read, not defiantly in opposition to those who would see victims, but as a matter of dedication to truth and clarity in reconstructing an important moment of recognition. That recognition, of the complex ties that bind the poet to Mammy Prater, reminds Brand of her cultural heritage as a Black woman in North America, and, implicitly, of the ways in which that cultural memory has contributed to the construction of her own sense of identity and of the choices open to her, through history and language.
The poem names itself as “blues spiritual,” a culturally specific Black American mode of signifying, born in resistance to slavery, pride in difference, and in communal, oral forms of expression. It employs many of the organizing principles of the blues, specifically repetition and call and response patterns, adapting them within its own framework as written artifact.
It is written for Mammy Prater, a real person, an ex-slave, whom the author knows only through her photograph—that is, through another culturally constructed representation. The name Mammy Prater, itself, carries symbolic resonances. Prater suggests “prating,” a form of speech usually associated with women and children, designating chatter, idle talk to little purpose. A prater, then, is a chatterer. It seems an ironic name for a person who speaks only through the silence of a photograph, a person whose perspective and voice have been silenced through history and the law, yet it also seems appropriate that in this poem the poet will see an important message in what has previously been misunderstood, denigrated, and overlooked, a message she initially sees as coded only for her but that she shares with her readers through the course of the poem.
“Mammy” incorporates the dominant American stereotype of the Black woman. Selma James describes the mammy as “a mythologised Black woman” (94), whose “fulfilment in life came from serving the white family” (95), yet who paradoxically proved to be “the living contradiction to all the racist stereotypes and myths against Black people, that we were sub-human, that we were stupid, that we were savages” (96). Brand's Mammy Prater exploits that contradiction, focusing on the power rather than on the servility of this mammy. Derogatory cultural stereotypes are interrogated and dismantled through the poet's re-reading of an apparently straightforward photograph and its caption.
“Blues Spiritual” [“Blues Spiritual for Mammy Prater”] is a poem about agency, about acting and being acted upon, about acting in history and in art. The poem is prompted into life by the act of looking, locating its beginning in the speaker of the poem finding her attention arrested by the eyes in a photograph of Mammy Prater, “‘115 years old when her photograph was taken.’” The structure of representation within which photographs usually operate sets up a subject/object relation, in which the viewer looks and the photographed object is looked at. Furthermore, within our patriarchal symbolic structure, the gaze is always male, so that even if the watcher is female, looking itself is already constructed for her in terms of the objectifying male gaze. Brand's poem, however, defies these conventions, to make Mammy Prater the taker rather than the taken of this photograph, and eventually to establish a reciprocal gaze, woman to woman, between Mammy Prater and the speaker of “Blues Spiritual.” This gaze has given rise to the poem, which reconstructs that moment of origin. The poem metaphorically reproduces the call-and-response pattern of the blues. Brand reconstructs the photo's “call,” including its silent message in her elaborated “response.” The poem begins and ends with the call of the photograph; Mammy Prater's call initiates the poet's meditation on how that call interpellates her through reconstructing imaginatively the history and identity of Mammy Prater, an ancestor figure.
Mammy Prater is constructed as the subject who waits, transforming waiting itself through the force of her will. If there is play here on the double meanings of waiting as serving and waiting as anticipation of change, then the emphasis falls on the latter, conceiving it as active rather than passive, as the energy and will-power required to “avoid killing a white man” rather than as the passive endurance of time and suffering. Her waiting is so intensely powerful in its silently reproduced photographic image that it “calls” to the poet from beyond the grave. Six times we are told “she waited,” and each time the waiting takes on more power.
Repetition, a central structural principle of the blues, is more than a literary or musical device: it embodies a world view that recognizes the inevitability of repetition as a natural principle instead of suppressing repetition in search of progress, or movement away from the ground of being. James Snead suggests that Black culture highlights repetition, “often in homage to an original generative instance or act” (218). In this poem, Mammy Prater's eloquent waiting, expressed through the call of her eyes to the poet, provides this generative instance. Snead further points out that repetition is essential to improvisation, showing the “desire to rely upon ‘the thing that is there to pick up'” (221). Brand's poem can be understood as an improvisation upon the paradoxical theme of Mammy Prater's silent call.
Against our commonsense understanding that a photographer “takes” a photograph and that what is photographed is “taken,” Brand's poem insists that Mammy Prater herself “waited until it suited her / to take this photograph and to put those eyes in it.” Those eyes repetitively engage the poet-onlooker, and then, through that speaker's mediating words, they address us, in our role as readers. My students heard the first person voice, the I, behind every mention of Mammy Prater's eyes. The link here between subjectivity and seeing does seem to be central. Mammy Prater focuses her call through the medium of her eyes, using her body to speak what slavery prevented her from writing or saying.
For Brand, the photograph becomes Mammy Prater's “self-portrait”; the unknown photographer becomes “superfluous” to her triumphant assertion of her own subjectivity through the means that were to hand. Brand's narrator's reading of the photograph sees and recreates a character who turns her own body into a work of art with a message to convey—“she perfected this pose.” Her history, her pain and her survival, may be read in her eyes but is also present, in a more contradictory form, in the “etching” on her body, etching left on the gait of her legs by the fields she worked, etching over which she had no control but which in the photograph becomes the material with which she works: “she sculpted it over a shoulder of pain.” Although the poet can recognize that this “shoulder of pain” is “a thing like despair,” she sees too that Mammy Prater could never have acknowledged despair and survived the degradation of “the days that she was a mule.” (For those familiar with Jamaican English, “mule” takes on further derogatory reference: barren women are called mules. By failing to bear children, they forfeit their right to be considered human within their community. This word fuses the double burden of Mammy Prater's identity: to white slave-owners, she is a mule because she is Black, but she also risks demotion to the subhuman among her own people if she fails to meet their cultural expectations of women.) Although treated as if she were subhuman, her body transformed by that drudgery, Mammy Prater retains the signs of her humanity in her eyes, which speak the I of a human self who never relinquished the right to determine her own destiny and control her own body.
At this point in the poem, the syntax becomes unclear. The line “deliberately and unintentionally” may modify the action of the fields on Mammy Prater's body or the nature of her waiting, or—more logically perhaps, but less suggestively—the etchings may be left deliberately and the waiting may be unintentional. But how can the waiting be described as unintentional here, when the entire first and last verses of the poem insist that it is deliberate? The effect of such a line, however one decides to read it (and there seems to be no definitive reading), is to focus attention on the indefinite itself and to force consideration of a paradox: in what ways may an action be both deliberate and unintentional? The line pushes the reader into a mode of thinking beyond dualities. The preceding lines have made it impossible for the reader to think of Mammy Prater as either a victim or a triumphant survivor. Megan Stitt, one of the students in our class, points out that “Brand creates here a conflict that, unresolved, makes you think.” Mammy Prater's control over history (“she planned it down to the day / the light”) and over her own body (“her breasts / her hands”) coexists with the lack of control implied by her “days as a mule” (Stitt, 5). Because it was forbidden to teach slaves to read and write, she was probably illiterate, yet she contrived to write, metaphorically speaking, a message in her eyes that “her fingers could not script” but that the poet would instantly understand.
The construction of Mammy Prater's subjecthood being enacted here may be illuminated by recourse to the distinction often made between race, which is increasingly being recognized as having no ontological reality, and racism, which self-evidently exists. Similarly, although slavery clearly existed, it does not follow that slavery produced slaves. If those human beings designated slaves by those who held power over them refused to see themselves through their “master's” eyes, as slaves (as mules), then their self-definition as human beings produces a paradox for the slaveholders but not for themselves. Brand's poem tells us that Mammy Prater had to wait one hundred and fifteen years for technology to perfect “a surface sensitive enough / to hold her eyes” so that the viewer of her image might see her as she saw herself. It suggests that Mammy Prater's faith that eventually such communication could be achieved operated as a sustaining fiction through the dark years when she was misread or not even “seen” as a person at all. The poet too, the poem suggests, clings to her necessary fictions. She needs to believe that this message was planned especially for her, despite the casual “turning the leaves of a book” that first led to this momentous “noticing.” This mutual need to see and be seen connects the two women across more than a century.
This need is intimately related to the historical legacies of imperialism and slavery. Cornel West writes that “The modern Black diaspora problematic of invisibility and namelessness can be understood as the condition of relative lack of Black power to represent themselves to themselves and others as complex human beings, and thereby to contest the bombardment of negative, degrading stereotypes put forward by White supremacist ideologies” (27). These problems were exacerbated for Black women. As the title of a now-classic text puts it, All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave; neither Black Studies nor Women's Studies were initially capable of seeing Black women as having their own subjectivities based on their own experiences of gender and race as inseparable. In “Blues Spiritual for Mammy Prater,” the Black woman subject is both seen and named. But Brand's poem goes far beyond merely replacing the negative stereotypes with positive Black images; it attempts to change the relations of representation.
Brand has written that “All the Black people here have a memory whether they know it or not, whether they like it or not, whether they remember it or not, and, in that memory are words such as land, sea, whip, work, rap, coffle, sing, sweat, release, days … without … this … pain … coming … We know … have a sense … hold a look in our eyes … about it … have to fight every day for our humanity … redeem it every day” (“Bread,” 52-3). The poem “Blues Spiritual” dramatizes a moment when that memory pushes itself forward into consciousness, making itself felt once more in all the immediacy of a physical experience.
Through the communal affirmative repetitions of the blues (“she waited / she waited … to make sure / to make sure … she knew / she knew … she waited … to write in those eyes what her fingers could not script … her eyes”), we are invited to share in the poet's reconstruction of a human face from a brutal past. As readers, we are denied the position of voyeur. We never see the photograph. What we see is the potential for realigning the sight lines of how we look at other people and how we construct our understanding of what we see in relation to ourselves. It is important for us to understand this poem within the context established by the title of the collection in which it appears, No Language Is Neutral. The poem makes itself a gift for Mammy Prater, in exchange for the gift of Mammy Prater's inspiring photograph. It is “for” Mammy Prater, implicitly “against” those who would see her and use her as a mule and those who simply would not see her at all. In taking this interested stand, the poem insists that we understand poetry as a culturally significant act, capable of creating as well as reflecting and maintaining community values.
As bell hooks reminds us: “There is a radical difference between a repudiation of the idea that there is a black ‘essence’ and recognition of the way black identity has been specifically constituted in the experience of exile and struggle” (hooks, 29). There is no question of a Black “essence” in “Blues Spiritual” but there is a carefully articulated understanding of the ways in which Black women's identities have been constituted through history and language. Brand writes as a poet who grew up in Trinidad and now lives in Toronto. Her cross-cultural position as poet, as well as the boundary-crossing subjects she chooses to address, question the systemic pressures that shape and mis-shape our subjectivities as people defined through categories such as gender, ethnicity, class, or nation. Her poetry, whatever its explicit subject matter or setting, explores questions of crucial interest to Canadians today. Although ostensibly addressing what some might see as an American (i.e., U.S.) topic, “Blues Spiritual for Mammy Prater” speaks directly to our Canadian obsessions with cultural continuities and identity formation, refusing simplistic embracings of “essence” in favour of more complicated explorations of subject construction. According to Chris Weedon, in feminist post-structuralist criticism, “The central focus of interest becomes the way in which texts construct meanings and subject positions for the reader, the contradictions inherent in this process and its political implications, both in its historical context and in the present” (167). This is the approach I have tried to elaborate here, but it is also the process I see at work in “Blues Spiritual for Mammy Prater,” creating a mise en abîme effect in which Brand focuses on the ways in which the photo of Mammy Prater constructs meanings and subject positions for her persona as reader. I have also focused on the ways in which Brand's persona constructs meanings and subject positions for us—myself and you, my readers—as readers. In enacting such a process, Brand ensures that we must live and think both inside and outside the poem. “Blues Spiritual for Mammy Prater” lures us deep into the heart of its poetry only to show us the multiple ways in which poetry is continuous with the world.
Brand, Dionne. “Blues Spiritual for Mammy Prater.” No Language Is Neutral. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1990: 17-19.
———. “Bread Out of Stone.” Language in Her Eye: Views on Writing and Gender by Canadian Women Writing in English. Libby Scheier. Sarah Sheard, and Eleanor Wachtel, eds. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1990: 45-53.
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hooks, bell. Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. Boston: South End Press, 1990.
Hull, Gloria T., Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, eds. All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies. Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist Press, 1982.
James, Selma. The Ladies and the Mammies: Jane Austen & Jean Rhys. Bristol: Falling Wall, 1983.
Snead, James. A. “Repetition as a Figure of Black Culture.” Ferguson et al., 213-32.
Stitt, Megan Perigoe. “A Touch of History in No Language Is Neutral.” Student Essay for English 410, Guelph University, submitted 28 Nov. 1991.
Weedon, Chris. Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory. Oxford: Blackwell, 1987.
West, Cornel. “The New Cultural Politics of Difference.” Ferguson et al., 19-38.
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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 three writers discussed here are part of that ‘outburst.’ Some of this recent activity2 comes from Canadian-born writers such as Maxine Tynes and George Elliott Clarke, part comes from immigrants from the United States, England, South America, and Africa, and part comes from the community arriving from the Caribbean.3 Dionne Brand, Claire Harris, and Marlene Philip, whose work I approach in this essay, all come from the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, and each develops a writing that raises three tightly associated issues: race, access, and the appropriateness of the verbal tradition, literary or linguistic, to their writing.
Race and racism are among the most important issues for the Black writing community in Canada, and any of its readers including myself. They underpin the questions of access which I have defined elsewhere for my study as the field of ‘marginalized’ writings: access to education, to writing, to creative tuition in verbal craft, to publication, marketing, and distribution, to reviews and audiences, and to rewards—the grants, tours, readings, and all the publicity paraphernalia that make the next book possible.4 It also defines many of the specific grounds on which these writers discuss questions of literary voice, authenticity, and community.
The complex process of learning about race and racism is intended explicitly to structure this essay as it engages with the skill and specific invitation or generosity of each writer, and it should be said here that no answers can be offered. It also needs to be said here at the start that the issue of access to literacy and print is of utmost importance,5 particularly in the context of Canadian education, which provides extensive literacy programs,6 and the possibility of training in creative writing and composition from primary, through secondary, to tertiary education.7 However, what this discussion will focus on is how Black women writers, who have gained that access, use it to develop a specific response to the problems of writing within a culture that is experienced as alien because of colour, gender, and class; and how they balance the need clearly and immediately to tell and retell a history more appropriate to their memories than the one on offer from the culture in power, with the pressing demand to extend the processes of self-definition and authentic voice within current literary conventions.
Brand, Harris, and Philip are each faced with the question of how to write within a verbal tradition that has never encouraged expression of their experience and indeed has often actively repressed it. Furthermore, these writers also know that to get published it is necessary to stay broadly within that tradition,8 and that unless they do so, their potential audience will be restricted, their traditionally educated readers will not know how to read their work. But once access has been gained, there is an opportunity for trying out a new voice, making a new way of reading. Brand, Harris, and Philip address this possibility in different ways. Acutely aware of how language, narrative, and poetics contain them as writers within the institutional structures that wield power, all are concerned to find a way to position themselves with regard to that power. In various ways, the works also make it possible for different readers to position themselves, and some of those positions will be enabled and others alienated. Both are necessary to begin to extend friendship.9
This essay is concerned with the way that each of the three writers can be read as starting with modernism's potential for generating ‘other’ communities and alternative histories, and with the ways that each responds with a variety of literary strategies to the recognition of the problems implicit in modernism's universalism and claims to fixity and essential identity. In doing so each writers attempts a different stance from that called for by modernism. Modernism, and its outgrowths of postmodernism and neo-romantic surrealism, which other Canadian writers have pursued, all depend upon writing towards the conventional expectations of an extant audience. In contrast, the stance taken up by these writers acts towards the possibility of writing by interacting with an audience, constructing a stance out of its social immediacy and historical need. The stance outlines a different kind of community, not working from conventionally accepted grounds, but a community anchored as such by actual social problems, and hence a community that will necessarily change.
Each of these writers directly participates in particular social issues to do with race, the position of women, teaching, community relations, cultural power. Each is at least partly concerned with writing for a broad audience, what Brand calls writing for a ‘crowd.’ So each is also concerned with an audience for whom conventional representation is, complicatedly, both profoundly habitual, universalizing, and essentialist, as well as the recognized strategy for making ‘reality claims,’ particularly about history. This problematic raises a central issue in the study of any text or discourse: The ‘reality’ texts address is certainly there. Its representation is initially crafted out of an engagement between writer and reader based on an understanding that the conventional strategies that tend to habituate and make comfortable need to be disrupted in order to address the social immediacy of reality. But that engagement can initiate strategies that may be carried on past the point of action and necessity, into a corporate agreement for dealing with issues that we do not want to, or have not the time to, address directly—in other words they become the new conventions. This is an important sequence because becoming corporate is a helpful way of coping with our lives. Recognizing the limitations of the corporate is more difficult.
Disruption is the key term. The disruptions of modernism encourage a relocation into alternative histories which become corporate agreements difficult to dislodge. Postmodernism has attempted to encourage a continual dislocation, which can offer a rejection of history and make action on immediate issues impossible. Romanticized surrealism encourages a dislocation into the private, which invalidates discussion and rejects the social.
Texts, in that they can make claims for history, may authenticate voices of unproblematic identity if their history is universalist and underwrites fixed communities and essentialist versions of self. But just as history and texts are also social realities, anchored in material needs if also constricted by ideology, so ‘authentic voice’ is a way of describing the necessarily different self that emerges from the discussions, decisions, and actions instigated by addressing social realities and the communities that form in response to those realities. I use the terms authentic voice and community in the latter sense, with an acute awareness of how that responsive stance has the potential for increasingly corporate habituation precisely because it is historical and social, but with an equal awareness that the evasions of the corporate in postmodernism and the surreal lead to a rejection of historical and social reality.
I am also aware that this literary historical outline evades the primary social immediacy of questions of race. It is to speak as though the racial divide between Black and White critical positions did not exist, as though a White critical position with respect to text, history, and social support and trust could be drawn unproblematically from these writings by Afro-Caribbean Canadian women overtly concerned with a specific history and the social reality of race and racism. There will be necessary differences between any position I could take as a White critic and those of these Afro-Caribbean women writers. Yet there are points of contact, critical readings made possible by these writings and by the way that the texts interact with some common historical grounds that bring the possibility of a socially immediate and radically engaging stance to feminism, at the same time as they open the door on the reality of racial difference and the history of problems that it carries. The stance could address these problems and make possible another discussion within feminism about race.
To be open about what I here intend: these writers write about issues I recognize intimately when they write about their position as women, as lovers, wives, mothers, daughters, women at work. I read these differently depending upon the availability of common ground offered by the texts. That common ground can be radically displaced by the difficulty of my own understanding of race, yet where the grounds that bring women together can be articulated, it can provide a place for talking about precisely those difficulties with race that separate us. When a familiar common ground like mothers and daughters, which women might expect to remain stable or at least recognizable, is suddenly refracted through racial difference, the effect is often a radical impetus to extend discussion. In a practical way the points of contact, like Philip's floor for her ‘sisters to dance on,’ constructs a community out of the needs of the problematic. It brings together people to discuss the grounds for action within the current constraints.
Claire Harris provides some context for understanding the historical specificity of these writings in her essay ‘Poets in Limbo,’10 where she talks about the educational background of Caribbean, here specifically Trinidadian, writing in English. She talks about the educational indoctrination that students in Trinidad experience, an indoctrination into Western European language, culture, and tradition: ‘We learnt English folk songs, put on Gilbert and Sullivan. British gym mistresses taught us Morris dancing among other survival skills’ (117). The pupils were also forced to learn huge quantities of English literature by rote—Chaucer, Wordsworth, Arnold—an experience that Harris says can be ‘terminal’ for a potential writer. Yet the oral folklore ‘saved our imaginations.’ ‘We remain,’ she suggests, ‘… poets whose sense of the art is essentially rooted in the English tradition. When we turn away, that is what we turn away from. What we turn to we have essentially to make ourselves’ (118).
Harris goes on to suggest that what the tradition most comfortably gives writers like herself is a way to ‘seek wholeness in the landscape,’ which is an activity that her own earlier poetry does attempt. Turning to what they have to make for themselves, she offers a number of different approaches that present responses to the stylistic and topical conventions of European literature. She speaks of development of dialect representation and of the poetic fracturing of the traditional equation between word and image, but points out that both stylistic devices risk not only alienating but permanently estranging the audience. In contrast, responses to topical convention are possibly more immediately enabling. She notes here that there is a pressing need to sort out the relationship with Africa, by implication with retellings of origin, history, and the present culture that are highly problematic. It is important to counter the ideological presentation particularly of the physical self, and hence a need to challenge and reject ‘names.’ To do so writers typically ransack their colonial childhood for different images. Writers should also make use of all the available materials about Black experience—‘Journal entries, newspaper clippings, pictures of horrors, reports of Amnesty International’ that yield ‘material for collages’ so that, at the least, partial, pasted-together realities can be constructed—and Harris experiments with precisely such a structure in the short story ‘A Matter of Fact.’11 For herself, she says, ‘Personally I am content to try to write well and to trust to the authenticity of image, content and perception to see me true’ (121).
The potentially essentialist vocabulary of ‘natural landscape’ and ‘authentic image’ belies Harris's own poetic practice. What Harris, a linguist and teacher of literature and language, doesn't tell us is that the literary tradition that she, Dionne Brand, and Marlene Philip appear at first to be most deeply rooted within is the modernist poetic, whose purpose is already to fracture the conventional discourses and to construct different connections and communications. In other words, these writers are already part of a profoundly dislocating stylistic, albeit one with a firm historical backing that poses specific problems for their writing. Like the reworking of modernist poetics typical of the work of many contemporary Canadian writers, each of these writers answers the alienation that results from modernism's inappropriate history with a particular poetics of her own. Rather than pursuing an ahistorical postmodernism or the romanticist individualism/heroics of the surreal, these writers offer a set of historically based alternatives that shift away from the heroism of alienation towards questions of authenticity that deal in engagement and social support, that generate questions about trust: trust in ideology, in history, and in language.
The pursuit of authentic voice and image has become a contemporary attempt to speak of experience that is denied, oppressed, subtly distracted, and disembodied by modes of representation coming from politically and economically dominant cultures. The attempts have engaged with many of the elements of representation that Harris lists, such as storytelling structures, dialect, media, verbal and technical strategies. But above all the attempts have engaged with the overwhelming conventions of realism with its currently broad claims to adequate representation. However, the engagement is ambiguous: if your reading community accepts the realistic convention as the appropriate medium for recording history, for conveying event and experience, for persuading, then as a writer you take a chance that any transgression of those conventions will invalidate your account. At the same time an uncritical use of them may simply valorize some nostalgic desire for an essential and different past world. Yet the writer can also overwrite realism as if it were a palimpsest, can conflict with it, or connect glancingly with it. What you cannot do in the contemporary context is completely reject it, or the literary community breaks down; communication becomes impossible and the audience cannot hear. Harris's trust in the ‘authenticity of image, content and perception’ indicates a trust that somewhere in the craft of writing a different, more appropriate and understandable representation can be made for her community.
Harris also offers a trust in ‘natural landscape’ which is as ambiguous as a trust in writing. Yet the physical world, even more than writing, is resistant to conventions of representation. Perceptions of the natural landscape do change, but landscape also constantly engages with those perceptions by way of a physical actuality. The writer's engaging with this resistance, like that with the elements of representation, can work in a number of different ways. There can again be a simple valorization of some pre-colonial native/natural land which attempts a naïve recuperation of a lost origin. But the historical resistance of the landscape to representation can provide a useful place from which to write about the resistance of a community to representation. As Marlene Philip suggests in She Tries Her Tongue, no history is possible without memory, and physical reality is akin to the body both in its resistance to remembering and in its ability to re-member. The body, the physical world, and the community can each resist and remember representation of authentic voice, landscape, and history, not just as identity but as commodity, or reflection, or difference from, or difference within, or deferral or différance.
Modernist poetics, with its initial engagement with and resistance to realism, and with its attempt to articulate the subject and speak of private individual experience, is thoroughly bound up with the later pursuit of authentic voice. But modernism looks inward for self and position. Its attempts to lasso the significant moments, the isolated epiphanies of experience where we seem to find ourselves, can underwrite many of the limiting qualities of fixity and inviolate essence that the word ‘identity’ calls up. On rare and enduring occasions, modernist writing looks inward and sees nothing. This is the moment of existentialism which can direct the private nothingness of identity to loss, representations of which may be found in both postmodernism and the surreal, or back towards social being and authentic voice.
The modernist poetics of identity are concerned with ‘difference from,’ with the intertextual ride against fixed representations of the individual, and with dislocations of those representations. The poetic requires an agreement about literary, cultural, and historical conventions—linguistic, stylistic, logical, and topical—towards which the activities of allusion, fragmentation, and so on move. However, the problem with this agreement is that it may enclose the writer within tradition and convention, isolating the writer from the social and communal which continually rework and renegotiate reality. This may end in the continual deferrals of postmodernism, found for example in the writing of George Bowering in the late 1970s, which render the construction of self as necessarily inauthentic, always hegemonic and compromised, never conflictually resistant or potentially changing. Many Canadian writers in the post-Second World War period have been dissatisfied with the apparent agreements of modernism. While some have evaded it in the ahistorical postmodern, others have attempted to collapse it into the surreal. Surrealism constructs the self as heroic individual, treading dangerously along the rim of chaos, in order to convey significance onto self. Constructing and meeting that terror can be therapeutic, but the satisfaction of private need for terror is a privileged activity that has little effect on poverty or racism.
The romantic transposition of modernist poetics into surrealism is a quite different activity from that of the postmodern. The romantic symbol engulfs an event or person within a representation, so that the necessary inadequacy evident between symbol and actuality becomes the ground for communication: a negative capability.12 The romanticization of modernist poetics consists of making a metaphor of its dislocation of tradition, extending the symbol of dislocation surrealistically to its limits so that it breaks down. The importance of the surrealist extension of symbol is that just before it breaks down it is at its most disturbing. The clash is no longer the point; the representation of a necessarily inadequate ground for communication is no longer the activity. Instead, it is the perception of chaos lying beyond the symbolic that becomes the central concern; alternating a deep trust in the control exercised by representation and a deep fear in the chaos lying beyond it. Here we walk along the edge between dream and nightmare of Ondaatje, or the boundaries and white places of the early Atwood's page.
What is significant for the purposes of this discussion is that Harris, Brand, and Philip, in common with a few other Canadian writers, move to alternative strategies for writing which are neither surreal nor postmodern. This search, which embraces the positive gifts of so-called chaos, otherwise called the world outside dominant cultural representation, and also embraces the social resistance of authentic voice, is of immediate importance to the broad literary community working with the English language. It raises wide-ranging questions about the limits of ideology, about the possibility of regathering history, and for writers, about the extent to which their written medium and its language can be trusted to re-present the people and communities who have been written out.
Aware that the modernist tradition is inadequate because it falsely assumes too much common ground and initiates complicity into structures people may wish to oppose, change, or refuse, what do you do? Do you give people fables because in practice you cannot give them another completely different language, but you can provide the incidents and events to remind them that literature and its language only speak for a few? Do you arrest language so that the reader may release its significance, as with many recent reconstructions of modernist imagism or the phonetic deconstructions of bp Nichol? Do you hold the ideological structures and metaphors so tightly by the throat that they speak with a strange voice, as do the attempts to strangle and twist cultural icons like the ‘cowboy as hero’ in Kroetsch's writing, or the drifting landscapes and maps in Bowering's later work? Do you turn to your own myths/ghosts/memories but make sure that their complicity in the ideological is foregrounded, for example in the potentially sentimental return to personal folklore in the work of Laurence or Munro that is consciously artificialized in order to clarify a present, contradictory, position towards it? Do you turn to the most elusive words, the ones that you use to friends and do not think about, not the cliché but the earth of your language: no longer only playing with the fictive in the powerful/powerless dichotomies of convention but with the syntax and structure of these few words that reach out into the needs of your community of friends, finding in their bodies spaces and openings that they had not realized were there? The literary developments of each of these three writers are enabled by a growing awareness of the possibilities for communication generated by talk with and to their own community, particularly other women.
Claire Harris is one of the most elegantly precise writers emerging from the modernist tradition. Her work indicates an immensely skilful and rigorous practitioner who also has something to say: an unusual combination for modernism that makes her a particularly significant link in the wider development of the tradition. But the published work indicates from the start the tensions of working within that poetic. Of the many women's experiences recounted throughout the poems in Fables from the Women's Quarters (1984),13 perhaps the phrases ‘flesh is not civilised flesh is not haiku’ (30) from ‘Blood Feud’ remind the reader most of the intensely intellectual and language-centred tradition of the writing. However, in these poems, curiously it is the brain and the intellect recalling ‘the bittersweet pervasive ache of the women's quarters’ (16) that fail to ‘inoculate’ her against the demands of men. Through Translation into Fiction (1984) to Travelling to Find a Remedy (1986),14 the demands of men remain uppermost, but the intellectual poetic tradition gradually becomes itself one of those masculine demands.
The poems of Translation into Fiction present fiction both as a mask bereft of power and as the language of those in power. This double-edged activity of all ideological constructions becomes the informing movement of many different verbal translations into fiction: White/Black, man/woman, youth/age. People use words to bring reality within their control. Here the control is that of romantic symbol, explosive with the tension of inadequacy, presented as the fertile control of the gardener—her father—who is at the same time terrified by the anarchy of imagination. But for Harris ‘translations’ are also specific to the printed medium of language that she uses. In ‘By the senses sent forth …,’ the writer chooses to present a three-strand narrative emerging in typographic form as fragmented prose on the left opening, and two strips of poetry on the right. The right opening is composed of modernist verse, often mythically allusive, in italics and ranged to the left margin; it is opposed by shorter, metaphorical, more intense rhythms of verse, in roman type and ranged right. The three strands could each stand alone, but as presented they comment upon each other as if the writer were admitting that she cannot speak adequately and is giving us three stylistically different versions.
The typographically fragmented technique is common to much of Harris's work: from verse with footnotes, to haiku with narrative, images with description, and, more recently, in The Conception of Winter (1998),15 postcard fragment with commentary. It is as if the modernist and the romantic landscape describer are standing off and commenting upon one another, not meeting yet self-validating. The fragment, acknowledgably partial, presents those things we cannot make sense of and/or cannot articulate because the are either too alien or, perhaps, too familiar. In contrast, the story, given whole, represents the things we can make sense of. It provides simultaneously the ground that makes the fragmentary bearable and the ground to be fragmented. As the poetry develops, this technique becomes both less discursive and less sparse, as the poet increasingly integrates the images and trusts the audience.
Harris moves from a highly individualistic concept of the writer/fictionalizer as especially gifted to be ‘stricken by and seeking’ reality in Translation into Fiction, to a redrawing of the romantic poet in terms of moral responsibility in Travelling to Find a Remedy, to rather less heroic and far more thought-provoking set of questions about the helplessness of the writer in expressing experience as against the articulations of those who do not use words, in The Conception of Winter.Travelling to Find a Remedy is a key work whose opening and closing poems examine the process of writing, and enclose more fables/reports from Black history. ‘Every Moment a Window,’ which opens the collection, asks how we, or the poet for us, can open the window on reality. Both the images working within smaller parts of the poem and the overarching allegory critically rework the cruel and persistent romantic metaphor of woman as source of poetry and man as articulator or poet. Here the speaker/poet is presented as two people mediated by the shifting gender of pronouns. At first significantly male, the speaker enters and places her dried heart in the sink of her life/memory from which she surfaces as youth and poet, foreign to and stumbling among words that acquire coherence from the web of our response. A poem is an accident, a seeding, a machine: it is ‘bits and pieces / never the whole story’ (11), memories, ghosts of what the writer earlier, in Translation into Fiction, called the ‘aborted / dreams’ (71) which ‘I slipped / casually into not being,’ and myths. Myths become the ‘small control’ in the ordered chaos of a world where we have no ‘natural claim / to have anything save / death’ (14). The speaker is Prometheus, stealing words like fire from the gods both for the survival of human beings and as an anchor in our separateness from each other. At seven she is horrified by the immediacy of the real that myth permits her to feel; but by eight the horror has failed, the myths have passed into recognizable order, the window is closed. And at the end, there sits the initial speaker, dressed in white and waiting for her, reading God and Physics. It is as if the White, intellectual, male-tradition of verse and poetics gives her a window on reality at the cost of desiccating her ability, her capacity, to experience.
The concluding long poem, ‘Peter Petrus,’ is a mystery story where things are both revealed and hidden, while the writer plays phonetically and syntactically around the dual petrifying images of horror and stone. Peter Petrus is the Poet, the Peculator of other people's myths, the peripatetic tourist (postcards) who is petrified from his perilous/parlous/period into stone. His language is signified by the typographically capitalized or doubled ‘P’ or ‘Pp’ as in ‘escaPes’; it is a visual Protrusion or eruPtion alerting the reader to the arbitrary structure of words that is yet responsible for signification. It alerts us to the difficulty of meaning as we read these bizarre eruptions of the arbitrary/chaotic letter into the conventional structures of our language. In contrast to Peter Petrus, the language of the Witness is standard.
The immediate mystery of the poem is why Petrus throws himself out of the window, but the effective mystery is what lured the Witness into his room to witness his jump and what effect it has on her. Terrorized by the immediacy of the real, Peter Poet has gradually hardened into Peter Petrus. The dried onion skins of his petrified flesh rasp, ‘thin and insidious’ reminders of Coleridge's imagination ‘I AM.’ As if the stone has consumed nearly all the flesh and he needs an heir, Petrus ‘oPens door to the corridor’ to seduce the Witness for ‘she has Possibilities pPetrus has / heard the sand shifting in her the layers forming / being stone sober pPeter pPetrus wills that this / be given to her’ (67). And as he leaps from the window, a window on reality is opened for her, and she then tentatively engages with the poetic discourse of Petrus, the double ‘Pp’ intruding into her language from the moment she sees him jump.
The poem presents a deeply ambiguous image of the poet indicating reality only at the cost of consuming her/himself, at the same time as making a necessary self-sacrifice into stone. The ambiguity is redoubled by the conflation of an overtly Christian metaphor of self-sacrifice onto a version of the Medusa myth which warns the powerful about the dangers of ignoring the disempowered: as if human beings turn to stone because the emulation of godlike activity necessarily destroys them. Further, the entire allegory is called into question by the vocabulary of violence and the implicit entrapment of the Witness: as if the Witness were being coerced into the position of victim to perpetrate systems of poetic power. And that is where the poem, on the penultimate leaf of the book, ends. The Witness is the next Petrus, caught in the traditions of poetic structure and language technique that will only permit her to engage with reality through channels that will destroy her. The book itself ends with a haiku.
Despite the continual reference to women and to women's experience, the touchstones for event in the early books are often male. In the poems of cultural inquiry enfolded by the studies of the poetic at the start and the end of Travelling to Find a Remedy, two of the more immediately demanding focus on men as husbands and fathers. The title poem presents Africa as a man who wants the speaker to have his children. But there is too much of the Middle Passage to slavery and out, in the history of the (presumably Caribbean-Canadian) woman, to allow such an easy ‘grip on my hand.’ She says that she dreams ‘in another tongue’ (26). Further on, in ‘Black Sisyphus,’ the writer reaches out to her childhood and her father. It is a poem concerned with postcolonial contradictions, framed between the Church institutions and her father's own beliefs. Within that tension he too grasps her hand and wants to ‘refashion’ it, with all the complicated duality of caring and power that parents exercise. But in The Conception of Winter Harris turns more and more to the community of women. At the same time she increasingly turns away from the concept of the poet as mask, as hero, as sacrificial victim, to the poet as sharer: In a sense she speaks less of her own hand being taken and how she rejects that ‘ownership’ or possession, instead offering her hands to the reader, still very tentatively and with enormous caution, for she has every right to fear us.
The open invitation into The Conception of Winter offers the reader a different kind of poetry where the writer speaks less of the significance of words and trusts more to their activity. The long opening poem, ‘Towards the color of summer,’ begins with a study of three women as tourists, one of whom is the speaker, going to Barcelona. Tourism, as we all know, is at its best in the Travel Agent's Office where the wish-fulfilments still seem entirely possible. Harris describes the moment of escape in the airplane, saying ‘I become blue meaning by this a measure / of release what I imagine the soul feels / / as it escapes drained bone or pained / medieval angels suspect who long to escape // strictures’ (3), and later ‘too far above ground for traps in such blue / I float suspended disguised in my favorite self’ (3). Tourism is the world of licensed anarchy which allows us to permit ourselves to be other people, to transgress our personal codes. We travel to places which have different social codes of behaviour, both frightening and passionate, a world of liminality, of adolescence, where the strategies for maintaining survival can be self-enclosing or self-destructive, curiously mimicking the activity of colonial power. The tourist may feel threatened but also knows that in the normal run of events money, passports, and embassies can intervene—which is why we feel so acutely shocked when diplomatic protection for the tourist fails. At the same time the tourist is profoundly involved in exploitation.
These shadowy social implications permeate the personal transgressions of the three women who refract and disperse their images of self through this alien culture, stumbling upon the more deeply embedded structures of identity that resist new angles of vision. The poetic begins by setting off the descriptive verse against the ‘postcards.’ The latter seem at first to yield the flat banality and enervation of reality that the tourist postcard imposes; but against the description, which redoes or repeats the images and lends a verbal density to their sparseness, the postcard verse becomes compressed haiku that sever their content from causality. The haiku provide the image yet the response/significance becomes the reader's; they provide an arrested reality that flowers only if the reader cradles the seed, the bits, relates the fables. Just so, the women can at first detach themselves from the visited world, watching its severed surrealist concepts or abstractions from behind their foreignness, but they gradually become implicated into it. The speaker says ‘But this is not why we came here / three week exiles we have chosen to lose / / our place in the world three women searching / a ledge for freedom excitement for self / / (and I am here where the rivers grief / and blood rose … think of it / /’ (19). The speaker opens up for herself, image by image, the connections of Spain with Africa and with slavery; she establishes the substratum of fear and pain and rape that this city, which first sent out Columbus to the New World thereby initiating the slave trade, has for her underlying the sun and flowers and people.
Then, as with much of Harris's work, death intervenes. Death walks relatively lightfootedly but pervasively throughout her writing and is one helpful guide to the direction of her poetic. The early poetry gives us accounts of war, of private and public cruelty, that are particularly atrocious in the controlled violations that the verse permits. Much of this transmutes into a more private and intellectual study about a sudden visibility of death in ‘Coming to Terms …,’ from Travelling to Find a Remedy. The verse is phrased in a tense counterpoint between just-voiced questions answered by jagged, almost cacophonous essays into articulation.
The Conception of Winter moves into far more personal response. But whereas the earlier writer might have been left vulnerable and the reader embarrassed, this poetry trusts to the community of the writer's audience. When, in ‘Towards the Color of Summer,’ the three women on holiday are arrested by news of the death of a friend back home, the speaker places herself both in the first person singular and in the plural. Echoing her earlier release into the sky at the start of her trip, she now asks in presence of death ‘how to save ourselves who no longer believe / / in winged souls caged in flesh nor yet / / believe in shared rounds in organic growth / and becoming’ (25). Together, the three women ‘Dissipate Grief’ by buying things, by consuming their emptiness in acts of monetary expenditure that only reinforce that emptiness. Here (26) the writer allows the emptiness to grow in between a ranged-left, clipped, fast-paced, short-line narrative poem, and a ranged-right, end-stopped, series of images of death, which begins:
|We hustle in and out of shops||and this is what happens|
|bustling to buy||when you die|
|everything||first you uncoil|
|we say ‘it||the guts of pain|
|is cheaper here’||where it leads|
|we point at things||you gather yourself|
After this story about the impossibility of articulation comes the title poem, ‘Conception of Winter,’ during which the three women, again together, ‘become sad’ for ‘here in this place in our determined joy / we find ourselves fearing the birth of winter’ (28).
What the poet has been keeping at arms' length is of course her own death, and in the concluding long poem ‘Against the Blade,’ an elegy for her mother, she seems to find again in the community of women, expressed this time in the difficult identity with and difference from her mother, words that can be shared with her reader. At one moment in this careful but moving study of a parent's death, the speaker says, ‘now sometimes / i came upon her suddenly / and in shadow / now perhaps my grave's clarity / resolving itself / i understand / what passion forged the cool smile’ (51). The shadow of the mother, at the same time, in life, obscures the speaker's grave yet clarifies it in death; it also obscures both the mother and child in life and helps to resolve, to find resolution and focus for, each in death. Within the context of this poetry, whose cool smile is also forged by passion, the reader can watch the poet describe her mother, who ‘lived language’ (44), and watch her faced with the ‘victorian silence’ of the mother. The poet brings words back from abstraction and isolation into lists of events, descriptions of the mundane, accounts of personal history, trivial actions weighted with too much significance like flowers brought to the hospital that are ‘stricken like this verse / extinguishing what is left of her / that is wild and full of grace’ (58). The movement of the earlier long poem about the three women travellers is rather more generous in its search for common grounds—but then it can afford to be. With this concluding long poem, the risks the poet takes with the death of a mother are far greater. But overall, in The Conception of Winter the poet offers with immense control not the attack of precisely transgressed tradition but a tentative movement into a common language for articulation that arises from the women's community about which she is writing.
Harris talks in a 1986 Fireweed issue of ‘the way language is used to shelter the deformed morality of power.’16 She is constantly aware both of the large and sometimes deadly structures of that power, and the immediate and powerful realities of everyday life. Given that for Harris the problems of marginalization are the defining conditions and content of any poetry or any writing, her assertion that one cannot solve the deformations of power with a poetry of revenge, not even revenge upon the traditions of language and the poet, becomes a statement of her political position. Recently it is as if the immediate realities have become pressing, and her poetry must look toward community and authentic voice rather than the opposing dualities of tradition and an essential individual.
A parallel but different response emerges from the work of Dionne Brand, as she too works away from a tensely executed modernist poetic towards an alternative voice. Politically the most assertive of the three writers discussed here, Brand is poetically the most traditional. The poetics of Primitive Offensive (1982),17 a history of racism in violently ambivalent Poundian cantos, torsions modernist verse in on itself. The fragmented modernist image or allusion works by being able to refer to an understood continuum, a shared history or literary tradition. Unlike Harris, who initially deals with this structural and epistemological need by continually providing parallel discourses, Brand's early poetry18 chooses not to address the problem that much of her potential audience, defined by the use of a modernist poetic, will be unaware of the particular history of oppression, slavery, and colonialization to which she refers. By this, I do not mean simply to suggest that readers do not know the facts about these events, but that the average White, Western-educated, middle-class reader does not have a literary or linguistic or cultural or folkloric tradition that could foreground their repressive elements/referents. For example, the speaker of Harris's ‘Towards the Color of Summer’ finds, protruding into her Barcelona holiday, rivers of grief and blood. When the associated image of ‘men with net and chain / / and coffle’ who then ‘slaved and died’ emerges into the high tourist bureau landscape, it provides a startling and disruptive link with the slave trade and European neocolonialization. Columbus for many is long the explorer and discoverer of school history, and only on prompted conscious awareness an exploiter. However, having read Harris's poem, one finds it just that bit more difficult to eradicate the history of slavery, specifically the vocabulary of ‘net and chain and coffle,’ from the repository of allusions clustering around Spain. The history of slavery offered by Western education is not the history offered here. One of the distinguishing features of the reworking of modernist poetics by these writers is that they have to both rewrite the history and the shared literary convention, and simultaneously allude to that rewriting as if it were traditionally received.
The sparse imagism of Brand's early poetics lacks such an allusive repository, although the writer is aware of precisely this problem. Her use of modernist dislocation moves with a trust that such activity will find another more appropriate history. In the attempts to redress the undercoding of the reader with respect to this history, the writing occasionally overcodes, labouring the detail into necessary overemphasis. But the series ‘Winter Epigrams’ (1985)19 and ‘Chronicles of the Hostile Sun’ (1984),20 on the Grenada invasion, both respond to the semiotic demands by opening up the poetry to conversational rhythm, dialect, and more personal accounts of everyday event. ‘Winter Epigrams’ is a long series that constructs its own narrative background as it proceeds. An early epigram reads simply ‘they think it's pretty, / this falling of leaves. / something is dying!’ The sequence of familiar urban experiences that follows allows the reader to contextualize ‘they’ as white (wintry) Toronto and to recognize the dry humour of the observation, while at the same time retain the initial, rather sinister, ambiguity of the isolated stanza.
Chronicles of the Hostile Sun goes much further. Separated into ‘Languages,’ ‘Sieges,’ and ‘Military Occupations,’ the sequence first establishes a narrative and realistic vocabulary, then explicitly problematizes the apparent directness of its description before it proceeds to recount the events of the invasion of Grenada. ‘Languages’ leaves the reader in no doubt about the skill with which this writer can employ the conventional literary devices; the voice is familiar with racist ideology, with the colloquial and the cocktail party, with song and with newspaper code. Yet, in ‘Sieges,’ under siege by this language as if it were a man demanding sex, the writer tries to negotiate a voice that is, if still bound up in convention, at least direct. In ‘Anti-poetry’ the speaker says that this poetry is for a ‘crowd’ and unlike other poets who ‘don't feel the crowd eating their faces / I have to hustle poems between the dancers and the drummers’ (30).
The first two sections, ‘Languages’ and ‘Sieges,’ attempt the double activity of establishing a ground for communication and a distrust of that ground, while not dislocating the voice into incomprehension. In other words they attempt to establish a voice that can be trusted to tell this newly gathered history, on a linguistic and literary ground that must be kept at arm's length. ‘Military Occupations’ can then offer a series of commentaries on the effects that the invasion has on the speaker and the local community that elide from the recounting of immediate events to the necessity for speaking of those events to the ‘waiting crowd.’ The fragmentation of convention increases as the writer moves away from recounting the events and toward recounting the recounting, for example in the section ‘four hours on a bus …’ which is a relentless unpunctuated prose monologue. But the voice never lets go of its commitment to telling this history in a manner that questions literary conventions while using them to reach as wide an audience as possible. The first stanza of the penultimate poem reads:
The varnished table beside it, the shortwave radio the foreign news ricochets off the white wall behind. Spotted at dead mosquito intervals I listen for what europe is doing. Voice of america is insipid The BBC tells me when they will attack disinformation about more killed / under the curfew. We know that they are coming.
There is a stasis achieved by the isolation of table, radio, and wall at the end of the first lines, by the odd qualifying phrase ‘Spotted …’ that precedes ‘I listen,’ by the grammatical precision of ‘The BBC …’ Yet within this stasis there is the loud ‘ricochet’ of news, the implicitly violent killing of mosquitoes, and a vocabulary of war: ‘attack,’ ‘disinformation,’ ‘killed,’ ‘curfew.’ All of this detail of impending destruction is set against the stasis of ‘We’: the ‘we’ ‘know that they are coming,’ the ‘we’ tensely waits. And the rest of the poem follows the sudden imbalance of action and counteraction that happens when the invasion brings the promised destruction and breaks the stasis.
The poetics of this stanza and those that follow inscribes the unusual detail remembered from moments of intense stress, through the immediacy of physical images and precisely controlled disruptions of grammar and syntax. At the same time, the memories are given an unmistakable broad referential backdrop of political and military event. The ambiguity of the final three lines of the opening stanza underlines the distrust we need to bring to language as it reconstructs history. Do they ‘know’ the Americans are coming as a fact separate from the radio report? Or do they know it because the BBC gives a time for attack? or is that time ‘disinformation’? or is it the recognition of something as ‘disinformation,’ for example false figures about those killed, that provides the knowledge that the Americans are coming? The multiple ambiguities from these three lines alone, as personal memory narrates chronological event, are there to warn any attentive reader about the inadequacy of representation. However, the fact that invasion happens, the fear of Europe, America, and the BBC as a ‘they’ ranged against an isolated ‘we,’ and the presence of the personal in all this are clear and immediate.
The collection of short stories San Souci, written between 1984 and 1988,21 pursues the narrative impulse to conventional communication, and the early poetics begin to breathe more freely as the writer relaxes, albeit slightly, into prose. The stories present a mixture of voices or histories of the experiences of Black women in the Caribbean, and of those who have chosen to leave and go to Canada. The histories examine why they leave, looking at the structures and pressures of both societies, and why sometimes (rarely) the women return. These fables also look closely at the inhuman expectations of the people who employ the Black women, at the families they leave behind, the other children they care for instead, the abuse they receive, the fear they feel, their pride and the necessity/obstinacy of that pride. The writer makes her salient commentary on the cultures by taking epigrammatic density and extending a descriptive ground for it to build upon. The narrative structures are simple but the prose allows for an expansion of and anchoring in context. For example, ‘Photograph’ is a narrative excursion occasioned by looking at a faded photograph of her grandmother, which tersely put is saying that her grandmother acted as her mother for many years while her mother was ‘away’ earning money, and that on her mother's return her grandmother soon died. Phrased epigrammatically it is a story about the complications of familial love and power. The epigrammatic here is extended by a sequence of recountings, remembered incidents that emerge through analogical links. These inner stories or memories are not cumulative in the narrative sense; they do not lead to a conclusion about guilt or blame. Rather their procession accretes a verbal and literary density, in the initial descriptions of the speaker's relationship with her grandmother, that is disturbed and contorted upon the return of the mother. The resulting responses of both speaker and reader are complicated, intentionally and purposively difficult to analyse.
Similar expansive remedies of epigrammatic density are made possible throughout Sans Souci. The story ‘I used to like the Dallas Cowboys’ has a terse structure that runs like this: The speaker as a young girl used to like the Dallas Cowboys American football team, partly because football was not the local sport of cricket and partly because her in-depth knowledge of football proved her worth in a man's world. But she is later in Grenada at the time of the invasion and she recognizes in the American war machine many of the elements of the American football team. The concentration, the end-game direction, the ruthless beauty of their occupation with the game, all are transferred onto the precision of the military operation. The story then becomes a study in sport and war; it foregrounds the brief epigrammatic structure and contextualizes it, thereby regrounding the potential for cliché in the contingencies of an immediate rereading. The reader is encouraged to invert the parallels back onto the questions raised by cricket, which is the slave-master's game, played always at the ready for a riot, as well as onto the young girl's attempts to compete within a man's world. What happens is that the image begins to carry the larger ideological allusions along with it and the reader learns the social references.
These stories are skilfully executed essays in history, written to present the problems of marginalization as social and political, and as something that one must act on from the ground up. Their activity is underwritten by Brand's experience of grassroots community work,22 her writing on racism,23 and her studies at OISE.24 Her work is firmly assertive with an anger that readers either immediately recognize or need to make a place for: the necessity of voicing the fears, reactions, rejections that are tied up in the Black experience of Canada's racism. Brand's militant assertiveness, if not her formality of style, is echoed in Marlene Philip's work on racism and access. But in apparent contrast to Brand, Philip is an institutional fighter recognizing that the social and political roots of marginalization are something that in Canada may also be changed within the institutions of power themselves: witness her recent fights about racism with PEN25 or with the Writer's Union, or with the ROM exhibition ‘Into the Heart of Africa’26—or indeed her apparent despair over the controversy at the Women's Press (Toronto) that split the Press collective.27 Philip says that she writes ‘To witness; to bear testimony and build a tradition: ‘So that you may dance (my sister) / I will build a floor for you.”’28
Philip's published literary writing begins not with the fragmentations of a rigorous modernist poetics but with the Canadian reworking of that poetic into romantic metaphor and with the resultant surrealist stress on the imagery of estranged dream. An early work such as ‘Salmon Courage’ depends thoroughly upon the full metaphor of the returning salmon: to leave and to return and to return only to die, but here somehow to be reborn. The image is not dislocated; the reading here needs to know and understand the reference to the salmon's life cycle. Yet the biological metaphor is both stretched against the tension of bureaucratic millstones that drag one to the ocean and the physical magnetism of the lodestar pulling one back to the river source, and is also extended within the strange terrain of the ‘huddled hunchbacked hills’ ‘humping the horizon.’ The image of the salmon becomes surreal as it is extended past conventional literary comprehension: the place to which one returns is never the same, it will always have moved on; and so the person that one returns to be is not/cannot be there. There can be no whole recuperation of the natural landscape; and yet a trust in it offers the place for salmon courage, which is to swim against the tide, to die to be born into a possibility of change. Increasingly since the mid-1980s Philip has combined this metaphorical stress with experimentation in syntax, phonetics, and sound, moving swiftly towards representations of dialect versions of Caribbean English, and with manipulation of generic conventions in both poetry and prose. Both developments, within language and literature, can be read as attempts to build bridges to new audiences.
In Harriet's Daughter (1988),29 Philip is brave enough to attempt to address the experience of that most difficult of audiences, the adolescent reader, within the context of the Black community in Toronto. The book was apparently rejected by Canadian publishers because it did not have enough interest for general readers, or as Philip herself states elsewhere, because it had ‘black children’ in it.30 Only published in Canada after Heinemann in Britain picked it up, it is an example of the ‘access’ bias besetting the Black writing community, about which Philip has written much.31 It is also an unconventional piece of writing. The narrating prose from the adolescent character Margaret/Harriet is curiously flat and holds no hostages to fortune, as if the writer is afraid to patronize or unconsciously reinforce through stereotypical representations the structures of power being criticized. In contrast, direct speech is rendered in a representation of dialects which is vibrant and active with conversational rhythm. The contrast has a profound effect on how the text is reconstructed in reading: the rather distanced, withholding position of the main narrative is interrupted by islands of stories, conversational duets, that place a firm emphasis on the primacy of spoken communication.
Within the observed adult community the experience of the adolescent girl is rendered as hesitant and externalized; yet the moment she speaks, or is involved into direct communication with her friends or other adults, the character flourishes as obstinate, clever, and thoughtful. The technique is strategically very sensible, but it does have disadvantages: the long sequence of description concerning the ‘underground railway’ game played by the children, which is presumably given so much narrative space partly in order to focus on the personal worlds necessary to young people particularly so they can build a personal history, is distanced with coolness; and accounts of other events also suffer. Yet the technique comes into its own when it gives a tense and half-understanding purchase to the problems of gender and family in the adult community that accumulate towards the end of the novel. The writing stalks a difficult line, always in danger of falling out of kilter with convention, and some of the questions raised by the book are very much to do with the need for genre experimentation and the danger of providing something too different that the audience rejects. However, the book is an attempt to build a bridge to a new audience in a manner quite different from modernist and postmodernist strategies. As Philip addresses a Black, female readership, specifically dealing with adolescence arguably to set a new lens on the adult community, she is also addressing the problems of another generation. While it is necessary to remember the history of Black slavery, of Black immigration from the United States, and of the civil rights movement, for the daughters of those events the questions are also those of race and culture, class and gender.
Philip's attempts at bridge-building are immensely generous. The sequence ‘… And over Every Land and Sea’32 proffers an arching image of a parent(mother)-child connection, how to find without binding, how to leave, how to cope with the adoption of other families and not lose one's own or oneself. More broadly the image narrates a story of displacement from one culture, here the Caribbean, to another: ‘Stateside, England, Canada’ (107); and the poems move from a dialect representation into modern standard English represented through a more Latinate, multisyllabic vocabulary as the displacement proceeds. The early sections of the sequence use dialect to play with cultural ambiguity, with the double meanings that words acquire in the mouths and hands of people from different societies. For example, the word ‘with’ is rendered as ‘wit,’ allowing for extensive interplay along syntactical and semantic lines: the conclusion to the first poem, ‘grief gone mad wit crazy,’ can be read at least as ‘grief / gone mad wit crazy,’ ‘grief gone / mad wit crazy,’ ‘grief gone mad / wit crazy,’ and ‘grief gone / mad wit / crazy.’ Much similar subtle doubling and folding of language occurs in these opening dialect sections.
The central metamorphosing poem is ‘Dream-skins,’ which the writer specifically subtitles ‘in two languages’ as she leads her reader from one culture to another. The poetry is opening a door onto White, Western language and tradition for culturally displaced readers, but at the same time it opens that door for White Western-educated readers as well. ‘Dream-skins’ alternates between dialect and oral Englishes, at first focusing the dialect stanzas on ‘she’ and standard stanzas on the connection between the speaker and ‘she,’ until the final duet within the poem of ‘Blood-cloth’ and ‘Blood-cloths’ which is the only dream for which the writer provides expression in both languages. The poem raises profound questions of the structuring and acquisition of cultural identity. At first ‘she’ rises from the sea with emerald skin, akin to the lime-green skin Philip gives her Black women elsewhere, yet simultaneously both ‘she’ and the speaker are ‘white’ and swollen with womanhood, ‘with child.’ After birth, after the recognition of both traditions, the speaker is locked into a struggle between the white breast and the black, but when a hybrid plant seems to sprout from her throat it is taken out by ‘she,’ released into ‘split of throat / silence.’
The speaker is left with, first, the dialect ‘Blood-cloth’ in which her woman's ‘blood-rush’ at least can be called upon; yet even here ‘wit some clean white rag / she band up mi mouth / nice nice’ (109). Then, ‘Blood-cloths’ in the different language sends the reader out into harshly distinct images of ‘sand / silence / desert / sun.’ Here the ‘blood of rush’ writes hieroglyphs, in allusive reference to the Egyptian sources for Judaeo-Christian culture and for written language and poetics as it has become in the Western world. Here the inscriptions again are bound up, this time as wounds, and carried by a ‘broad back / hers.’ This binding, like that of the dialect ‘blood-cloth,’ is not just to constrain and keep in but to provide some security: it is about baby binding, finding voice as the mother's voice teaches the child, but here there are two voices. The painful transition into White language is not, however, simply loss. Philip is trying to build bridges, trusting in an understanding of the ideologies. The speaker in the sequence goes on to attempt ‘sightings’ of other cultures, other mothers, with a feeling that there was once an image that gave ‘she’ a name, perhaps a smell. She is left at the end in ‘Adoption Bureau Revisited’ with the constant revisiting of the possibilities of birth, and of living.
The study of displaced culture and social construction which ‘… And over Every Land and Sea’ presents in terms of a search for the mother has a companion-piece in ‘Cyclamen Girl,’33 which foregrounds not language, which carries the doubled tradition, but ideology, which tries to shape and possess. ‘Cyclamen Girl’ presents a far more formal and traditionally accessible poetic about conversion, communion, and the onset of puberty: being reborn into the institution of the Christian church, at the same time as into a man's world, into a White world, and often also into womanhood. The poem offers a study of the way that womanhood can work against the institutions of a White world, how it can be both a preservation from and an opening up into differences from the White world. Here the bridge the writer builds for her sisters crosses all races.
Philip's emphasis on metaphor, her evident trust in the broad back of language, goes hand in hand with her generous invitation to a wide range of readers. For all the immense gifts in such writing, there is a potential drawback in the apparent wholeness it presents. This poetry trusts to broad cultural and social references of parenthood, authority, childhood, gender, and other metaphors, but in this openness the issue of race and Philip's Black heritage may be passed over. For all the abrupt elisions and under/over codings in Brand's poetry, through their embarrassment the reader is made aware of her own ignorance, of incomprehensible space. Philip's poems extend in significance even further when reread against the experience of reading the more socially and politically explicit groundings of metaphor and allusion, for example in that of split and displaced families, in work by other Black women writers such as Brand.
Philip's more recent work makes a significant shift in both poetics and narrative prose. It engages with quite different aspects of extending the bridge between languages and between language and the world. An extraordinary piece of prose, ‘Burn Sugar’ (1988),34 which extends her bridge even further, is concerned again with metamorphosis and transformation but is here explicitly located in particular experience. The voice of the narrator is an immensely sophisticated textual weave that interlaces present, past, historical present, dialect present, oral performance present, and narrative present. The movement of child to woman, woman to mother, mother to daughter, black to white to black, is set against the metaphor of following or reconstructing a recipe from memory. The woman speaker in Toronto, displaced from her Caribbean home, is trying to make a cake traditionally made each year by her mother and, since she emigrated, sent to her by post. The cake invariably arrives slightly mouldy, and this story is about her attempt to make it for herself. At the pragmatic level there is the range of transformation as sugar amalgamates with butter, eggs reluctantly mix in, sugar—that ambivalent commodity emerging from slave ownership—delicately and precisely burns from white to black to provide the essential bitterness of this cake. And all is beaten, beaten, laboriously, back-breakingly, into one.
In another mode, the narrative is about a central cultural experience: the transformation from oral culture to written through memory, in the focusing image of recipe recreation. Recipes are traditions, cultures, historically grounded in food pathways and economics. They are also often familial, handed-down patterns for performance that are never uniquely repeated but central to survival: as so often, the culinary is a discretely exact analogy for social and cultural construction. The child's voice moves from the ‘Mother’ of her memory to ‘Mammy’ as the mother we make for ourselves as we learn the necessities in our history as well as the changes, as we learn to live with and speak to a community. The process of recipe reconstruction provides a sense of how the child learns both language and survival from the mother: by example, by wanting to do so, by being included, by training, by being able to repeat, by being able to produce and construct for itself in another world, with different contingencies. Each of the transformations is unpredictable, each carries its own resistance and describes the difficulty of bringing different cultures, with different meanings, up against one another. One of the differences is that between the work of the Mother and the work of the speaker/daughter: the speaker's work is to render into language, even into written language, to find significance, not to avoid but to take risks with communication and culture. This particular work is necessary because, for the displaced, gaining access to the primary means of communication is one of the most important ways of making a community. Philip, from her years of hard-won access, here extends both the literary and linguistic features of traditional prose out into techniques, strategies, and genres drawn from the topic of a women's audience and community.
Even less trusting of ideologies and intimately part of Philip's approach is the poetry in She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks. Here the writer faces head on the problem of speaking/writing in a language ‘not only experientially foreign, but also etymologically hostile and expressive of the non-being of the African,’35 and the problem of making a language to express the personal memory and authentic experience that build history. In ‘Universal Grammar’ Philip takes on the entire linguistic debate about natural language and turns it into an anguish about speaking within pre-defined language. The operative irony here, as the writing presents dictionary definition setting itself against practical language eliding into poetry, is that the ‘natural’ ease of language arising from its potentially ‘innate’ quality is simultaneous with the ambiguous ‘incorrectness’ of the necessary transposition of these ‘innate’ grammars into another language. You can indeed transpose noun and verb, speak ‘incorrectly’; but you are still wrapped up in verbs and nouns. The writer transforms the acres of dry disputation surrounding this debate into the tensions of the body that initiates a series of tense repetitions that attempt to dismember language while ‘the smallest cell remembers’ (67). The sense of ‘always already’ being defined has led many into the sliding signifiers of postmodernism. Philip is led to ‘Mother's Recipes on How to Make a Language Yours or How Not to Get Raped’: that if the word ‘does not nourish,’ ‘Spit it out / Start again’ (67).
The way that words and topics accrete historical meaning through body memory is pursued in ‘The Question of Language is the Answer to Power’ as a direct proposal of a stance different from the modernist directive to ‘Make it New’ that is left ‘floundering in the old’ (71). In a rhetorical debate that verges on the epideictic, Philip fits the question around the history of Black slavery and how an understanding of that slavery can be remade as a history relevant to contemporary race relations. The underlying logic is that when the empire colonized it lost the language of the ‘other,’ and the ‘other’ were deprived of their language. This of course is the starting point of much postcolonial theory of discourse. But rather than become lost in multiplicitous images of self, Philip structures the next steps in terms of the physicality of language. Answers are not provided, but questions (helpful and not) and commentary are offered: ‘Facts’ may claim that ‘words collect emotional and physical responses’ (72), yet you may also ask ‘Do words collect historical responses’ (74) and ‘how.’ If ‘Anxiety to convey meaning often results in over emphasis and emphasis as a way of conveying meaning means that you are unconsciously holding on to meaning and limiting it’ (72) (sin for the postmodern), then ‘By holding on to the meaning of life, did the slaves unconsciously limit it—or merely the word?’ (74). These are tough and necessary social and political questions that do not often get asked in literary circles. They replicate in intellectual discourse the tensions of speaking to a crowd described by Brand: how to trust language while keeping it at arm's length.
The final, title poem, ‘She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks’ fuses questions of language, ideology, and history by taking up the comments Philip makes in her introductory essay, ‘The Absence of Writing or How I Almost Became a Spy,’ that ‘The only way the African artist could be in this world, that is the New World, was to give voice to this split i-image of voice silence. Ways to transcend that contradiction had to and still have to be developed, for that silence continues to shroud the experience, the image and so the word’ (16). The writer suggests that ‘each word creates a centre / circumscribed by memory … and history / waits at rest always / / still at the centre’ (96). Language and the body of each individual are the place where words and memory meet and can remember the verbal. ‘That body should speak / when silence is …’ (98) is of utmost importance to those people whose memory/history, whose control through language, has been effaced or obscured not only because of the resulting disempowerment within the dominant society but also because the ability to build an immediate community is taken away.
If there is an attempt to break the silence, to write another self, where is that self found? This is, of course, one of the central questions of recent discussions on race, literature, and language, not the least because self-definitions can so often hold the beginnings of further racism. Self can be the contradictory self-identifying modernist identity that ends in existential nothingness. It can be the continually compromised image that emerges from self as ‘difference’: difference from, difference within, difference deferred, difference as chaos. For the disempowered, the effaced/defaced, an important place to build self is in community and specific social movement. Sometimes the definitions can move out and act more broadly in social policy, begin to affect the larger social and political structures. At the moment, within the literature and language of English, one of the most effective strategies for this building of story and movement out into social recognition is conventional realism. However, just because of its social acceptability, realism easily becomes reductive; just so, social policy can swiftly become anachronistic and authentic voice quickly turn into stereotype. In order to understand and control these casual slippages, the detailed procedures of language need to be scrutinized and thrown forward to the reader. What each of these writers does is both locate and build a common ground on which to write and read, and simultaneously encourage the words and the reader to make commentaries on those grounds.
As Claire Harris states, ‘The problem is one of audience. We all know for whom we write; the ambivalence, and it is a dangerous one, lies in to whom we write.’36 Each of these writers is concerned with writing for a community that needs their words. Having access, their work can be seen as a series of attempts to locate and learn from that community, which in turn learns by responding and constructing itself as a community in that shared response. Perhaps that recognition will allow, or encourage, both the community and the society within which it operates to proceed with coping with the fact of racism.
Lorris Elliott, Literary Writing by Blacks in Canada, ed M. S. Bates (Multiculturalism/and Citizenship Canada 1988), 4. See also Elliott, ed Other Voices: Writings by Blacks in Canada (Toronto: Williams-Wallace 1985), which is a literary companion piece to the bio-bibliographic listing.
There is a considerable tradition of writing from the Afro-Canadian community; see for example ‘Voices Out of the Whirlwind: The Genesis of Afro-Nova Scotian Literature,’ by George Elliott Clarke, in The Atlantic Provinces Book Review (May 1990). The better-known post-war voices have included writers such as Austin Clarke and Lillian Allen.
See Silvera Makeda, ‘Immigrant Domestic Workers,’ Fireworks: The Best of Fireweed (Toronto: Women's Press 1986), 38.
Lynette Hunter, ‘Writing, Literature and Ideology: Institutions and the Making of a Canadian Canon,’ in Probing Canadian Culture, ed P. Easingwood, K. Gross, and W. Kloss (Augsburg: av-Verlag 1991), 52-64.
Marlene Philip is particularly eloquent on this issue. See the ‘Where they're At’ section of ‘Gut Issues in Babylon: Racism and Anti-Racism in the Arts,’ Fuse, 125 (April-May 1989).
Canadian Woman Studies: Women and Literacy 9:3-4 (Fall/Winter 1988).
Hunter, ‘Critical Embarrassment with the Bios of Writing,’ paper given at the conference on Autobiography, held at the University of York, January 1991 (forthcoming publication).
Elliott, Literary Writing, 5.
I am particularly grateful for the help I received from Marlene Nourbese Philip and the comments offered by Claire Harris on an earlier version of this essay; and I regret that there has been no discussion between myself and Dionne Brand. The need for friendship among commentators has been put eloquently in M. Lugones and E. Spelman, ‘Have We Got a Theory for You! Feminist Theory, Cultural Imperialism, and the Demand for “The Woman's Voice,”’ Women's Studies International 6:6 (1983), 573-81.
A Mazing Space: Writing Canadian Women Writing, ed S. Neuman and S. Kamboureli (Edmonton: Longspoon/Newest 1986).
Harris, ‘A Matter of Fact,’ Imagining Women (Toronto: Women's Press 1988); also published as part of Drawing Down a Daughter (Fredericton: Goose Lane 1992).
This understanding of ‘symbol’ is taken from George Whalley, Poetic Process (Greenwood 1952); Whalley taught at Queen's University in Kingston from the 1950s to the 1980s. His influence on generations of Canadian writers is testified to by the very large number of poems and prose pieces written about and for him.
Harris, Fables From the Women's Quarters (Toronto: Williams-Wallace 1984).
Harris, Translating into Fiction (Fredericton: Fiddlehead and Goose Lane 1986), and Travelling to Find a Remedy (Fredericton: Fiddlehead and Goose Lane 1986).
Harris, The Conception of Winter (Stratford: Williams-Wallace 1988).
Harris, ‘Against the Poetry of Revenge,’ Firewood 23 (Summer 1986), 16.
Brand, Primitive Offensive (Toronto: Williams-Wallace 1982).
Early poetry also includes 'Fore Day Morning (1976) and a book of children's poetry, Earth Magic (1980).
Brand, Winter Epigrams and Epigrams to Ernesto Cardenal in Defence of Claudia (Toronto: Williams-Wallace 1983).
Brand, Chronicles of the Hostile Sun (Toronto: Williams-Wallace 1984).
Brand, Sans Souci (Stratford: Williams-Wallace 1988).
As described in ‘Organising exclusion,’ Fireworks, 184.
Brand and Krisantha Sri Bhaggiyadatta, Rivers Have Sources Trees Have Roots—Speaking of Racism (Toronto: Cross Cultural Communications Centre 1986).
Brand has been carrying out a doctoral thesis on Women's History.
See the Globe and Mail, 26 September 1989, A19, or P.E.N. Canada Locks Out Writers of Colour,’ Vision 21—Canadian Culture in the 21st Century, Multicultural Women Writers of Canada.
Philip, ‘The White Soul of Canada,’ Spectacular Failures (Spring 1991), 63-77.
See Philip, ‘Gut Issues.’
In Fireweed 23 (Summer 1986), 105.
Philip, Harriet's Daughter (London: Heinemann 1988).
See Philip, ‘Gut Issues,’ 13.
See Philip, ‘Gut Issues,’ and ‘The Disappearing Debate,’ This Magazine 23:2 (July-August 1989).
In Fireweed 23 (Summer 1986), 106-11, and She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks (Charlottetown: Ragweed Press 1989).
In Fireweed 23 (Summer 1986), 112-13.
Philip, ‘Burn Sugar,’ Imagining Women.
Philip, She Tries Her Tongue, 15.
Harris, ‘Poets in Limbo,’ 121.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 719
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 poetry, these 13 essays, whether dealing with travel, literature, or an early attempt at finding employment, inevitably touch upon matters of politics.
These are personal essays in the strictest sense, often reading like entries in a journal or diary. a current of immediacy runs throughout this book, as does an openness as refreshing as it is shocking; Brand writes as a Black lesbian who sees “every public or private gathering with white people [as] as a war zone … every public or private gathering with men [as] a war zone … every public and private gathering with straights [as] a war zone” (p. 125). She is a believer in “an international racist conspiracy against people of colour” (p. 125). Thus, though a Communist, Brand sees new technologies and free-trade agreements as assaults not on the Canadian and American working classes but on Blacks.
Unfortunately, like journal entries, the essays reveal the author's feelings but not always the reasons behind them. Thus, Brand paints “Into the Hearth of Africa,” the Royal Ontario Museum's 1990 exhibit, as racist but neglects to present the grounds for her stance. While one might share Brand's opinion that the film Mississippi Burning is an example of revisionist history, one might be curious what her reasons are for believing so.
Throughout the collection there exists the assumption that the reader is familiar with the chosen subjects. “Brownman, Tiger …” provides a good example of this flaw. Inspired by the murder of a young white woman by a group of young black men, the piece is lacking even the most rudimentary of information. The author provides neither the victim's name nor the names of those accused of the killing. It is left to the reader to determine that Brand is referring to the 1994 slaying of Georgina Leimons in a Toronto café, an event that received little media coverage outside the city. The author is just as neglectful when crediting sources. If “[a] newspaper said you had to be white to be Canadian,” (p. 103) the reader may wish to know which one.
To be fair, Bread Out of Stone is not meant to be an academic book, nor is it marketed as such. However, one often wonders whether the author's claims are accurate or simply rhetoric. If at times the author's rhetoric only serves to diminish the force of her arguments, at others it verges on the slanderous. In writing about Toronto's attitudes towards its Black youth, Brand writes: “Can any white person imagine their whole teen-age population being told that they're no good? Can they imagine the devastation of that statement coming from the mayor of the good city, the police chief of the good city and everyone with a gun in the good, good city?” (p. 104).
Statements like these will no doubt lead some readers to dismiss this collection. This is unfortunate because Bread Out of Stone contains some important essays. “Notes on Writing thru Race,” a speech delivered at the controversial Writers' Union of Canada conference last year, presents the side of the argument all too silent in the mainstream press. “Whose Gaze, and Who Speaks for Whom?” provides a clear and focused attack on “cultural appropriation,” targeting Neil Bissoondath, among others.
It is perhaps not surprising that some of Brand's strongest writing concerns literature. Nor is it surprising that it is her command of literary technique that accounts for the success of her strongest essay, “Bathurst,” recreating the charged atmosphere of Toronto's Black community in the 1970s. Although the publisher has affixed the “Culture/Politics” label to Bread Out of Stone, the author provides disappointingly little insight in either area. Ultimately, it is as work written by one of this country's foremost literary figures that the collection will be studied and remembered.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 542
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 cultural appropriation as a critical category are only a few of the concerns Brand effortlessly interweaves with her personal narratives.
Occasionally Brand misfires. In “This Body for Itself,” she condescends to explicate the relationship between “poetry” and “politics”: “I've become so used to explaining and explaining their dependency on each other to Canadian reviewers and audiences that I've forgotten that it is unnecessary here. One thing you do not have to do at a Caribbean writers' conference or perhaps any writers' conference outside Canada is explain that writers mean to change the world.” This passage characterizes “Canadian” audiences as uniformly naive. Brand's appeal to a homogenous national group, however strategic, fails to address the heterogeneity of “Canada” and, as the recent work of Homi Bhabha has shown, the way “nation” as an analytic category is being transformed by post-colonial migrants. Moreover, the passage I have quoted settles for an easy target (those who falsely depoliticize poetry) without addressing the more difficult task of denaturalizing “politics,” a term which has become, according to Diana Fuss, “the self-evident category in feminist discourse.” At least in my small academic corner of Canada, the term “politics” is used frequently and casually as an assumed part of literary studies; Brand's frustration does not help to challenge the limits of an assumed conflation (and possible normalization) of “poetry” and “politics.”
Brand is, of course, profoundly concerned with the heterogeneity of communities in Canada, and elsewhere she theorizes “politics” with an admirable combination of subtlety and directness. What could be more powerful than the enormous wallop of “Job,” in which Brand narrates how, at the age of eighteen, she “dressed up in [her] best suit outfit with high heels and lipstick and ninety-seven pounds of trying hard desperate feminine sexuality” only to find the advertised job evaporate when the prospective white male employer saw her black skin?
Perhaps the finest “passage” in Brand's collection focuses on the specific urban site of Toronto's Bathurst Subway, “the passageway, the nexus from which we all radiated, the portals through which we all passed, passing from Negroes into Blacks, from passive into revolutionary.”
And it is in Bathurst and the increasing heterogeneity of Toronto that Brand finds hope, despite police shootings and strip-searches, despite harassment by immigration officials and the normalizing effects of multicultural bureaucracy: hope in a city that is “colourising beautifully” with “all the different people living in it—the Chinese, the Italian, the Portuguese, the South Asians, the East Asians and us.” Bread out of Stone is a hopeful and beautiful book whose writing consistently aspires to be “significant, honest, necessary—making bread out of stone—so that stone becomes pliant under the hands.”
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5342
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 single process. Not two processes posed in opposition or in conflict.
Trinh T. Minh-ha, Woman, Native, Other
Anglophone Caribbean women's writing crackles with images of flames and conflagration, of dreams of fire, of women whose names are “written in fire,” of torching of homes and great houses.1 All express rage at the condition of the so-called post-colonial world and a burning desire to transform it.2 All variously speak in fiery tongues about continued oppression, colourism, sexism, classism, economic servitude, squalor, and the realization of colonial desires through neocolonial enterprises. All burn with the knowledge that indigenous worlds and traditional ways of knowing, like storytelling and visionary experience, were and are eclipsed by dominant cultures.
The fiction of Trinidadian writer Dionne Brand underscores this rage and the desire to transfigure postcolonial worlds. Several of Brand's most powerful images [in Sans Souci and Other Stories.] focus on the ability of the mind to delve into memory and invoke images that destroy and illumine. In “At the Lisbon Plate,” the narrator's dreams contain fires that unleash global political revolutions and in “St. Mary's Estate” the narrator, in visiting the estate where her family worked as labourers, conjures an image of the still extant Great House and ignites it. These two brief examples highlight Brand's style that draws heavily on a woman's storytelling tradition to begin to refashion worlds disfigured by colonialism and neocolonialism. Brand combines her rage with the lexicon of the storyteller, the words “like fire … that burn and destroy … that destroy and lighten” (Trinh 132).
Different from nationalist fiction modelled after realism, which merely protests and continues to “consolidate” characters and the neglected past (Sharrad 96), Brand's narratives are more like the work of Guyanese writer Wilson Harris, who, Paul Sharrad claims, acts as a “visionary witness” filling “the void [of the neglected past] with a fiction of the imagination that will repopulate history with invisible presences never completely destroyed” (97). According to Sharrad, Harris “[creates] a fictional memory of suppressed legend, silent folklore, forgotten images” (97). Brand, too, recreates the past by digging into a collective memory that Harris contends is available to the artist, a memory that sees ancestral presences never fully eclipsed by dominant cultures. While Brand is also a “visionary witness” like Harris, her work relies less on the “subjective” imagination and more on a woman's storytelling tradition, a communal, not individual approach to memory.3 This approach informs her iconoclastic style and it underscores the ability of story/legend/vision to transform the listener. Brand's explosive fictional narratives, in particular “At the Lisbon Plate,” “Blossom: Priestess of Oya, Goddess of Winds, Storms, and Waterfall,” and “Photograph,” offer healing and redemptive visions which supersede subaltern approaches that either oppose “colonialist-nationalist” history making or use a “strong countermemory” to forget or override these histories (Radhakrishnan 759). This narrative approach relies on a storytelling practice that foregrounds a dissolution of boundaries between storyteller/listener and the past and present.4
Trinh Minh-ha suggests that women's storytelling revolves around women's work and the establishment and continuation of local history. Women's storytelling, the “oldest form of building historical consciousness” (148), is directly related to the work of women's hands. The story is told by women to other women and girls as they work. Much like the weaving, baking, and farming that are the daily concerns of many women in postcolonial societies, the story comes out of the work of women's hands. The story is told and retold in conjunction with life experience and hence becomes a “living thing.”
An entire body of knowledge of history, customs, and lineage, the story also becomes palpable, something “sucked at the mother's breast”:
Patiently transmitted from mouth to ear, body to body, hand to hand. In the process of storytelling, speaking and listening refer to realities that do not just involve the imagination. The speech is seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched. It destroys, brings into life, nurtures.
The suckled story, which comes from the “belly of occult power” (136), is “magically revealed” rather than factually told (121), and it also often has a startling, unsettling impact. Similar to the yin-yang unity of the Tao and perhaps drawing on indigenous storytelling practices, like those of the Igbo that emphasize the juxtaposition of all things, the “words that burn” are also a “protection and a cure” (135).5
While the story is interwoven with the material and familial conditions of women's lives, Trinh also stresses, like Jamaican-born writer Michelle Cliff, that the story involves both the discovery of the hidden past and the repetition of what is uncovered. The story of the common people “needs our remembering and understanding for it to keep coming into being” (119). According to Cliff, this unearthing of the past involves an unlearning of dominant discourse, a forgetting of Lethean education, and a discovery of what was “lost from the darker side, and what may be hidden, to be dredged from memory and dream” (“A Journey Into Speech” 13).
Trinh suggests that this remembering of what was lost occurs communally as women tell and retell the stories of the family and the group. Further, she indicates that the story is greater than the tellers, larger than their own memories:
My story, no doubt is me, but it is also, no doubt, older than me … Unmeasurable, uncontainable, so immense that it exceeds all attempts at humanizing. … [F]or the vision of a story … has no end—no end, no middle, no beginning; no start, no stop, no progression; neither backward nor forward, only a stream that flows into another stream, an open sea. …
Each storyteller, then, dips into the story that flows like a stream, with no beginning and no end. The storyteller makes the past and present contiguous. Likewise, Brand, a contemporary postcolonial storyteller, makes the past and present touch as she conjures up stories that destroy and illumine colonial discourses, while rebuilding a vision of the postcolonial world.
In “Make It Your Own,” Michelle Cliff writes:
I wish sometimes we had it in our power to terrify you. And that your terror would come from a righteous place, and not the usual source of your fear—whatever image you have projected onto us. I wish you were sweating about our power. I wish your heart would burst from your chest and your aorta flood your extremities with blood. And that this blood seeped from your pores and blinded you. I wish we could destroy you without harming ourselves.
While this narrator's fury is directed at tourists who seem to claim the islands as their own, the vengeful anger represented in this essay is much like the anger enunciated in Brand's “At the Lisbon Plate.” This story explodes with postcolonial rage as Brand creates an iconoclastic revenge-seeking storyteller magician, a witch-figure who tells the collective story of the lost female and slave past while she comments upon contemporary social conditions that continue past oppression.
Similar to Jean Rhys's heroines, who often find solace in bars where they are anonymous and exiled, the narrator finds that the Lisbon Plate, a Portuguese bar located in the Kensington district of Toronto, is the perfect location for colonial exile. Here she can find “refuge.” This is where she “can be invisible or, if not invisible, at least drunk” (96). In this setting, Brand brings the colonized, exiled woman in contact with the colonial forces that transfigured Trinidad and Tobago. In various ways, the setting is the meeting place for the Spaniards, French, and English, the forces that interchangeably conquered and ruled Trinidad and Tobago. It is also the nexus where the colonized woman discursively destroys and transforms the colonial past and acknowledges continuing oppression.
Even though the narrator feels “invisible,” she cannot escape her colonial past and the past of her ancestors. The bar is owned by Rosa who had lived in “Angola and Mozambique.” Rosa appears “accustomed to Black women” and she looks on the narrator “colonially” (95). Patrons of the bar are men who are emblematic remnants of the colonial past: “Whip-handlers, skin-dealers,” and a professor whose ethno-gaze classifies and appropriates native art. He also thinks that Camus's Outsider “can be interpreted as the ultimate alienation” (111). The narrator is appalled to hear the men speak of “old times”:
The old-timers boasted about how many peizas de indias they could pack into a ship. The young soldiers talked about the joys of filling a Black with bullets or stuffing a Black cunt with dynamite. Then they gathered around Columbus, the whoremaster, and sang a few old songs.
In addition to hearing stories of past colonial atrocities, the narrator hears contemporary stories of oppression that she feels Maria de Consecao, another bar patron, wanted to “get rid of.” One story that Maria tells is the story of Rosa's brother, the priest who “gunned down” women and children in Angola (97). The narrator is also bitter when she sees in the newspaper that the press has “gone wild” about the murder of one Polish priest when, simultaneously, countless, but uncounted, “African laborers got killed and, besides that, fell to their deaths from third-floor police detention rooms in Johannesburg” (106).
As the narrator is bombarded with stories of oppression, she becomes introspective and sees herself from the “third-floor window of the furniture store across from the bar”:
Rheumy-eyed, I have seen a woman sitting there, whom I recognize as myself. A Black woman, legs apart, chin resting in the palm of her hand, amusement and revulsion travelling across her face in uneasy companionship. The years have taken a bit of the tightness out of my skin but the expression has not changed, searching and uneasy, haunted like a plantation house. Surrounded by the likes of Rosa and her compadres. A woman in enemy territory.
As the narrator sits in drunken introspection, looking at her face inscribed with the painful past, the fantastic further enters the story and the “ordinary” disappears. As she imagines looking at herself from the third-floor window, she notes that she (the narrator) looks
like a woman I met many years ago. As old as the dirt, she sat at the roadside waiting her time, an ivory pipe stuck in her withered lips and naked as she was born. That woman had stories, more lucid than mine and more frightening for that.
Indicating that this old woman unearths the buried past and “explodes” colonialism, the narrator describes her as the “old gravedigger”—whose “bones were black powder” (98). This gravedigger returns to the Sargasso Sea every winter to “mine bones and suicides” (102), seemingly to “resurrect” the lives of the “living dead” buried in the landscape and the sea, those who have died but who cannot be obliterated from the land. This storytelling obeah woman, who has a “burning hand” (108), promises the narrator her “memories and maps” and gives her a “juju belt full of perfidious mixtures, insolent smells and her secrets” (102), gifts that will provide the narrator with a way to subvert the Columbian era and to reach back to the Pre-Columbian past.
Although after the narrator meets and joins with the old “harridan,” she warns the reader not to expect her storytelling to change, not to expect any old woman's tale (101), any “lies or fiction” (101), the narrator's story becomes more magically fantastic after her encounter with the old woman. The narrator reveals the buried past and the conflict-fraught present as she tells the stories of various women in different eras: the story from the immediate past of her aunt who went mad from trying to pass by whitening her skin and masquerading as a Spanish woman, and the current story of her friend Elaine who thinks the “motherland is Africa” and who wants to be a “queen in ancient Mali” (99). Each of these stories reveals a Caribbean search for identity, or what Kenneth Ramchand calls the story of “alienation within alienation” (de Abruna 85), a story of fragmented identity within a fragmented, colonial culture.
The old woman's story that reveals the buried past and conflict-ridden present also transforms this fragmentation as it reveals it. The boundaries between the narrator and protagonist begin to dissolve as the narrator starts to resemble the old “bag of dust.” When a “big white boy” enters the Lisbon Plate, she sees his eyes through the eyes of a slave woman experiencing the middle passage:
I would know those eyes anywhere. The last time I saw them, I was lying in the hold of a great ship leaving Conakry for the new world. … That hell-hole stank of my own flesh before I left it. … For days I lived with my body rotting and the glare of those eyes keeping me alive, as I begged to die and follow my carcass.
This transformation indicates that the narrator, the captive slave woman, and the old woman are connected by a matrilineal story and a collective memory. The story makes the past and present contiguous and allows women to participate in both the pain and strength of the past. The old woman, then, becomes an emblem for the unrecorded and painful past, and just as she is present in the narrator, she and her story are buried within the lives of each Caribbean woman past and present.
Acting like a revenge-seeking riverain goddess, an ancient goddess of Africa, the old woman plans a course of retribution for colonial sins that first involves storytelling. Before participating in the old hag's plan, the narrator retells the narrative of the Outsider, from the Arab's point of view, an action that, like the stories of the insignificant women, reveals the perspective of the conquered. Her retelling of the story of the nameless Arab, now called Ahmed, shot by the European, first shows that “killing an Arab, pumping successive bullets into an Arab, is not and never has been an alienating experience for a European” (111). It also demonstrates that the ultimate means of alienation is the murder of an individual of the “other” race and not the existential suffering of the white male.
After this retelling of the colonizer's discourse, the old hag gives the “go ahead” for her plan which represents a ritual retribution for colonial sins. The narrator and the old woman gather together all the oppressive colonial forces: the big white boy, the professor, the whiphandlers, the skindealers, and the moneychangers who frequent the Lisbon Plate. After defacing and “chewing” on the statue of Cristobal Colon that has been worshipped by the colonizers, the narrator/old woman chains her captives to the statue and sprays them with “oceans of blood” (114), the blood of generations of tortured colonized. The narrator recognizes the sins of Columbus, which Eric Williams reports included the maiming and murder of Amerindians (34). After the colonizing forces “choke” on the blood, the old woman and her companion, the narrator, “marinate” them in hot peppers, ironically acting like the cannibals the Europeans claimed the Caribs to be, and the old woman “laughs until her belly burst” (114). This fantastical retribution, a story that comes from the “belly of occult power” (Trinh 136), represents both a violent overturning of the colonizer's institutions and a visionary violence that unleashes the anger and pain that postcolonial societies still experience. Through drawing on a dissolution of boundaries inherent in the storytelling process, this narrative transforms the individual listener into a participant in the storytelling process.
In “Blossom: Priestess of Oya, Goddess of Winds, Storms, and Waterfall,” Brand continues to express the rage of a woman oppressed by sexism and colourism, but in this magical story, she begins the process of creating, out of the ashes of this raging fire, a new narrative for postcolonial peoples. While not specifically about the storytelling process, “Blossom” [“Blossom: Priestess of Oya, Goddess of Winds, Storms, and Waterfall”] is concerned with the way rage leads to a union with a transformative deity that results in a revised vision of the world. Working like the storyteller, who Trinh claims “delights” in relating an “entire vision of the world” (121), Brand begins to refashion the way the postcolonial subject conceives the world.
Blossom, a native of Trinidad and emigrant to Toronto, is sexually exploited by both white and black males. Her unfaithful husband Victor expects her to be dutiful whenever he decides to return to her. When the white doctor for whom she is a housekeeper grabs her, she explodes with rage:
Blossom sheself start to scream like all hell. … A craziness fly up in Blossom head and she start to go mad on them in the house. She flinging things left right and centre, and cussing big word. … The doctor keep saying to the police, “Oh, this is so embarrassing. She's crazy, she's crazy.” And Blossom tell him, “You ain't see crazy yet.”
Blossom starts to throw all the clothes in the swimming pool as she shouts, “Make me a weapon in thine hand, Oh Lord!” But the prayer reaches beyond the Christian god into the distant past, to the goddess of storms, wind, and waterfalls, the “goddess of edges, of the dynamic interplay between surfaces, of transformation from one state to another” (Gleason 1).6
Blossom also loses control when Victor returns after a long absence. Until this point she has suffered silently, willing to accept, as a good Christian lady, Victor's neglect and infidelity. This unfaithfulness, combined with Blossom's realization that she is becoming an old woman working for white people as she “watches white people live,” instigates the moment of rage: “[s]omething just fly up in Blossom head and she reach for the bread knife … ‘Victor, just go and don't come back, you hear me?’” (37). Blossom chases Victor down the street brandishing the knife and it is at this point that she loses her boundaries. She hears someone scream and at first she does not know who it is. Then she “realize that the scream was coming from she and she couldn't stop it” (38).
Blossom enters a Pentecostal church, “feeling that she was holding she body around she heart, holding sheself together, tight, tight” (38). In this church she feels as if she is drowning and “gasping for air,” she begins “speaking in tongues” and she understands the messages. In a sense, she experiences the “descent of the Holy Spirit,” yet the Holy Spirit is not the Christian spirit, but rather the Spirit of Oya. The boundary between Oya and Blossom dissolves, and Blossom attains a visionary state where the imposed boundaries between species, time, and dualities dissolve. She begins to see juxtapositions and attains the vision of the storyteller who sees no beginning, no middle, no end, only an endless stream of story. Oya enters her and leads her into a state where she attains a broad, enlightened vision of the world.
In an experience similar to Eve's dream in Paradise Lost, Blossom flies around the world. But she surpasses Eve's experience in that she enters the “deep blackness beyond the sky.” In this waking dream, Blossom sees a “volcano erupt and a mountain fall down” and she comes
to the place where legahoo and lajabless is not even dog and where soucouyant the fireball burn up in the bigger fire of an infinite sun. … The place bright one minute and dark the next. … The place big one minute, so big Blossom standing in a hole and the blackness rising up like long shafts above she and widening out into a yellow and red desert … the place small, next minute, as a pin head.
In this place big and small, dark and light meld and transform into one another. Here, as in Taoist and Igbo worldviews, dualisms are complements, not opposites, and are part of a larger whole.
Blossom also experiences a moment when her body is transformed into other forms of being:
Then she feel as if she don't have no hand, no foot, and she don't need them. Sometimes she crawling like a mapeeppe snake; sometimes she walking tall, tall, like a moco jumbie through desert … upside down and sideways.
After this experience, Blossom feels as if “somebody is borning,” and she begins speaking in tongues the name Oya.
A significant aspect of Blossom's transformation and union with the goddess Oya is its material dimension. Blossom is forced to confront the suffering of Black humanity; she cannot look away. This leads to Blossom's understanding of a new narrative for postcolonial peoples.
In “If I Could Write This In Fire, I Would Write This In Fire,” Cliff states that one of the tests of the colonized person is the ability to walk through the Dungle of Kingston without batting an eye, the ability to accept the suffering and material conditions of the oppressed masses (71). In facing off with Suffering, Blossom sees the “old, hoary face” of Black people suffering and the sight sickens her (39). In battling with Suffering, Blossom takes on the attributes of Oya with the “warrior knife,” and vanquishes Suffering, who retreats. Suffering has not been annihilated, but Blossom realizes that suffering should not be a natural assumption of life. From this point on, Blossom writes her own narrative, one that refuses to accept racism, colourism, sexism, or axiomatic suffering. She transforms and protects herself by wearing the colors of Oya: yellow the color of joy, and red, the color of war with suffering (41).
While “Blossom” and “At the Lisbon Plate” draw heavily on the destructive/enlightening aspects of the storytelling tradition, “Photograph” emphasizes the nurturing/protective aspects—the “protection and the cure” that forges a women's storytelling community.
In “Photograph,” the grandmother, a figure of “ancestral story magic,” is a storyteller who teaches her granddaughters how to cope with both tangible and intangible worlds, the intangible spirit world that Jamaica Kincaid notes was a reality in Caribbean life. Kincaid asserts that in the Caribbean “reality is not to be trusted” (Cudjoe 230). People thought to be alive might, in fact, be dead.7
The narrator of “Photograph” describes the storytelling atmosphere in which the granddaughters receive vital information about dealing with this world:
It was in the darkness on the veranda, in the honey chuckle back of my grandmother's throat, that we learned how to catch a soucouyant and a lajabless and not to answer to the “hoop! hoop!” of duennes, the souls of dead children who were not baptized, come to call living children to play with them. To catch a soucouyant, you had to either find the barrel of rain water where she had left her skin and throw pepper in it, or sprinkle salt or rice on your doorstep so that when she tried to enter the house to take your blood, she would have to count every grain of salt. …
The complex ritual is related in a way that combines practicality with immediate oral performance and sensual pleasure. The narrator also relates that the grandmother sat in her rocking chair, “the seat bursting from the weight of her hips,” and spun stories that “languished over the darkness whose thickness we felt. … Some nights the darkness … would be suffused by the perfume of lady-of-the-night” (72). The grandmother's stories, then, are associated with the fullness of the grandmother's body, and are transformed into material objects that float in the air around the children and create a way to control and manipulate the world. “Sucked at the [grand]mother's breast,” this material story also serves as a buffer, a protection from evil forces. “Suffused” with the perfume of the night, the story becomes a sensual pleasure that draws the initiate into the world of story magic.
The magic of the grandmother's story transforms the girls' world. Story itself makes the granddaughters merge with the grandmother in a way that goes beyond the notions of a semiotic, pre-oedipal bond associated with pre-language and the rhythms of the mother; the granddaughters “become full of the grandmother.” Indicating that the language of story and the Creole language become the bases for life and communication, the narrator states, “[a]ll the words which we knew belonged to my grandmother” (74). The language of story conveys both story and history in a way perceived by the granddaughters as an immediate event.
Mildred A. Hill-Lubin notes that in the “Motherland [Africa], the grandparents were honored because it was believed they were closer to the ancestors” (259). If we consider John Mbiti's analysis of “African” concepts of time8 and the importance of the past, the idea of the grandmother being closer to the ancestors becomes a crucial aspect of “Photograph.” Mbiti asserts that the far past, the immediate past, and the present are the only parameters of time that exist in the pre-colonial African world view. The future (beyond two years) does not exist. All that is important is the “lived event” found in the present and the immediate present, and the person “experiences life partly through individual life, communal life, and through generations” (17). The older relative knows the names of the ancestors, and may have actually known the immediate ancestors who recently died; Mbiti calls these dead the “living dead.” The grandmother in Brand's narrative knows the living dead; she conveys information about the grandfather who escapes the “legahoo” who would take his soul (72). The act of storytelling keeps the dead alive, transporting the past into the present.
The grandmother and her story become the world in which the children live. The narrator notes: “We dreamed in my grandmother and we woke up in her, bleary-eyed and gesturing for her arm, her elbows, her smell” (75). Boundaries of “western” reality do not exist in this world, where the living and dead, the conscious and unconscious meet, and where waking and dreaming worlds intermingle. The story sucked at the grandmother's breast, the story which “suffused the night” and hung in the air like a sensual blanket, acts as both a protection and a cure. In passing it on to her granddaughters, the grandmother ensures the perpetuation and remembrance of the story of the people.
Brand's “words that burn,” that “destroy and lighten,” also “protect and cure.” These narratives “destroy” and illumine colonial discourses that fuel the continuation of colonialism and neocolonial enterprises. In creating fictions that draw on the storytelling tradition, Brand discursively connects, across the imposed boundaries of time and geography, women and all postcolonial peoples; she also joins other writers in transforming the vision of the postcolonial subject. In hearing tales that are a “protection and a cure,” the postcolonial subject begins to move closer to an era of true decolonization in which racism, colourism, sexism, and suffering are not accepted norms. In lighting “dreams that contain fires,” Brand works discursive magic and offers hope to postcolonial worlds still burning in an inferno of oppression.
See Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, Brand's “At the Lisbon Plate” and “St. Mary's Estate,” and Michelle Cliff's “If I Could Write This In Fire, I Would Write This In Fire” for various fire images and allusions.
I am using the term postcolonial as a term of convenience to refer to formerly colonized nations, now politically independent from their “mother” countries. However, many critics and writers feel that there is “no post in postcolonial” because the material and social conditions of colonization are still extant in postcolonial worlds.
“Subjective imagination” is a term coined by Harris to represent the vehicle the individual fiction writer uses to delve into the collective memory (“A Talk on the Subjective Imagination”).
Both Harris and Trinh believe in a collective memory into which the artist may tap. Harris prefers the term “universal unconscious” to Jung's “collective unconscious” and he differentiates his term by asserting that all things, including natural phenomena, are part of this “universal unconscious”; this larger psychic reservoir does not just preserve the “human psyche” (Interview 193). While Harris claims that the artist may enter the fossil spaces of time, “architectonic time” (“A Talk on the Subjective Imagination” and “Fossil and Psyche”), to make connections to eclipsed or exterminated peoples who cannot be erased from the landscape, he suggests that this is an individual endeavour that has little to do with the telling and retelling of the memory of the people.
Although I focus on Brand's fictional narratives, it is important to note that her narrative poetry also draws on a women's storytelling tradition. For example, the persona in “Old II” speaks of becoming an old woman storyteller:
… I've got some shabby secrets like who I saw with his hand in my blood. They better leave me alone then, pretend I'm mad 'cause I've got some rattling stories.
“Ars Poetica” refers to the griot tradition and the telling and retelling of the communal story:
… griots take one hundred years to know what they say four hundred years to tell it.
According to Wilentz, Chinua Achebe sees in the Igbo cosmology a sense of juxtaposition rather than opposition, citing as proof the Igbo proverb: “Wherever something stands, something else will stand beside it” (xxiii).
Oya, of West African origin, is a goddess who “manifests herself in various natural forms: the river Niger, tornadoes, strong winds, fire, and lightning” (Gleason 1). Gleason notes that Oya is one goddess who survived the middle passage; she has a large following among women of the African diaspora.
Kincaid is referring to the “living dead,” those met in “Figures in the Distance” in Annie John, who appear to be alive but are not.
The concept of African culture may be problematic because Africa is culturally diverse. However, Mbiti notes that it is possible to find similarities in concepts found in many of the peoples of Africa. This unified view does not negate the multiculturalism of Africa.
Brand, Dionne. “At the Lisbon Plate.” Sans Souci and Other Stories. Ithaca: Firebrand Books, 1989. 95-114.
———. “Blossom: Priestess of Oya, Goddess of Winds, Storms, and Waterfalls.” Sans Souci and Other Stories. 31-42.
———. “Photograph.” Sans Souci and Other Stories. 53-78.
———. “St. Mary's Estate.” Sans Souci and Other Stories. 43-51.
Cliff, Michelle. “If I could Write This In Fire, I Would Write This In Fire.” The Land of Look Behind. Ithaca: Firebrand Books, 1985. 57-76.
———. “A Journey Into Speech.” The Land of Look Behind. 11-17.
———. “Make It Your Own.” The Land of Look Behind. 80-84.
Cudjoe, Selwyn. “Jamaica Kincaid and the Modernist Project.” Caribbean Women Writers. Ed. Selwyn Cudjoe. Wellesley, MA: Calaloux Publications, 1990. 215-32.
de Abruna, Laura Niesen. “Twentieth-Century Women Writers from the English-speaking Caribbean.” Modern Fiction Studies 34 (1988): 85-96.
Gleason, Judith. Oya: In Praise of the Goddess. Boston: Shambhala, 1987.
Harris, Wilson. “Fossil and Psyche.” Explorations. Aarhus: Dangaroo Press, 1981. 68-82.
———. “A Talk On the Subjective Imagination.” Explorations. 57-66.
———. Interview. With Charles Rowell. Callaloo 18.1 (1995): 192-200.
Hill-Lubin, Mildred. “The Grandmother in African and African-American Literature.” Ngambika: Studies of Women in African Literature. Ed. Carole Boyce Davies. Trenton, NJ: African World Press, 1986. 257-70.
Kincaid, Jamaica. Annie John. Markham, Ontario: New American Library, 1983.
Mbiti, John. African Religions and Philosophy. New York: Doubleday, 1970.
Milton, John. Paradise Lost: Complete Poems and Major Prose. 1674. Ed. Merritt Y. Hughes. New York: Macmillan, 1985. 211-469.
Morrell, Carol, ed. Grammar of Dissent: Poetry and Prose of Claire Harris, M. Nourbese Philip, Dionne Brand. Fredericton, New Brunswick: Goose Lane, 1994.
Olaniyan, Tejumola. “On ‘Postcolonial Discourse’: An Introduction.” Callaloo 16.4 (1993): 743-49.
Radhakrishnan, R. “Postcoloniality and the Boundaries of Identity.” Callaloo 16.4 (1993): 750-71.
Raiskin, Judith. “The Art of History: An Interview With Michelle Cliff.” The Kenyon Review 15 (1993): 57-71.
Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. 1966. New York: Norton, 1982.
Sharrad, Paul. “The Art of Memory and the Liberation of History: Wilson Harris's Witnessing of Time.” Callaloo 18.1 (1995): 94-108.
Trinh T. Minh-ha. “Grandma's Story.” Woman, Native, Other. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989. 119-60.
Wilentz, Gay. Binding Cultures: Black Women Writers in Africa and the Diaspora. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992.
Williams, Eric. From Columbus to Castro. London: Deutsch, 1970.
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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 went in 1983 to “fling myself at the hope that the world could be upturned” (Bread Out of Stone, 1994), comes to mind. Inevitably, therefore, some readers will interpret the novel as fictionalized “herstory”: most will find in it the anguish of colonial and postcolonial history, intensely projected through the three women's consciousness.
The first voice is that of Elizete, who has been a child abandoned by family, grudgingly adopted, then married off to an abusive husband. Though uneducated, she has developed a critical inner voice, for despised women—she desires to appease the spirit of her slave ancestor Adela, whose “sold” fate is linked with hers as oppressed woman and wife. Elizete's personal liberation, of dignity and sex, is promised through sudden attraction to Verlia, portrayed as “flying,” “always coming apart”; but if their emotional and physical love redeems Elizete from negative “rage,” Verlia's passionate revolutionary love divides them: “that was Verlia' [sic] love, the people buried in the field”—next to the sugar mills.
When Verlia leaves, Elizete pursues her to Toronto in vain, but she encounters Abena, Verlia's other lover and oppositional soulmate. Gradually they share the pained realization that for Verlia, though central to both their lives, neither had been “enough.” Abena, a tireless immigrants' advocate, driven by hatred of whites, fatally hesitating to join Verlia's revolution, is “left” and bereft.
Half the narrative is Verlia's, articulating an evolution and commitment seemingly close to Brand's and to many of her generation. This voice is fully convincing, whereas Elizete's fluctuates, sometimes falsified by authorial language and imagery. The young Verlia, rebelling against her people's resignation and internalized rage, must fly into and against the oppressive world out “there.” When that becomes “here,” after a discouraging encounter with Sudbury relatives anxiously seeking invisible “equality,” she flies to Toronto's larger black community, to “grow into her Black Self”: “she wants to be the kind of Black girl that is dangerous. Big-mouthed and dangerous.” Self-hate is supplanted by hatred for whites: “She lives in this city for years without talking personably to a single white person or having one talk to her.”
Verlia's loves, above all for “earthbound” Elizete—embodiment of the lost, loved place—are sacrificed to the “crucible of practice,” the failed island revolutions precipitating her into “some other place … less tortuous, less fleshy.” Between “retaliation or self-hatred” this relentless novel suggests no middle ground; yet Brand's “anointment” by a major publisher, for a novel whose writing was subsidized by a grant from the Ontario Arts Council, central to that “culture … organized around ‘whiteness,’” must be bittersweet. Is it in Brand's eyes a form of appropriation she has turned to advantage? Surely it does not mean, against the novel's drift, that, in bell hooks's words, “white people can be anti-racist” (Killing Rage, 1995)? It is more fitting, perhaps, since Brand quotes Fanon on white transgression, to quote his Black Skin, White Masks: “I have no wish to be the victim of the fraud of a black world. My life should not be devoted to drawing up a balance-sheet of negro values.”
There is no white world, there is no white ethic, any more than there is a white intelligence. There are in every part of the world men who search. And women too.
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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 Dionne Brand, born in Trinidad, living in Canada since 1970, rejects this classic advice. She abolishes the ironic distance between narrator and characters (between mother country and former colony, one could say), liberates the island vernacular from the quarantine of quotation marks and awards it the leading role. True, she doesn't quite trust it to do the job alone. In fact, she creates a new language that fuses modernist tricks and tics (echoes of Faulkner and Woolf accumulate as the book progresses) with the suggestive speech of unlettered rural Trinidadians.
The results can be spectacular. The first forty pages of In Another Place, Not Here are a revelation. A countrywoman on an unnamed Caribbean island strongly resembling Grenada introduces herself. Her name is Elizete and the small hard facts of her life are these: her mother, unnamed, abandons her as a child in the yard of an old woman, a prosperous small farmer. The old woman is a harsh mistress but she feeds the child, body and soul. At her death, Elizete is given in marriage to a stern man named Isaiah, who whips her when she strays as far as the town bus stop. She takes refuge in dreams of flight until a woman named Verlia appears and transforms her life. Just who Verlia is, how and why she arrived on the island when she did, will become clear only later on in the book.
The narrative is not linear but moves in a see-saw motion, or like the waves of the sea, according to the logic of exile with its restless contradictions—the impossible longing for flight, for stasis, for escape, for homecoming. The opening chapters also account—in a series of lovely lyric riffs—for the whole of Caribbean history since the first slaves were brought over, four hundred years ago.
The old woman teaches Elizete about Adela, the foremother, brought from Africa to this island called “Nowhere.” Here's how Elizete imagines that arrival.
So long she had time to balance the oceans and measure how much mouthful she would have to swallow to get back but when she reach and find sheself locked in on all sides and not by nothing human, she drop, she call it Nowhere and begin to forget by forgetting the road, cut into the mountain valley, the walls of immortelle and bamboo, green and wet, the hundred rivers gutting the road, the mark she put on the red dirt under the cart, the wheel turning, turning near she face where they lay she down, the water raining down in that valley mist.
Adela becomes the lonely child's imaginary playmate. “Adela, rain ants coming to cover we in water. Nothing barren here, Adela, in my eyes everything full of fullness, everything yielding. …” The Caribbean as earthly paradise, the Caribbean as barren ground of exile and slavery—only lyric could contain this contradiction, so central to the book. In the lives of Brand's characters, it corresponds to a tension between acceptance and rebellion, between the seduction of what is and the lure of what is lost, dreamed, or imagined.
A second exile awaits Elizete in Canada. In an abrupt shift from dazzling technicolor to chilly grey, Brand the documentary filmmaker piles on the grim details of Elizete's Toronto life, sleeping four to a room, toiling in sweatshops, raped by immigration police. All the dreamy poetry and mythic knowledge she commanded back home are as useless to her in Toronto as her country girl good manners. “Here no one look into your face and said Oh, is you again,” “Aha, where your mother, what she doing now?” “Here,” Elizete concludes, “I have run out of my skin.” And the sad results are this: “you deny your origins, beat back your family, see in their faces only envy of you, only maliciousness. …” Cold suspicion rules the lives of immigrants abroad. Elizete manages to locate a former friend of Verlia's who tells her what she already knows: “Go home, it's not a place for us.”
Part two, doubling back, gives us Verlia's story—her crowded, restless Caribbean childhood, her flight to Canada at the age of seventeen. The rhythm accelerates in a staccato beat. If Elizete remains something of a literary construct, an island peasant Everywoman, Verlia—whose dates correspond to Brand's own—achieves the sharp focus of memoir.
Quick, smart, impatient, it takes Verlia two weeks to realize she can't share the stunted life of her childless aunt and uncle, living quietly in a small town up north. “They have come here to get away from Black people, to show white people that they are harmless, just like them. This lie will kill them.”
A series of poignant vignettes define this engaging character. Verlia arrives in Canada with a precious shoebox full of clippings—news photos of Gandhi, Che, Mao, Rosa Parks, Fidel. She cuts off her permed hair and lets it grow into an afro “that fills the subway door.” Politics becomes her life, but her thoughts remain subtle and wayward. At a Klan rally, she spots a woman with KKK tattooed on her breast. The juxtaposition of hate and erotic appeal troubles her. She files away a photo of the woman in her shoebox collection, but is afraid to dwell on it, because “it would be like understanding evil. By 1983 she's burned out and suddenly, unaccountably homesick for that Caribbean poor kids' treat, the tamarind pod, “sour, seedy, stringy, but eaten voluntarily.”
Verlia carries a heavy weight of symbolism. She's the place where modern and ancient myths of liberation meet, recording her doubts and defeats in a diary like Che in Bolivia. She returns to the island with a political agenda—to organize sugar cane cutters still living in virtual peonage. She and Elizete cut cane together and become lovers. An American airplane (1983 was the year we invaded Grenada) strafes her group of activists. Elizete survives; Verlia does not.
Elizete, passive, vulnerable, earth-bound, and Verlia, restless, self-created, elusive, represent the two sides of an impossible whole. Their attraction determines the book's shifting structure, where facts emerge like islands from a running tide of words. Their love affair across class lines is improbable on the face of it, a revolutionary making love to “the People” in the person of one woman. Yet it works because the disguise is so transparent and touching. Verlia/Elizete feels like the tribute of a skittish intellectual, the author, to the solid, enduring women who raised her.
The exalted tone can't be sustained throughout. Some passages are weak and repetitive. Revolutions are not interchangeable. Grenada is not El Salvador or Haiti. Brand is torn, like her characters, between her rebel agenda—to console, to denounce, to uplift—and a dazzled acceptance of things as they are. It's the second that makes her such a good novelist, as in this passage where Verlia lists in loving detail all the things she hates about her family.
Grief they loved, wore it in white lace over cotton and starched collars with bow ties, mauve dresses smoothed over regal behinds and Chantilly hats tipped to the side over ironed hair, black serge over six-foot legs and close-cut brilliantined hair under black number-six headbands. They loved grief and spent every penny on it and thought it made them holy, they had each a parched well inside their chests, sacred and hungry, they went to funerals of people they did not know, they stood at grave sides looking into the despair of the mourners, their eyes became ashy with passion.
You can see why Brand, unlike Jamaica Kincaid, say, or Hilton Als, is reluctant to give the older generation, with their bottled rage, their decorous despair, the last word. They take it anyway. She's breathed such a power of life into them that they walk right away with her beautiful book.
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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, scholar, and writer, she has also worked with Studio D of the National Film Board as a writer and director. Her long poem, No Language Is Neutral (1990), was nominated for the Governor General's award. Her novel, In Another Place, Not Here (1996), was published by Knopf Canada.
[Daurio]: How do you see your scholarly work interrelating with your art?
[Brand]: Well, during the years I've had about three lives; one doing community work in the women's movement and the Black movement, then a kind of academic life, and then my sort of literary life. I'm really cautious about the academic one. I always think it's dangerous just to stay in academia—it is only relevant if you can put it to some good use in the communities you work in and struggle for.
You've now lived about half your life in Trinidad and half your life in Canada. That place split and that time split seems to be a main source of imagery in your work: the snow versus the ocean … I wondered if you could talk a bit about that, about how you ended up in Canada and how it affected you, particularly as a writer.
Why I came … I think I was part of the social relations happening at the time; I got exported like a whole bunch of other people. I came to Canada on the wings of international capital. I came here to go to university and to go back, ended up doing more than that, and never really going back.
Where I come from is incredibly physically beautiful; posed against that is incredible hardship in the ways that people live and eke out a living. I was born in a country town, near an ocean; the imagery in the early part of your life is more sensual, less intellectualized, than later. Those are the things that stay with you; the landscape that you build on. I was lucky to know that you could sit beside the ocean and something was explained.
I also come out of a history of a people who were enslaved, and that struggle toward freedom was central to the whole ethos of that people. It was also infused in me in looking at that landscape. I guess if you were born in northern Ontario or something, the inevitability of the earth, the greatness of it, would strike you in the same way. But these things, posed as opposites in the beginning in my work, are somehow figuring themselves into each other.
How old were you when you knew that you were going to become a writer? Did your impulse to write originally come out of politics?
I think the first time I said I would do that I was thirteen. You know how obnoxious you are when you're thirteen; you pick up some industry and you're really self-righteous about it for a week.
All through my schooling in Trinidad, what I read as English literature never had me in it. I always felt the need to put me in it, and by me I mean Black people. When it did have them in it, they were awfully misrepresented, stereotyped, so flat and thin, and always at service of white characters. If countries of Black people were talked about, they were presented in colonial and derogatory terms. People need their lives to be elucidated, spoken about, and it struck me that that life that I had known was pretty beautiful, so why couldn't I write it down?
Did that make it hard to see yourself as a writer? When I was a kid growing up in Canada, there seemed to be no Canadian writers, and it made it difficult somehow to believe writing was possible here.
At that early stage of recognizing that I was not in the literature, it did strike me that it could be written. I became aware of certain Black writing in the Caribbean and in the States, and we were in it. Suddenly you get startled—it hadn't been written, and you could be part of doing that.
You co-authored a book on racism, Rivers Have Sources, Trees Have Roots. How did that book come about?
I'd always been involved in Black community action against racism in the city [Toronto], and there was a real dearth of information about racism in this country and about peoples of colour. It was important to document those experiences. I was asked to write the book, which was supposed to be about personal experiences with racism—but racism is a collective experience, it's a social experience. The word “personal” irritated me; it gave the sense that it might be like paranoia, or something quite individual. We interviewed about a hundred people, Black, South Asian, Native, and Chinese; we asked them, what is it like in your daily life here?, when do you encounter it?, how do you cope?, and where is it most virulent, where is it most painful? So the book talks about the randomness of racism, the way it permeates this society, the way it's just ordinary, or how it's institutional, where there are practices that you can see.
All of your work is informed by politics, by philosophy, by history; it never rests on the beautiful phrase, the lovely story, though those things are equally and compellingly present in your writing. Do you believe there can be such a thing as pure aesthetics?
No, I don't. In really vulgar terms, pure aesthetics means who's in control to make that what that is? We name the worlds we're in, and no one culture can define that, living in the incredible culture we live in.
Would you agree that a basic tenet of writing is responsibility rather than just self-fulfilment? That it involves a responsibility toward a community?
That's true of my work. I clearly have a purpose. Every relationship is social, and you don't exist outside of that. Even if you think you're not writing politically, you are in some way contributing to the making of the culture that we're in. Those who think writing can be done without responsibility are choosing that, too. Well, what does that align itself with?
But I'm not a social worker; I'm not an advocate for something that I'm not a part of. I believe that history, and the history of the people that I come from, is important, and that it is important to rewrite that history in a way that saves our humanity. Black people and women have to make their humanity every goddamned day, because every day we are faced with the unmaking of us. Sometimes any words I throw at this feel like pebbles, but the purpose in throwing them is to keep, to save, my humanity, and that is my responsibility. I mean to see Black people free from the kinds of hindrances we have hitherto encountered that have tried to and have killed us at various points in time. As a woman, as a lesbian, I have to redeem my life every day, in a society that thinks I should lead an existence that's second class; and every day I get to say, no way. I do feel that responsibility and I take it on. It doesn't feel like a burden because at the end of it is something wonderful, the day when I can be free of those things. Putting my skills toward doing that is the best thing I can do.
A debate has been raging about the question of appropriation of voice. Lenore Keeshig-Tobias, for instance, has said that white writers telling Native stories is a kind of theft, and that it robs the stories of their power.
Lenore Keeshig-Tobias is right about what happens to those stories; they become consumer items. This culture has always taught people they can take, buy, other people's things, consume everything—so why can't we take your stories? They don't realize they are really responding to commercials that tell you, if you buy this car, you can eat a woman, too. They are taking up the destiny of the culture that conquered and took Canada away from Native people and finds Native life dispensable. That's going on in that discussion; that's refused to be talked about by white writers who simply yell this is censorship. That's a deeper discussion than saying, I can write what I want.
I think white writers have to take on the responsibility of dealing with racism. Racism didn't just happen to Black people and Native people, it happened to white people. It was a relationship in which we were involved. White people cannot simply say racism was something that happened to other people. What was their role in it?
Is access to reviewing and critical writing part of the problem?
Reviews are equally racist, when you are reviewed. Work by peoples of colour has to prove universality; a white writer is never asked to prove that. The other things you look for in a review are words like “anger.” Reviewers always talk about the anger of Black writers. Anger is not the only word that can be used; the experience is far more complex: it is remorse, it is sadness, it is absolute joy, it is beauty, it is all those things.
So the mistake is in making the description a kind of containment, not opening up to what is actually there in the work?
Exactly. What some white reviewers lack is a sense of what the literature that is made by Black people and other people of colour is about. If you read my work, you have to read Toni Morrison's work, you have to read Derek Walcott's work, Rosa Guy, Jean Rhys, Paule Marshall, Michael Anthony, Eddie Braithwaite, and African writers and poets … Bessie Head. I don't consider myself on any margin; I'm sitting right in the middle of Black literature, because that's who I read, that's who I respond to—I'm not on the margin of Canadian literature.
In your book of short stories, Sans Souci, the women keep trying to solve Canada, even though it seems desolate and oppressive, racist and patriarchal.
Survival is one of the running themes in our lives as Black women; when you get faced with the possibility of not existing, then you really want to. You just don't give in. That's what I've learned from the women in my community, and I have a feeling that's women's lives in general, that we know how to make do, how to survive.
When you were writing Sans Souci, how much of a struggle was it not to become didactic?
To be didactic is to be outside of it, to think of it as an object, rather than from the point of view of the subject. When you are inside it, it is complex, and each decision you make is important and dependent on a lot. To survive and not to go crazy, you must distinguish how much of what you are going to take today, but not tomorrow.
Because I was struck by the Little Black Sambo and god knows what other derogatory stereotypes I had to handle when I was growing up, I always thought that the way I would present and represent and articulate when I wrote, Black senses, if you like, would be in all their variousness. We had been struck as a piece of cardboard, just flat; my job as a writer was to express all of it, as complex and contradictory as it comes and goes, to address how I knew I lived, how I knew my grandmother lived, address the motivations, because Black characters in those things never had any motivations. In Tarzan movies there's no motivation, you just see all these Black people running after Tarzan. What for? In order to dehumanize people, you strip them of reason, of motivation. I wanted to draw us as we were.
The stories have such different voices …
I listen well and I try not to impose myself on the story so much. My imagination is not only my own and out of no place, it is what I know and saw and heard and felt. What I'm hoping and striving for is that each of the people that I'm writing about has an integrity—they wouldn't do weird things that are not part of that integrity, are not part of who they are.
Were you consciously representing a whole range of different people?
That probably chose me more than I chose it. I marvel at how people live. As somebody who has always been very cautious, and a watcher, since I was a kid, I'm just struck by the incredibleness of what they just told me … or lived.
Your new book of poetry is called No Language Is Neutral. Why did you call it that?
It's based on a line from Derek Walcott's Midsummer. “no language is neutral / the green oak of English is a murmurous cathedral / where some take umbrage and some take peace / but all help to widen its shade.” Walcott and I come from different generations and different genders; that English language that he wants to claim is not the same one that I want to claim. The one that I want contains the resistances to how that language was made, because that language was made through imperialism, through the oppression of women. As women and as peoples of colour we write against that language. The more power we acquire to speak and act and so on, the more we change that language. I write to say something about the world. That language that I encounter as a response to me in the world is no more neutral than mine to it.
The book really reads, not as a collection of separate poems, but as a unified structure. Did you set out to write it as one piece?
The poem “No Language Is Neutral” I set out to write as one piece, and it kept getting bigger and bigger. Then some other piece would come up in something else that I was writing, and I'd say, oh, that piece doesn't belong here, it belongs somewhere else, and so on.
It's difficult to talk about poetry, because what I'm asking myself to do now is to summarize perfect speech, and it's not possible.
It's hard asking specific questions about the book, too; you can't take a little piece, because the elements of it are so interwoven.
No Language Is Neutral was like a journey. It was like a memory of when language became possible, changed, through that experience of colonization. So the poem starts somewhere back then—about how a people, if they got transported to an incredibly distant place, where they no longer had names for things, how they began to name anything, how they began to say anything, and how, faced with incredible brutality, how did they not refuse to say, and what did they say of it, and so there's an image somewhere in the poem of standing near the sea and looking out into great possibility, but endless hopelessness, too.
What did they send down to me? All of the words that we learn from them contain escape and freedom and things like that. “A morphology of rolling chain and copper gong” refers to enslavement; those things now shape our talk. And that's what I mean in a sense by the whole poem, that “falsettos of whip and air / rudiment this grammar”; this grammar; there's a new talk, a new grammar, a new language, being made in this.
There was no other way of saying it, but falling into dialect and showing how the relations of slavery, of brutality, but also of silence, of distance, of loss, begin to shape the language that I speak. My great-great-great-great-great-grandmother and -grandfather made that language, they passed it and passed it, and I've been making it. Within that language, it's not just questions of race for me, but questions of gender. What was there for my great-great-grandmother between the ocean and the sink? How did that shape what she said? And how did what she didn't say about being a woman shape it, too?
In the first part of “Hard Against the Soul,” you say: “this is you girl … this is where you make sense … and to be awake is more lovely than dreams …” which implies that being asleep sure as hell isn't …
Ordinarily, people think fantasy is more interesting. I guess I find reality more interesting. That poem is about more than my first lover, but it is about recognizing I was a lesbian, and why, somehow. I looked at ocean and earth, and I thought, that's right, I love that, and that's why I love that. There's something about the fecundity of it, the richness, that somehow verified my love for women. To know this was really startling, and also to come to a kind of completion. We live in a world that doesn't love women, a world that doesn't like women, and I suddenly faced the possibility of having to live that out.
As women loving each other we didn't need to lie to each other, because we couldn't, and there could be no heterosexual fantasy, not for us, and there is no lesbian fantasy; you've got to make whatever you're going to have. The real was more wonderful than anything. It was great to be awake, to be walking up and down the street, to be suddenly solid. For me, it just was.
The first section is followed by a section called “Return,” which contains poems about particular women, political women. How are they related to the rest of the poem?
At one time I admired those two women greatly, and still do at certain levels. Phyllis Coarde was the Minister of Women's Affairs in Grenada. She had been part of the coup, and is in jail now. I looked at them in that revolution, in that struggle, as very strong and capable women who were finally realizing the dreams of women, in a way.
Aging, for women, is also a political issue, which you address, among other places, in the poem about Mammy Prater.
I've always liked old ladies, because they lasted. It must take a hell of a lot for a woman to grow old in this society, with all the discrimination against women, all the taking care of the world that you do. That's part of my culture, too, that when you grow old you gain respect.
When I was about eight years old I saw this woman sitting on the beach naked, throwing water over her head and bathing herself, and I remember at first going by her, and suddenly looking back and thinking, she's naked, you know, and smiling to myself. And later, I thought, what freedom, she finally made it. She had earned the right not to be looked at in a certain way. It was in my mind, earning that right some day. The poem did come out of looking at a photograph of a woman one hundred and fifteen years old, and thinking of all that was in her shape, all the days and days and days and days of waiting to sit there, for the photograph … and while being enslaved, never allowing that slavery make her not wait for the day when it was over. That old woman had endured.
The general structure of the book is very interesting. “Hard Against the Soul” begins before the section called “No Language Is Neutral,” and ends after it, but it does more than begin and end the book; it wraps around it.
I wanted to come back to “Hard Against the Soul,” because there was something I had begun to say that didn't work itself out. I usually write in blocks, and I needed to say the rest. I needed to fully come out as a lesbian; I needed to say what that did in terms of how I was going to speak now as a poet. Much of my work before didn't deal with sexuality as politics; somehow I've gotten a deeper, more honest sense of myself since coming out. The other thing is, I never write until it is time to write. I suppose I could have dashed off a few love poems here and there, but until the thing can be said properly, and I hope it is said properly, I don't think it should be said.
You are not of the school that says write reams and reams no matter what …
No. I write purposefully. I really plod. It was time to say those things, and I became free when I said them, suddenly thinking that revelation is not bad, that in fact it's kind of freeing.
No Language Is Neutral talks about language, race, women, the ocean, slavery, freedom; it creates an incredible synthesis, and at the same time, makes the reader trust in words to make a difference …
In each piece of work that I write, I really want to own the world. Not as an imperialist, but as somebody who can speak of it and through it and for it. The poem tries to reveal all the parts of me, whether it's the Black me or the lesbian me or the woman me or the … and to say that it is possible for us to live this way, to talk in this way.
The woman that you address in the poem, the “you,” is also a complex/simple construction: it's you in the past and you in the future, it's the reader, it's history, it's even the future.
When I was writing this, as when I first read One Hundred Years of Solitude, I realized you could write anything. There's a moment for lots of writers when you realize: I can put anything into words. The “you” that I talk to all the time is a way of coming immediately to your chest; it says it is you that I am talking to, it jumps across the possibility of being ignored, across the possibility of your saying that we do not know each other.
And the you is sort of historical. One of the poems is about going to the Museum of the Revolution in Cuba. Suddenly I was looking at this goddamned coffle, this iron cuff that was used in slavery. It was maybe two hundred years old, and yet it looked so dangerous, and I was sacred, as if it was that day. I thought I should run from the room, or stand watching it, I didn't know which one to do. That's the history I address personally.
In its rhythm of mood, emotion, and place, No Language Is Neutral has the time feeling, the structure of a novel.
Writing it, I knew there was a tension I had to sustain, so that you'd be with me through it. I hope there's not a wasted word. Whatever emotions I moved to in it had to be precise, tight; taking the exact amount of time and the exact pitch, so that from the beginning to the end you're still there.
What is your next project?
The Lives of Black Working Women in Ontario, the oral history, that's going to be a book. And I have a long story I want to write, about a woman who lives here illegally and has about twelve lives …
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7484
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 Carriacou women love each other is legend in Grenada, and so is their strength and their beauty. … underneath it all as I was growing up, home was still a sweet place somewhere else which they had not managed to capture yet on paper, nor to throttle and bind up between the pages of a schoolbook. It was our own, my truly private paradise of blugoe and breadfruit hanging from the trees, of nutmeg and lime and sapadilla, of tonka beans and red and yellow Paradise Plums.
Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of my Name
The epigraph from George Lamming speaks of place and exile, claiming a sense of cultural belonging that transcends geographical locations. This article examines the withholding of such sense of belonging and cultural citizenship from lesbians and gay men in Caribbean cultural and national space and looks to Dionne Brand's In Another Place, Not Here (1996) and Shani Mootoo's Cereus Blooms at Night (1996) for strategies against and responses to this exclusion.2 These two novels show the crucial links between place, culture, and belonging in relation to sexuality. Brand's and Mootoo's texts follow that of Audre Lorde, whose autobiography Zami: A New Spelling of my Name makes the Caribbean a “home” and “paradise” for women who love women. Both Brand and Mootoo engage in a critique of homophobia in Caribbean culture, at the same time asserting a sense of “ownership” over Caribbean cultural space by creating a semi-utopian Caribbean space for their lesbian and gay characters.
Before exploring the relationship between sexuality and nation-place in Brand's and Mootoo's novels, I want to consider a debate concerning the distinction between “insiders” and “outsiders” that often characterizes discussions of homophobia in Caribbean culture: in an article on homophobia in black popular culture and contemporary Caribbean culture (published in Callaloo, in 1997), Timothy Chin examines the case of Buju Banton, the performer of “Boom Bye Bye,” the Jamaican dancehall song that led to heated discussion in Caribbean and American communities on the question of whether its lyrics were homophobic. Chin argues that the controversy set up a polarization between Caribbean cultural politics and gay politics, and that Caribbean participants in the ensuing discussion failed to challenge a notion of Caribbean culture that “relies on certain fixed oppositions between native and foreign, indigenous and metropolitan, us and them” (128). Carolyn Cooper, for instance, points out that “translation is clearly an ideological issue” (442) and argues that the translated lyrics of “Boom Bye Bye” provided by The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and Gay Men of African Descent (GMAD) during the public debate about the song neglected the cultural specificity of dancehall and the cultural authority of Banton's rudeboy posture in the context of “working-class resistance in urban Jamaica” (442).3 Cooper, however, firmly locates all resistance to the song outside Jamaica and the Caribbean, suggesting that “the impetus to publicly protest in Jamaica the heterophobia [her neologism for fear of difference, including fear of homosexuality] of ‘Boom Bye Bye’ seems to have come from Europe and North America” (439), and that “it would appear that homosexuals in Jamaica themselves accept the social contract, proverbially expressed, that ‘where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise'” (440). She argues that critiques of dancehall culture reflect “imported Western feminist notions” of misogyny, noting that “powerful organizations of homosexuals in the North Atlantic like GLAAD seem to be playing the role of imperial overlords in the cultural arena” (444; emphasis added). Cooper's intervention goes beyond the necessary work of situating the Banton issue in its dense cultural specificity; she makes it impossible, in the terms she sets up, to envision resistance to homophobia in Caribbean culture as being anything other than “imported” or imperialist.
In contrast to Cooper's insider/outsider articulation of Caribbean culture and homophobia, Chin calls for “a politics that recognizes … the heterogeneous and contradictory (as opposed to homogeneous and monolithic) nature of all cultural formations” (128):
it is necessary—especially given the complex ideological issues currently surrounding the question of black cultural production—to formulate modes of cultural criticism that can account for the differences within as well as between cultures.
Chin finds in Michelle Cliff's and H. Nigel Thomas's work attempts to articulate indigenous lesbian and gay sexuality that make “the critique of homophobic and sexist ideologies an integral component of what we might call a decolonized Caribbean discourse” (129).4 Chin's intervention in this debate is particularly useful for the way he acknowledges the ethnocentrism of the North American critics on the Buju Banton issue (notably their assumptions that “North American culture is more advanced and therefore less homophobic than its Caribbean counterpart” ) and yet challenges formulations of Caribbean culture that rely on an assumed parallel between Caribbean or African-based culture and heterosexuality on the one hand, and between European or imperialistic culture and homosexuality on the other. Such a formulation has everything to do with the questions this paper takes up—questions about who belongs and who does not, and about the nature of cultural and political citizenship and “authentic” decolonized culture. Likewise, Jamaican-Canadian writer Makeda Silvera has noted the effects of this insider/outsider dichotomy. She points out that in the exclusion of lesbians from Caribbean culture what is implicit is that “one cannot be a lesbian and continue to do political work and, not surprisingly, it follows that a Black lesbian/artist cannot create using the art forms of our culture” (530).
The “Boom Bye Bye” debate and the polarization of critical positions that it revealed indicate the urgency of imagining anti-homophobic resistance that has Caribbean cultural authority. Brand's and Mootoo's novels take up this task of articulating Caribbean-based, decolonizing assertions of gay and lesbian subjectivity. Aspects of the “Boom Bye Bye” discussion pertain only to homophobia directed at gay Caribbean men, and the distinction between “African-Caribbean” and “European” that characterizes the Buju Banton example omits the Indo-Caribbean context of Mootoo's novel; nevertheless, the novels by Mootoo and Brand intersect usefully with this discussion of insiders and outsiders.5 In their attention to “place” and movement between locations—in particular with the utopic or imaginary quality of belonging—Cereus Blooms at Night and In Another Place, Not Here are concerned with the connections between sexuality and the Caribbean diaspora. In fact, most of the Caribbean writers challenging the exclusions of lesbians and gay men from Caribbean social space—Michelle Cliff, Audre Lorde, Patricia Powell, H. Nigel Thomas, and Makeda Silvera, for example—have lived or are living and writing in North America.6 Since so many Caribbean writers, including central writers in the Caribbean canon, have either emigrated or spent much of their careers abroad, the North American location of these writers would not be as significant, were it not for the lines drawn between insiders and outsiders in discussions of homophobia in Caribbean culture. These writers refuse the designation “outsiders,” however, and assert cultural warrant for claiming space for gay and lesbian representations in Caribbean culture. Lorde, for instance, insists on the cultural authority of Caribbean lesbianism by tracing histories of women loving women in Grenada, through naming the words “Madivine. Friending. Zami” (14). In Another Place, Not Here and Cereus Blooms at Night also claim this space; Brand's novel, in particular, does so by linking lesbian and feminist consciousness with anti-racist, anti-colonial politics in both Caribbean and Caribbean diasporic space. Furthermore, the novel asserts that diasporic movement, from “another place” to “here” and back, should not prevent full cultural citizenship of Caribbean lesbians in Canada and the Caribbean.
Much useful work has been done by such critics as Benedict Anderson and Homi Bhabha on the topic of the modern nation as a self-generating symbolic community that maintains political unity through a continual displacement of plurality. Jacqui Alexander, in particular, has brought an analysis of Caribbean nationalism and sexuality together with a reading of legal texts in Trinidad and Tobago and the Bahamas to “foreground the complicity of the state in sexual politics” (“Redrafting” 147). She points out that in order to assert their legitimacy, the Caribbean states she examines naturalize heterosexuality by criminalizing lesbian and gay sex, thereby revising the terms of citizenship to exclude lesbians and gays. “Not just (any) body can be a citizen any more,” she argues,
for some bodies have been marked by the state as non-procreative, in pursuit of sex only for pleasure, a sex that is non-productive of babies and of no economic gain. Having refused the heterosexual imperative of citizenship, these bodies, according to the state, pose a profound threat to the very survival of the nation.
(“Not Just” 6)
Alexander's critique is useful for proposing how, in a political and cultural desire for a nation free of Western intrusions, the Caribbean state may suggest some “originary … moment for the heterosexual founding of [the Caribbean] nation” (“Erotic” 85). However, because in Brand's and Mootoo's novels “the nation” does not appear in its singularity, this article points to the idea of “nation” not as “nationality” or particular nation-states, but rather as national space. This suggests citizenship in both a political and cultural sense—a wider form of social enfranchisement. This more flexible notion of citizenship can account for Kobena Mercer's critique of “the latent heterosexism of certain cultural nationalist discourses in the present” (88). And it can also support Paul Gilroy's comment that the “crisis … of black social and political life” has been taken up by black nationalist discourses as “the crisis of black masculinity,” with a resolution through “the mystic reconstruction of the ideal heterosexual family” (313).
Brand's and Mootoo's novels sever the link between homophobic or heterosexist allocations of Caribbean cultural citizenship and the work of decolonization and bring together an anti-racist politics with an affirmation of Caribbean gay men's and lesbians' cultural belonging. Both texts address the issue of cultural citizenship or social enfranchisement through the use of a semi-utopian imagining of this cultural belonging. Annamarie Jagose, in Lesbian Utopics, points out that the category “lesbian” is automatically implicated when one imagines “a space beyond phallocentric prioritizations of masculinity and heterosexuality”; in this sense, it is “at once liberatory and elsewhere … a utopic space” (2). She argues, however, that this conceptualization suggests that the lesbian is “beyond the reaches of cultural legislation” (2): “imagining ‘lesbian’ as a utopic site, subscribing to lesbianism's impossible dream of exteriority, misrecognizes the ways that category is elaborately and irretrievably enmeshed in structures it is imagined beyond” (160). Jagose's solution to the transcendentalizing, essentializing effects of “lesbian utopics” is to be mindful of the discursively constructed condition of lesbian (and other) bodies, an awareness that allows for an understanding that “the cultural meanings of the lesbian body, like those of any body, are neither fully self-determining nor fully determined” (161). In Another Place, Not Here and Cereus Blooms at Night, then, to the extent that they invoke a utopian Caribbean space for gay and lesbian subjects, use utopics in a way both emancipatory of and resistant to homophobic and colonial structures of power.
Mootoo, multi-media artist, video maker, and short story and novel writer, examines recurringly themes of identity, place, colonialism, and sexuality. Her short story collection Out on Main Street (1993) explores the complexity of culture, sexuality, and memory for Indo-Caribbean women characters primarily in Vancouver and Trinidad. Mootoo has also created six videos dealing with sexual identity, language, and place and displacement, entitled Lest I Burn (1991), English Lesson (1991), A Paddle and a Compass (1992; with Wendy Oberlander), Wild Woman in the Woods (1993), Her Sweetness Lingers (1994), and Güerita and Prietita (1996; with Kathy High). Her only novel, Cereus Blooms at Night, can be read in the context of the critical priorities of this wider body of work.
Cereus Blooms at Night is set in a sometimes dreamlike, fictional place called Paradise, in the country of Lantanacamara. In this space, by no means protected from homophobia and sexual abuse, the novel gradually brings together a somewhat utopic community of outsiders who find healing and selfhood through their recognition of each others' “shared queerness” (Mootoo 48). Tyler, a male nurse, is the “witness” (100) and scribe of the story told to him by a mysterious elderly woman, Mala Ramchandin, who arrives at the nursing home where he works. The novel is full of characters living on and crossing over social and sexual borders: Mala's Indo-Caribbean mother, Sarah, gradually develops a passionate relationship with Lavinia Thoroughly, a wealthy white woman, and leaves her husband for her; Mala's suitor, Ambrose, has a daughter, Otoh, whose “transformation” into a man is “flawless” (110), and who falls in love with Tyler; Tyler, with growing confidence, expresses both his attraction to men and his love of wearing feminine clothes; and Mala herself, left behind as a child with her sister Asha after her mother leaves, sacrifices herself to save her sister by becoming her father's lover in a decades-long nightmare of incest.
The novel responds on a number of fronts to the idea of incompatibility between gay and lesbian identity and Caribbean-based decolonizing politics: it emphasizes these boundary-crossings and the characters' multiplicity of identity; it brings together a troubling of the divide between “perversion” and “natural” at the level of both characters and landscape; and it mirrors the metamorphoses of characters with metamorphoses in the natural world of the Caribbean landscape. It thus makes the Caribbean a space for a utopian community of queer subjects and both implicitly and explicitly links their stories to a project of imaginative decolonization.
Cereus Blooms at Night presents sexuality as a fluid form of identity and parallels sexual indeterminacy or outlaw sexuality with other forms of border-crossing identities. Tyler immediately offers a representation of transgressive gender roles when he speaks about his “ways” and his resistance to the idea that a man “ought to be strong and fearless and without need of protection” (10). He feels “neither properly man nor woman but some inbetween, unnamed thing” (71) and yearns to feel “ordinary” (22). When Mala, his charge in the old-age home, offers him a nurse's dress and pair of stockings, Tyler feels himself “metamorphosing” into a woman's body, excited by “the possibilities trembling inside [him]” (76) and by the freedom of feeling “ordinary.” This freedom allows Tyler to acknowledge his attraction to other men, including Otoh. Otoh, born a girl called Ambrosia, imperceptibly changes into a man. His (Mootoo uses the male pronoun) preoccupied parents “hardly noticed that their daughter was transforming herself into their son”—a transformation that “was flawless” (109-10). The adult Otoh appears attracted to both men and women, dresses up in both his mother's and father's clothes, and has “the ability to imagine many sides of a dilemma … and the vexing inability to make up his mind” (110). In both cases, the emphasis on “in-between” identities, change, and process indicates the mutability of sexuality in the novel.
Tyler and Otoh's examples of sexual/gender border-crossing as metamorphoses find parallels elsewhere in the novel. Mootoo makes the risky move of associating both Tyler and Otoh with Mala—Tyler because of their “shared queerness” (48), and Otoh because each has “secrets” (124). The move is risky because the novel opens up the question of the “perverse” and the “natural” (48) in relation to the sexual abuse that Mala endures. When Tyler ponders his gender identity, he asks his grandmother, “Could a nephew be the father of his uncle? … could a mother ever be any other relationship to her child? Could she be the father? … Could your sister be your brother too? Could your brother be your father?” (25). He learns from Nana, in the context of the town gossip about Chandin and his daughter Mala, that “the father could be the grandfather too,” but that “it's not good, it's not nice” (25). It takes Tyler a long time to distinguish “between his [Chandin's] perversion and what others called mine” (48).
Mala's identity-splitting—she sees herself as adult Mala, and as a child (Pohpoh) that she must protect—is another form of the multiplicity of identity in the novel, but is also a result of child sexual abuse. The question of incest also masks an instance of interracial attraction—Chandin's secret and unrequited love for Lavinia Thoroughly, the daughter of the rich white missionary family that adopts him as a native protégé. When his attraction becomes apparent to the Reverend Thoroughly, the Reverend forbids the relationship on the grounds that Chandin and Lavinia are “siblings,” even though it is clear that Chandin's dark skin and role as representative “of the race that it was their mission to Christianize” (38) is the real obstacle. Thoroughly argues, “You cannot, you must not have desire for your sister Lavinia. That is surely against God's will” (37). In this case, Thoroughly thwarts Chandin's attempt to cross racial and social borders.
Cereus Blooms at Night consistently links these questions of sexual identity with the idea of metamorphosis or liminality, including the forms of border-crossing discussed above. The novel also plays with the designations “perverse” and “natural” in relation to the “natural” world of plants and insects that surrounds Mala's house. This linking of the metamorphosis of sexuality with the larger metamorphosis of the natural world serves to authorize the location of these marginal characters in Caribbean space. Mala's house is surrounded by the scent of decay, a result of the bodies of insects she collects, the snail shells she carefully boils, and her father's decaying corpse she hides in the cellar. To Mala, this smell is not offensive; it is “the aroma of life refusing to end … the aroma of transformation” (128). This transformation reaches out to the main characters. The plant of the title, cereus, is an otherwise nondescript cactus plant that blooms once a year in an astonishing unfolding of petals and scent. The plant's rare appearance of “exquisite elegance” for “one short, precious night” (54) occurs as Otoh, Tyler, and Mala are brought together in the narrative, a juxtaposition that demands associating the characters with the plant. Like the cereus, Tyler testifies that, through his connection with Mala, “my own life has finally … begun to bloom” (105). Mala, in turn, resembles many natural things: a bird, a “giraffe” (178), the mudra tree into which she blends. Initially unable to see Mala against the tree trunk, Otoh says that he could have “mistaken her for a shrub” (155). Mala is like the snails for which she cares; Lavinia tells her that snail souls protect the humans who care for and protect living snails; and Ambrose watches out for Mala, he tells Otoh, because “you might simply consider charity towards such a creature as insurance toward positive retribution” (107-08). The novel links these major characters with the natural world in order to situate queer identity in Caribbean space.
Mootoo's vision of the local Caribbean queer community of “Paradise” takes a utopian shape. Once Tyler “metamorphoses” into an openly gay man, he is accepted by his fellow nurses and staff at the nursing home. Mr. Hector, the gardener to whom Tyler is attracted, tells Tyler of his gay brother Randy, who was sent away by his mother in order to protect him from an abusive father. Mr. Hector says to Tyler, “Is like you bring Randy back to me, boy. … I want to ask you so many questions but I don't even know what it is I want to know” (73-74). When Tyler later “unabashedly declare[s]” himself, “cross[es] [the] line,” and walks arm in arm with Otoh wearing a skirt, makeup, and scent, Mr. Hector says, “I wish my brother could meet you two. … By any chance, you know my brother?” (247-48). However, other experiences of the main characters are not so clearly positive, such as the double-edged form of acceptance Otoh earns from his mother, Elsie. Near the end of the novel, Elsie surprises him by indicating that she is fully aware of Otoh's (technically) female sex; she reminds him that “you don't have anything between those two stick legs of yours” (237), telling him,
you are not the first or the only one of your kind in this place. You grow up here and you don't realize almost everybody in this place wish they could be somebody or something else? That is the story of life here in Lantanacamara. … every village in this place have a handful of people like you. And is not easy to tell who is who. … I does watch out over the banister and wonder if who I see is really what I see.
Elsie Mohanty connects Otoh's sexual identity with the novel's larger themes of metamorphosis and indeterminacy of identity, but she does so in a way that divests Otoh's sexual difference of its specificity at the same time as it brings Otoh into a larger Caribbean community. The novel ends with Tyler's vision of a reunion drawing Lavinia, Sarah, and Mala's sister Asha into this eclectic community. The utopian spirit of this vision, however, is compromised by Lavinia and Sarah's haunting absence from the text, the violence of their exit, and the extremity of abuse inflicted by Chandin on Mala and Asha after Sarah's necessarily hasty departure.7
The violence surrounding Lavinia and Sarah's absence ensures that the novel's utopianism is still implicated in (and resistant to) very real conditions of exclusion and oppression, as does its implicit linking of Mala, Tyler, and Otoh with decolonizing politics. The novel makes this link in part through the character of Chandin, whose abuse of his daughters cannot help but be linked to his role in the text as a representative (and victim) of colonizing missionary work. For a time, Chandin wholeheartedly adopts the manner, dress, and goals of Reverend Thoroughly and students from the Shivering Northern Wetlands (presumably a stand-in for England) and assists Thoroughly in the conversion of Indo-Caribbean field labourers. At another level, though, the text counterposes a monolithic colonizing discourse (represented by the exclusivity of the surname “Thoroughly”) with the myriad possibilities and multiple identities offered by the central characters. Through a “both/and” approach to sexuality, Mootoo uses the flexibility of queer identity as a decolonizing tool.
Trinidad-born Dionne Brand's poetry, essays, documentary film work, and novel all respond politically and poetically to forms of oppression that include racism, sexism, and homophobia. In Another Place, Not Here extends the commitments of Brand's poetry to bring together more fully a lesbian love story situated in anti-racist and Caribbean anti-colonial politics. Her novel is structured around her protagonists' movements between nations and places, as indicated by the title, In Another Place, Not Here. But, as the title also indicates, place, or in particular a sense of belonging to a place, is always deferred. Verlia and Elizete meet while cutting cane on a Caribbean island identifiable as Grenada. Their love and their individual histories take shape in a non-linear, often fluidly poetic movement between Canada—where Verlia lived before meeting Elizete and where Elizete travels after Verlia's death—and the Caribbean, where both women grew up and later meet each other, and where Verlia is killed during the American invasion. Canada and the Caribbean operate as poles in Brand's search for a home for her black Caribbean lesbian characters and in her efforts to claim legitimacy for lesbian subjectivity. As Mootoo's novel does with queer identity, In Another Place, Not Here asserts a sense of “ownership” over Caribbean space for lesbian sexuality and articulates it through a connection between lesbian erotics and Caribbean images. But the novel also suggests that, as a result of the various forms of oppression its characters are subject to, no place is home for Verlia and Elizete, except perhaps the metaphorical home created through political struggle and commitment. The novel therefore proposes a dialectic between a utopian vision of lesbian space and a more materialist or activist critique of the disenfranchisements of racism and homophobia.
The core of the book is a series of scenes at the beginning of the novel where the two women meet and begin their relationship on a cane field in a place called Caicou. Elizete's description of Verlia and of her growing attraction to her is phrased in sensual terms that connect both women to the Caribbean landscape around them. For Elizete, the connection between the two women is sweet like sugar. She says,
That woman like a drink of cool water. The four o'clock light thinning she dress, she back good and strong, the sweat raining off in that moment when I look … I see she. Hot, cool and wet. I sink the machete in my foot, careless, blood blooming in the stalks of cane, a sweet ripe smell wash me faint. With pain. Wash the field, spinning green mile after green mile around she. See she sweat, sweet like sugar.
A constellation of images connects the two women sensually to the place they are in and to its history of (forced) labour: sugar, sweat, and sea; cane, water, heat, and blood. Verlia has a “mouth like a ripe mango” (13), and when she whispers “Sister” to Elizete, Elizete says the sound “feel like rum going through my throat” (14). Elizete herself, associated with the earth in this novel, becomes part of the land in her fantasy. When the man she lives with abuses her, she thinks, “I carried a mountain inside of me. The thought of him and his hardness cut at the red stone in me from sun-up to sundown” (11). She shovels in a quarry, imagining that her body can have the destructive power of the earth:
I feel my body full up and burst. All my skin split. … I dream of taking his neck with a cutlass and running to Maracaibo, yes. I imagine it as a place with thick and dense vine and alive like veins under my feet. … I destroying anything in my way. … My stomach will swell and vines will burst out. I dream it is a place where a woman can live after she done take the neck of a man. Fearless.
In other words, in these early scenes, the novel invokes the Caribbean landscape for at least two purposes: it uses sensual imagery that firmly situates the women's love in Caribbean space; and it links Elizete's body to the landscape to provide a means of fantasizing her resistance.
As indicated earlier, though, Brand's novel partly proposes a utopic space for lesbianism, not by disavowing any of the violent history or present of racism and sexism in the Caribbean and Canada, but rather by leaving unnamed the different geographies in which the novel takes place. Sudbury, Ontario is named, and so is Toronto, which is further identifiable by street names only; and Canada is identifiable primarily by extrapolation from the cities mentioned. The novel uses the word “islands” but does not mention Caribbean countries by name. Except for landmarks like Grand Anse and Morne Rouge that identify Grenada, or, in other cases, Trinidad, the litany of place names gives an impression of specific locations without, usually, offering the name of the country. This strategy reinforces the novel's focus on place rather than nation and allows Brand to imagine a utopian space for her Caribbean lesbian characters without the singularity of specific nation-states.
In dialectic tension with this utopian and affirmative vision of Caribbean lesbian space, In Another Place, Not Here suggests that no place (ou-topos, or utopia, means “no place”) is home for Caribbean lesbians. The pattern for this sense of dispossession is set in the story of Adela, the great-great-grandmother of the woman who raises Elizete. When Adela is brought by slave ship to the Caribbean, she memorizes the route in order to find her way back. But when she arrives and “done calculate the heart of this place, that it could not yield to her grief, she decide that this place was not nowhere and is so she call it. Nowhere” (18). She lets the maps fade in her head, refuses to name her children or anything in this new place, and forgets “she true true name and she tongue” (20). Elizete inherits from Adela this negation of the place she is in, and uses it to explain “how I don't know the names of things though I know their face. I know there is names for things but I cannot be sure of the truth of them” (19-20). Despite her sense of dispossession, Elizete understands Adela's reaction but decides to name the things around her, to bring back Adela's memory of herself, and not to “feel lonely for something I don't remember” (24). She says,
Nothing barren here, Adela, in my eyes everything full of fullness, everything yielding, the milk of yams, dasheen bursting blue flesh. … Where you see nowhere I must see everything. Where you leave all that emptiness I must fill it up. … the place beautiful but at the same time you think how a place like this make so much unhappiness. But since then I make myself determined to love this and never to leave.
Elizete gently takes possession of this place in the name of a woman, turning Adela's negations into affirmations.
In Canada, on the other hand, both women find that dispossession and alienation cannot be overcome. Elizete's strategy of naming does not work in Toronto. She says, “this place resisted knowing. When she tried calling it something, the words would not come. … Her names would not do for this place” (69-70). She lives as an illegal, underground. She cannot make a mark on this place:
Here, there were many rooms but no place to live. No place which begins to resemble you, had you put a chair here or thrown a flowered curtain in the window or painted the trim of a door pink or played a burst of calypso music through its air or even burned a spice.
Abena, an activist in Toronto and Verlia's former lover, tells Elizete, “Go home, this is not a place for us. … No revolution is coming baby” (109-10). Elizete confirms this, saying, “Go home. And really no country will do. Not any now on the face of the earth when she thought about it. Nothing existed that she could live in” (110). She feels “cold and motherless” at the thought—“Crazy, without a country” (109). She is without a home or country because of racial and sexual oppression in Canada, and because she has lost the woman she loves and cannot speak of this love to anyone; she connects nation-space with this love when she says, “Life already take a country and a woman from me” (111).
For Verlia, there are two worlds in Toronto. There is the white world that “runs things” and that she ignores as much as possible: it is “opaque” and “something to keep an eye on, something to look for threat in” (180). Then there is “the other world growing steadily at its borders,” the one “she knows and lives in” (180). Verlia lives in the world of black people and anti-racist movement in Toronto, and by her involvement in the Movement she claims this place as Elizete claimed her island. At age seventeen, escaping her family home in the Caribbean and travelling to Toronto to join the Black Power Movement, Verlia says, “it doesn't matter that it's Toronto or a country named Canada. Right now that is incidental, and this city and this country will have to fit themselves into her dream” (159). When she decides she can be most effective by joining the revolution in Grenada, she commits herself to this revolution as one would to a place. Elizete says of Verlia, “She bet all of she life on this revolution. She had no place else to go, no other countries, no other revolution” (114-15). She also loves the revolution as she would love a woman—she “falls as if in love” with the revolution and with Che's words: “the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love” (165). Verlia asserts that as a black lesbian she will not find a home anywhere but in political activity and “love of living humanity” (166), in challenging the dispossession that makes neither Canada nor the Caribbean her home.
In Another Place, Not Here, therefore, responds to the exclusion of Caribbean lesbians from national space in a number of ways. It sets up a dialectic that requires two mutual strategies: a utopic assertion of Caribbean lesbians' belonging in Caribbean space, through a connection between lesbian erotics and Caribbean space; and an activist assertion that belonging is found through political activity, the attempt ultimately to create a social utopia. These two facets of the novel come together in the final scene, when Verlia either jumps or is shot by American soldiers and falls off a cliff, tracing an arc in the sky. Elizete, at the top of the cliff, falls and tunnels into the ground. These images mirror an earlier scene in the novel, when the two women are making love, and Elizete says that Verlia writes her words “in an arc in the sky” (75) while her own words “come to grounds” (75). Verlia's leap into the air also links her resistance with that of the Caribs in Grenada who, after fighting the French in 1651, leapt to their deaths over a cliff at Sauteurs Bay.8 In other words, the novel brings together the two women's love with revolutionary action and situates these two things in the history of resistance in Grenada. Verlia's death, which haunts the entire text, appears in these final pages as utopian, an escape into her dream of “going to some place so old there's no memory of it” (246)—another layer of this scene's meaning, invoking Africa and the myth of “flying back to Africa.”9 Yet the text is haunted also by the death of revolution in Grenada, about which Brand writes elsewhere, “there isn't a hand large enough / to gesture this tragedy … / dream is dead / in these antilles” (“October 19th, 1983” 40). Perhaps it is this lost dream that prevents an easy bringing together of the two sides of Brand's dialectic. Even though the final scenes of the novel may show the necessity of both utopian visions of belonging, and engaged political struggle to free places for this belonging, Brand refuses to compromise or suggest a middle ground.
Dionne Brand and Shani Mootoo, therefore, use utopianism to explore what it might mean to imagine a space for lesbians and gay men in the Caribbean. In Cereus Blooms at Night, this imagined place is inhabited by a coalition of queer subjects who find healing and a space for the performance of their liminal identities. The fragile sense of “paradise,” however, is complicated by the sexual, spiritual, and physical violence of colonialism and other forms of oppression. In In Another Place, Not Here, the “no place” of utopia or Adela's “Nowhere” (18), indicates a dialectic between an affirmative imagined space of Caribbean lesbians' belonging and a recognition of the need for political revolution to make this vision real. The novel draws together erotic and political utopias by connecting the two women's love with the revolutionary's love for “the people.” These decolonizing and sexually emancipatory projects are both collective: both novels focus on a pair or group of characters rather than on a single protagonist. Both novels, finally, call for an anti-homophobic articulation of Caribbean decolonizing politics, and for a fuller understanding of the diversity of Caribbean experience.10
Teresa Zackodnik's use of this Lamming quotation as an epigraph to her paper “‘I am Blackening in My Way’: Identity and Place in Dionne Brand's No Language is Neutral” suggested to me the appropriateness of the quotation for this paper on Brand and Mootoo.
The first part of my title is an allusion to Evans's book, Sexual Citizenship: The Material Construction of Sexualities.
A US-English translation of the lyrics appeared in the New York Post in the Saturday, Oct. 24/Sunday, Oct. 25, 1992 edition. Some examples of the lyrics from this source and others include “Get an automatic or an Uzi instead, shoot them now, let us shoot them” (“Hate Music” 1) and “rudebwoy nuh promote no nasty man, dem haffi de'd” (Noel 29). Cooper makes a number of arguments about the translation. She argues that “the privileging of the literal to articulate the abstract is not always understood by non-native speakers of Jamaican” and suggests that the Jamaican creole phrase “aal bati-man fi ded” is not a literal death sentence, but rather “an indictment of the abstraction, homosexuality” (438-39). She claims that the translation of “tyre wheel” into “firewood” in the line “Burn him like old firewood” divests the lyrics of their allusion to “the necklacing of traitors in South Africa” and thereby to “a pattern of ideological convergence in which both homosexuality and racism are constructed in dancehall culture as equally illegitimate” (443). Finally, she argues that the line “Hapi an yu lov it / yu fi jojos / bum bai bai” (“If you're happy and you love it / You should just / bum bai bai”) is “a gun salute to heterosexuality itself, rather than the inciting to violence against homosexuals” (444). Cooper's efforts to explain the cultural contexts of the song do not adequately deal with the very real threats of violence against gay men both in New York and in Jamaica (two scenes for the debate over the lyrics) that are not allayed by nuances of translation.
Chin refers to Cliff's essay “If I Could Write This in Fire, I Would Write This In Fire” and her novels Abeng and No Telephone to Heaven, and H. Nigel Thomas's Spirits in the Dark. For further articulations of gay and lesbian sexuality in the Caribbean, see Audre Lorde's Zami; Patricia Powell's three novels Me Dying Trial,A Small Gathering of Bones, and The Pagoda; Makeda Silvera's Her Head a Village and Remembering G and other Stories and her edited collections Piece of My Heart: A Lesbian of Colour Anthology and Má-Ka: Diasporic Juks (edited with Debbie Douglas, Courtney McFarlane, and Douglas Stewart); and Lawrence Scott's Ballad for the New World and Other Stories and Witchbroom.
I should make clear here that I do not intend to open up the subject of how popular culture shapes cultural and sexual identity, or propose a dialogue between oral/popular culture and literary texts. Rather, I am taking my cue from the critical response to the Banton issue, and using this as an exemplary case of articulation of the problem of homophobia in Caribbean culture.
Certainly, my selection process in naming these writers (deciding what constitutes a representation of gay or lesbian sexuality) reflects my own position as a white Canadian, and my outsider status vis à vis Caribbean culture. I am looking for certain kinds of representations that I recognize as gay or lesbian, after taking my cue from writers such as Brand and Mootoo. I have been struggling for ways to theorize and frame representations of gay and lesbian sexuality in Caribbean women's literature, and finding that “identity politics” models, and more mobile uses of the term “queer,” often seem out of place. Provisionally, I think these concepts work with Brand's and Mootoo's novels, respectively; but I am finding that my evaluation of critical materials on Caribbean analyses of sexuality also falls into dichotomies of inside/outside.
On a different note, Cobham has pointed out the cultural specificity of sexuality in an essay on African writing, in which she argues for a distinction between homoerotic behaviours and homosexuality as “identity.” Her distinction might be a useful framework for reading homoeroticism in other Caribbean women's texts, such as Jamaica Kincaid's.
Shazia Rahman has pointed out to me that Lavinia and Sarah may not have returned for Asha and Mala because the older women have died, which suggests that outside of the utopian space of “Paradise,” the lesbians cannot survive. Perhaps the lesbians cannot survive in “Paradise,” either, or perhaps they have found freedom elsewhere on the island, or abroad—the novel is inconclusive on the women's outcome.
This scene may be an allusion to Walcott's Another Life. (Thanks are due to Stephen Slemon for pointing out to me this connection) The reference to Sauteurs appears in Chapter 11 of Another Life:
yet who am I, under such thunder, dear gods, under the heels of the thousand racing towards the exclamation of their single name, Sauteurs! Their leap into the light? … I am one with this engine which is greater than victory, and their pride with its bounty of pardon. … I am all, I am one …
I would like to thank Heather Zwicker for pointing out to me the possibility that the “place so old there's no memory of it” is Africa.
This paper was first presented as a conference paper on Dionne Brand for the Sixth International Conference of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars, in Grand Anse, Grenada. I would like to thank those conference participants who made comments on the paper and those colleagues who offered suggestions on both the conference version and the present version of this article: John Wilson, Heather Zwicker, Guy Beauregard, Stephen Slemon, Shazia Rahman, Teresa Zackodnik, Brendan Wild, Sujaya Dhanvantari, and Michelle Smith-Bermiss. I would also like to thank the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Scholarship Fund, and the Sarah Nettie Christie Travel Bursary Fund for their generous support of the research for this paper.
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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9507
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.
Amin, Samir. Empire of Chaos. New York: Monthly Review, 1992.
———. Spectres of Capitalism: A Critique of Current Intellectual Fashions. New York: Monthly Review, 1998.
Bales, Kevin. Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. Berkeley: U of California P, 1999.
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.
Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken, 1969.
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.
Davis, Charles T., and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., eds. The Slave's Narrative. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1985.
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.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism: Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.
———. 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.
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Winks, Robin W. The Blacks in Canada: A History. 2nd ed. Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP, 1997.
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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 given me political energy for those struggles, given me pleasure too. With Land to Light On, however, so powerful a first-person persona does she create, with such obvious grounding in some of the details of her life-story, that I was constantly working not to read the work as autobiographical and to keep in check the growing sense of fear I felt for the creator of such a dispirited voice.
If the book title leads any readers to believe initially that the poems will represent Canada as a land of refuge, the opening sequence, “I have been losing roads,” will soon disabuse them of any such notion. Its persona is in no sense taken in; rather she stands exposed “Out here … without the relief of the sky or good graces of a door.” Still worse, she reports in Caribbean-inflected phrasing, if she finds any peace in this discomfort, “is not peace, / is getting used to harm.” The pared syntax here is a disquietingly perfect mirror for the ever more straitened life this woman repeatedly says she is giving up on. Gripped by the recognition of the larger imaginative truth her words tell, I found little reassurance in reminding myself that Brand's immediate experience might not necessarily stand behind the displacing “you” in the liquid-nitrogen lines:
If the trees don't flower and colour refuse to limn when a white man in a red truck on a rural road jumps out at you, screaming his exact hatred of the world, his faith extravagant and earnest and he threatens, something about your cunt you do not recover
Having given us essays, stories, and poetry based on her time in Grenada, “that island with an explosive at the beginning of its name”—the hope with which she went, the fierce anger alternating with despair with which she fled the American invasion—can Brand have been unaware of how tempting it is to read as confessional the poems' representation of a disillusioned present: “is here I reach / framed and frozen on a shivered / country road instead of where I thought / I'd be in the blood / red flame of a revolution”? So powerfully evocative of an agonized spirit is the impression she creates that I confess that when her poetic voice laments “My life was supposed to be wider, not so forlorn / and not standing out in this north country bled like maple,” fear began to take hold of me, and I lost the sense of separation between author and persona. It was her I feared for as I read of a vision of “a life that I was to finish by making something of it / not regularly made, where I am not this woman / fastened to this ugly and disappointing world.” Knowing how she has dedicated her life to leftist struggle and seen the socialist world collapse at the end of the millennium, how could anyone not wonder about the extent to which Brand herself has known that “The body bleeds only water and fear when you survive the death of your politics.” The book's importance, however, lies not in any possible crypto-autobiography but in its exploration of what it means to live beyond the disintegration of everything on which someone has built a life. The picture is not pretty, but its crafting is superb.
Any sense that such a person might find some semblance of uplift in the natural beauties of this country fails before the image of the land as indifferent torturer that Brand enters into the national archive alongside the images of LePan, Birney, Frank Scott, MacEwan and Atwood. Brand's Canada indeed seems to revive the Frygian eco-monster: “this wide country just stretches your life to a thinness / just trying to take it in … the airy bay at its head scatters your thoughts like someone going mad from science and birds pulling your hair.” This is a land where “ice invades your nostrils in chunks, land fills your throat” and where “scrambling to the Arctic so wilfully” results only in “get[ting] blown into bays and lakes and fissures you have yet to see.”
An earlier assessment of possible directions had both denied the desirability of north—“I'm heading to frost, to freezing”—and envisioned dis(-)ease as the likely outcome of going back to the Caribbean: “perhaps returning south heads to fever.” Yet that perhaps keeps alive the possibility of a more positive journey back, until she makes a kind of imaginative return. Then the seductive vivacity of the West Indian aunts she images for us in “Dialectics” cannot displace the antithetical images of a life lived in poverty. Thus the introduction of Aunt Phyllis, “her mouth sweet on laughter and paradise plums” is countered by alerting readers to Phyllis's daily martyrdom of “a foot that wouldn't / cure” and to the desperation of the various other women Brand represents. Her writing is most evocative when she foregrounds the woman with three children cannibalizing her beleaguered energies as she goes to their father's workplace on payday to try to claim a share of the paycheck before it disappears in drink. There she finds patriarchy ascendant and materialized in the studied indifference of the guard at the company barricade, the father's having already slipped away, and his fellow workers' mockery as they pass her by: “their laughter here rattling in the can of the truck like uneven stone.” Though the persona can find some relief in the knowledge that “I never fell into the heaviness of babies,” there is no synthesis to this dialectic of positives and negatives in Caribbean community; there is, finally, only flight: “I wanted to fly into their skins and I wanted to escape them.”
Friendship offers no solution to her persona's homeless condition either, despite the early promise built in the iteration and re-iteration of long-standing friendship: “I sit with my old friend at Arani, my old friend.” That promise erodes quickly in the context of Brand's reading of the restaurant setting. Arani is all that the restaurant owner has “culled from where he came from,” the Indian state of Kerala, converted to commerce. And the friendship founders between patriarchy and feminism: “Between us, there's a boy, his son he hasn't seen, a friendship I'm holding for ransom until he does.”
Friendships and even sexually intimate relationships also falter in an environment constituted in “Islands Vanish” in a way that will be familiar to readers of Brand's earlier “Winter Epigrams.” This environment is comprised of equal parts of Canadian winter and freezer-burning racism. Brand relocates the “heart of darkness” to Canada's winter roads patrolled by cops with “snow-blue laser” eyes that fix “Three blacks in a car on a road blowing eighty miles an hour in the wind between a gas station and Chatham” and manifests the darkness's effects in the admission “I coil myself up into a nerve and quarrel with the woman, lover, and the man for landing me in this white hell.” Even if the quarrel is resolved for a time, the strain of living in such a hostile environment shows by the time she revisits such relationship in “Through My Imperfect Mouth and Life and Way.” What had “looked like the opposite” of grief comes to disappoint too: “I had hoped that she could see me … / even if I look like some stone sitting there hoping that I turn to stone.”
This latter sequence does, however, begin to create some sense of the possibility of art being a kind of land to light on, when political and personal hopes have been dashed:
I know that I live some inner life that thinks it's living outside but isn't and only wakes up when something knocks too hard and when something is gone as if gazing up the road I miss the bus and wave a poem at its shadow. But bus and shadow exist all the same and I'll send you more poems even if they arrive late.
Admittedly, this sense of possibility is undercut by “Every Chapter of the World,” a textualizing of the multiply constituted global crises at the end of the century that also includes a reminder that English is the “tongue of conquest, language of defeat.” Yet even here the grounds for despair are so powerfully constructed by Brand's words, that even as I felt a renewed collapsing of that distance between author and persona in the prediction “She may not leave here anything but a prisoner / circling a cell, // cutting the square smaller and smaller and walking into herself,” I found reason to believe that art is at least the beginning of the synthesis that had earlier escaped her persona. That Land to Light On won the 1997 Governor General's Award for poetry is testament that even such a discomfiting message as Brand's book brings us has the capacity to insist its way into Canadian minds. And there it can fire the hope of those of us who, like her persona, feel they “still need the revolution / bright as the blaze of the wood stove in the window” to get them through the socially, politically, and economically constructed cold of century's end.
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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 guided our culture. We find this fact embarrassing and we rush to deny its relevance, or we excuse our exclusionist practices by reminding ourselves, incessantly, “at least we are not like the Americans.” With this holiest of mantras, we exorcise our own history of First Nations and African slavery; banishments of First Nations and Métis peoples; racial segregation in public schools; the imposition of a head tax upon Chinese immigrants; the enactment of anti-coloured immigration laws; the racist application of capital punishment; the barring of Jews fleeing Hitler; the theft of Japanese-Canadians' property and their forced relocation from their West Coast homes; the frequent white riots against “Oriental” and “Negro” Canadians; the strenuous effort to erase First Nations cultures in assimilationist residential schools and patriarchal bestowals—or denials—of Indian status; the promulgation of restrictive immigration regimes; the promotion of white papers abolishing Aboriginal rights; the stereotyping of visible minorities in mass media; the structural displacement of visible minorities from many sectors of the society and the economy (including the academy); the homicidal deployment of a neo-Nazi regiment to Africa; and the inequitable use of deadly police force against First Nations peoples and visible minorities. I regret the depressing length of the previous sentence. What is even more depressing, however, is the truth that few of us would be able to discuss—with any concreteness—any of my catalogued manifestations of mainstream-produced racial discriminations.
So, what is to be done? To begin, we have to eschew our tendency to overcompensate, to acclaim every writer of colour out of remorse for what we have done—are doing—to communities of colour in Canada. We are a people who like our crimes sanitized, our terrorisms airbrushed out of existence, our horrors muted and whited from the history books. What we must do—I will be prescriptive—is face our history, admit our brutalities and inclemencies, and cease our constant, silent efforts to make or keep Canada “white.” We must recognize, once and for all, that Canada was never a “white” country (nor a “white man's country”) and abandon the foolish, false nostalgia that blurs our vision and befuddles our judgement. Ideally too, we must end our hypocritical posturing vis-à-vis the United States and eliminate our own prejudices before we try to preach the gospels of diversity and multiculturalism to Americans.
Listen: Those of us who read critically in Canadian literature must always be critics, not just champions of one sect or another. Listen: An African-Canadian writer is a writer who is also African-Canadian. His or her ethnicity, race or cultural heritage is important only insofar as it informs his or her writing. The “Tory” critic who sees only a black writer's blackness is just as much a racist as the “Grit” critic who erases every trace of the black writer's blackness. Those of us who feel justified guilt and rage for what white folks have done to black, brown, red and yellow folks must acknowledge the sins of the past and deplore those of the present. True. But when we come to perform criticism, to pour out its exacting, acidic, but features-defining light upon whatever text engages our attention, the wrappings of identity—racial, gender, sexual orientation, et cetera—are to be scrutinized only when they are imbricated with the subject text itself.
I confess that in my four decades as a Canadian—as an African-Canadian—I have seen social progress liberalize even the academy. This is just. Our canons have been enriched by the inclusion of writers of colour and First Nations writers, not merely because of their heritages, but because what they have to say is essential to our common understanding of what it means to breathe this northern air. Yet, as the rest of this paper will demonstrate, our critical reception of First Nations and other writers of colour is still shaded by our rapturous, uncritical guilt and our sycophantic quest for absolution at any cost. To be precise, our recent critiques of three African-Canadian women writers—Claire Harris, M. Nourbese Philip and Dionne Brand—constitute miasmas of panacea politics, a politics that eschews any engagement with poetics. Weakly, meekly, we call these writers “good” because their espousal of good policies and programmes makes us feel good—or, well, not so bad. Yet, they are better writers than our rhetoric allows; they are even, arguably, morally superior to us. But they still wait—we all wait—for a criticism that will be upsettingly, even cruelly, apolitical and illiberal enough to analyze how blackness and womanhood remake syntax, grammar and diction to yield undeniable excellence.
For three decades, Canadianists have sweated tears to demystify Québec, demonize the United States, and define Canadianness. Despite these noble ends, our ideas of Canada recycle us-versus-them dualisms. Surely, our literary criticism has not ventured enough to encompass différence because we crave to be thought innocent of racism (to expunge our heart-sickening guilt). When will we profess our shames, diagnose our ills, write out our wrongs? When will we learn to read all poetry with outrage, with courage?
Criticism is never innocent, for it is the capital means, charges the US African-Americanist Michael Bérubé, of imagining canons and manufacturing literary stars.1 Though it is an instrument of empowerment, criticism can also be subtly abusive, even when its intellectual force is utilized for pristine purposes. Indeed, one of the terrible intoxications of literary theory is that one dreams that one can do socio-political good, dispelling mean forces of malice and ignorance, delivering into the illumination of academic discourse entire canons—or communities—which have been consigned to the limbo of marginality.2 The belief is praiseworthy, and doubly so when it catalyzes joyful political action. Yet, there is something of the missionary position inherent in the posture, especially when an exuberant idealism leads one to champion communities to which one is merely an observer, or a guest, or, perhaps, an interloper, or even, merely, charitably, a missionary. The risk of this is that one's own thrusting of theory, of notions of interpretation, upon the Other (that obscure object of desire), may render mute the actual screams, laughter and shouts of that supposedly beloved Other, that darling community with which the critic-as-missionary conducts intercourse.
I think a process of this sort has been underway in the critical reception of three important African-Canadian poets, all women, all born in Trinidad, all coming into public prominence in Canada in the mid-1980s. Named in birth order, the members of this vital trio—Claire Harris (1937-), M. Nourbese Philip (1947-), and Dionne Brand (1953-), all of whom could be described as Afro-Caribbean or as Black Canadian, have been the subjects of numerous interviews, essays and even a select anthology with an uncritical introduction, over the past two decades. They have been well-fêted, with Claire Harris receiving the Commonwealth Award for Poetry in the Americas in 1984, the Writers' Guild of Alberta Poetry Prize and the Alberta Culture Poetry Prize in 1986, a Governor-General's Award for Poetry nomination in 1993; Philip has been awarded the Casa de las Américas Prize for Anglo-Caribbean Poetry, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1989 and a City of Toronto Arts Award in 1996; and Brand was nominated for the Governor-General's Award for Poetry in 1990, for the Seal Books/Books In Canada First Novel Award in 1996, received the Governor-General's Award for Poetry in 1997 and Ontario's Trillium Book Award in 1998.
Significantly, all three writers have built their literary careers in Canada. Harris arrived in 1966, Philip in 1968, Brand in 1970. Hence, while they may be claimed as “Afro-Caribbean writers in exile,” the tag applied to them by Haitian-Canadian academic Myriam J. A. Chancy, they may also be considered as primarily Canadian writers, for all three began to publish after emigrating to Canada. In this materialist cum realist sense, their voices have always been Canadian—though their audiences have seldom cared to consider this fact. Their early works, on Trinidadian life, Third World and Black revolution, and the unity of the struggling classes, were published in Toronto and Calgary, which suggests that their writing has always been concerned with Canadian regionalism as well as with the nation's peculiar and intractable problems related to book publication, distribution, marketing and sales across its empire-sized geography.
The trap that too many critics fall into in treating this Trinidadian trio is that, in seeking to broadcast their own sermons against racism, sexism, imperialism, classism and homophobia, they either reduce the writers to the status of sociologists or they bleach their work of aesthetic value. The resultant criticism is tedious, inadequate, and—perhaps—insidious.
The first exhibit in my gallery of errors is “After Modernism: Alternative Voices in the Writings of Dionne Brand, Claire Harris, and Marlene Philip” (1992), an essay by white British academic Lynette Hunter. Hunter places the three poets outside of a Canadian literary modernism defined as “postmodernism and neo-romantic surrealism,” both of which “depend upon writing towards the conventional expectations of an extant audience” (257). Unfazed by the polysemous open-endedness of her definitions, Hunter wagers that “the stance taken up by these writers acts towards the possibility of writing by interacting with an audience, constructing a stance out of its social immediacy and historical need” (257). According to Hunter, this Marxian practice “outlines a different kind of community, not working from conventionally accepted grounds, but a community anchored as such by actual social problems, and hence a community that will necessarily change” (257). Though Hunter's rhetoric is opaque, she seems to suggest here that Harris, Philip and Brand write, not for a bourgeois, complacent, thrill-seeking audience, but rather for disaffected constituencies, for communities in turmoil, for congregations of the oppressed. By emphasizing the perceived populism of the trio's works, Hunter seeks to dislodge both a postmodernism that “can offer a rejection of history and make action on immediate issues impossible” and a “Romanticized surrealism encourag[ing] a dislocation into the private, which invalidates discussion and rejects the social” (258). Illustratively, Hunter singles out the best-known Anglo-Canadian writers, Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood (262), as examples of, respectively, “ahistorical postmodernism” and “romanticist individualism/heroics of the surreal” (260). Against these idols of political evacuation, Hunter sets Harris, Philip and Brand as veritable saints of poeticized politics, restoring qualitative urgency and fury to English-Canadian poetry. To Hunter, they are the bards of “action” and of their realities “as women, as lovers, wives, mothers, daughters, women at work” (259). They are angels of agency.
Yet, Hunter's analysis enacts a flaky “maternalism.” For one thing, Hunter dispatches Ondaatje and Atwood too easily. The supposedly apolitical and ahistorical Ondaatje is the author of “Pictures from the War” (1968), a bitter, anti-Vietnam War poem, which sights a child, “its skull drained of liquid / its side unlaced like tennis shoes” (261). Even the poem's assertion that the war pictures are “Beautiful photography / that holds no morality” (261), while superficially apolitical, makes the point that official photographs of governmental atrocities convey, deliberately, a depoliticizing shock.3 Rightly, Atwood is well-known for trumpeting the brand of political anti-Americanism that colours her Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972) and the feminism that informs her novels and poetry collections, including Morning in the Burned House (1995).4 Neither writer is an exponent of unthought, liberal individualism.
Hunter's privileging of “community,” “action” and a populist orientation, moreover, itself sounds suspiciously like a neo-romantic socialist realism. Hunter admits that “one of the most effective strategies for this building of story and movement out into social recognition is conventional realism”, which, as she also confesses, can become “reductive” (279). Nevertheless, by valuing Harris, Philip and Brand as exponents of what might be called feminist realism, Hunter not only imposes a denuded aesthetic on these writers, she also erases political poetry by other Canadian women writers, from Atwood to Erin Mouré, all of whom have been dedicated to women's empowerment as well as other progressive social issues.5 Hunter's categories are so much paper.
A further priminery may be located in Hunter's blithe ascription of apoliticality to the mode of the postmodern. Here, though, she should do battle with Marjorie Perloff, who defends experimental, “pomo” poetry precisely because it permits, she thinks, vaster political agency than the conventional Romantic lyric.6 In Dance of the Intellect: Studies in the Poetry of the Pound Tradition (1985), Perloff argues that
Postmodernism in poetry … begins in the urge to return the material so rigidly excluded—political, ethical, historical, philosophical—to the domain of poetry, which is to say that the Romantic lyric, the poem as expression of a moment of absolute insight, of emotion crystallized into a timeless patterns [sic], gives way to a poetry that can, once again, accommodate narrative and didacticism, the serious and the comic, verse and prose.
Perloff even alleges that “Minor poets continue to write neo-Romantic lyric” (181), a charge which could be applied against Harris, Philip and Brand, since many of their lyrics rely upon the personal voice, the lyric “eye” as lyric “I.” Consider, for instance, Brand's epigram, “they think it's pretty / this falling of leaves / something is dying!” (“4” 197). Consider, too, M. Nourbese Philip's observation, in her essay collection A Genealogy of Resistance and Other Essays (1997), that
in white Canada the kind of poetry which I write has been dismissed as political, with the caveat that poetry cannot be made of politics (this notwithstanding the tradition of their own political poets like Blake, Shelley, and Yeats), particularly politics as it relates to race.
Arrestingly, Philip locates the political in the Romantic cum Modernist tradition, “Blake, Shelley, Yeats,” a fact which should give Hunter some pause. Philip, however, may also be aligned with a postmodern aesthetic, as defined by Perloff, for she notes that the supposed white Canadian aversion to the political “is but a gossamer-thin cover for not wanting to engage with the issues the poetry raises” (Genealogy 130). Moreover, she proclaims that “Postmodernist is another term used to describe my poetry, to which my response is: then the Caribbean was postmodern long before the term was invented” (Genealogy 128-29). Frankly, the base problem with Hunter's definition of the postmodern and the Romantic is that it is imaginatively subjective and thus relies on rhetorical force—on simply asserting that some poets (preferably black women) are just more political than others (the average white man), and that the politically conscious is necessarily the artistically superior.8 Yet, by finding that postmodernism peddles no politics, Hunter almost forces Harris, Philip and Brand into a neo-Romantic camp, a “be-in” of leftist Kitsch.
In Hunter's defence, however, one can posit that a poet like Mouré is hardly a vulgar realist, for she writes L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, while Atwood has written politically-themed verse.9 Yet, this defence must incur the objection that Harris, Philip and Brand are also, at times, avant-gardiste, not communalist, in their poetry; Philip can even be enlisted as a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet, for, to adopt Perloff's definition of the movement, her poetry emphasizes “prominent sound patterning and arcane, or at least ‘unnatural,’ diction” (217) and flouts “established ‘distinctions’ (between essays and lyrics, between prose and poetry, between philosophy and poetry, between theory and practice” (222). Philip realizes that “It can be said—has been said—that I write the kind of poetry that can be described as language poetry—kissing cousins with it at least” (Genealogy 128). She acknowledges that “The audience which appears to have self-selected itself for my work is one that is primarily feminist and womanist, comprised of white and Black women from within and without the academy” (Genealogy 130-31). This audience is neither grassroots popular nor working-class, for Philip admits that “I would very much like to reach a broader cross-section of people, particularly Caribbean and Afrosporic people. That will only happen, however, if and when my work moves into performance” (Genealogy 131). She also senses that “On the surface at least my work does not fit the traditions of Black poetry” (Genealogy 129). Philip's confession deserves attention, for she underscores the truth that these so-called populist feminists often scribe erudite, densely allusive, unapologetically intellectual poems, employing fashionable poetic techniques, which is certainly their artistic right, but also equally certainly not populism.
Harris also evinces some concern about the accessibility of her work, remarking that “The problem is one of audience. We all know for whom we write; the ambivalence, and it is a dangerous one, lies in to whom we write” (qtd. in Hunter 279). A prime example of postmodern difficulty occurs, for instance, in Philip's scintillatingly radical poetry collection, She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks (1989), where, in “Discourse on the Logic of Language” (Morrell 136-39), she cascades verse sideways down the left-hand margins of the page, conjoins verse and prose, mocks grammars and primers, and throws into jeopardy any attempt to read the poem in any standard, linear fashion. Philip herself claims that, in writing her book, “I set out to destroy the lyric voice, the singularity of the lyric voice …” (Genealogy 115). While writing it, she had told herself, “I want to contaminate the poem—fuck the juxtaposition and resonance—poison the purity with that which has already been poisoned—to bring the non-poetic into the poems …” (Genealogy 114-15), a series of precepts which echo Perloff's definition of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry. Likewise, Harris, in “Nude on a Pale Staircase” (1984), limns the disintegration of an interracial union by colliding lyric and prose, each offering a male or female point of view, and disrupting, again, any facile reading.10
In fairness, Hunter accepts this truth. She prefers Brand to Harris and Philip, for the former is more given to setting down straightforward, feminist accounts of experience than the latter pair. Hunter reads Harris as having only gradually evolved a gynocentric position: “Despite the continual reference to women and to women's experience, the touchstones for event in the early books are often male” (266). Harris's “masculinity,” so to speak, is signalled by her aggressive utilization of such late-modern poetics as the fractured page evoking different modes of thought, nonlinear modes of typography, and, always, a complex, abstract texture. Reading Harris's poem, “Every Moment a Window” (1986), Hunter complains, “It is as if the White, intellectual, male tradition of verse and poetics gives [the poem's black female speaker] a window on reality at the cost of desiccating [sic] her ability, her capacity, to experience” (265). Later, Hunter redeems Harris, finding that her poetry, circa 1992, now seems aimed “toward community and authentic voice rather than the opposing dualities of tradition and an essential individual” (269). Ironically, Hunter's critique of Harris exposes her own regressive ascription of masculinity to “intellectual” verse; her stance is maternalistic: the white feminist academic telling the black female poet how to write like a real black woman. At the same time, Hunter ignores the signal interest displayed by both Philip and Brand in that most reprehensible of elitist white male modernists, the world's most notorious créditiste sociale, Ezra Pound. Yet, Brand's Primitive Offensive (1982) performs a riff on Pound's Cantos,11 while Philip samples Pound's dictum, “MAKE IT NEW” (from his “Canto LIII”) in one essay (Genealogy 115) and cites Pound in three others (Genealogy 73, 85, 203).12 Furthermore, Philip admires African-American novelist James Baldwin, even addressing a letter to him in one essay (Genealogy 138-40), while both she and Brand engage in exercises of influence anxiety regarding their home territory's unexcelled English-language poet, Derek Walcott.13 None of this is to deny the saliency of women writers for both Philip and Brand. Still, Hunter's attempt to pillory Harris for relying upon so-called masculinist influences is, shamefully, a model of wilful illiteracy.
As for Philip, Hunter views her work as having undergone an evolution, but one that has not advanced far enough. If Philip's poem “Cyclamen Girl” (1986) undertakes “a study of the way that womanhood can work against the institutions of a White world, how it can be both a preservation from and an opening up into differences from the White world,” if this “bridge the writer builds for her sisters crosses all races” (Hunter 276),14 there is yet a peril: “This poetry trusts to broad cultural and social references of parenthood, authority, childhood, gender, and other metaphors, but in this openness the issue of race and Philip's Black heritage may be passed over” (Hunter 276). A prose work by Philip, “Burn Sugar” (1988), wins Hunter's approval because, by using recipes—which are “historically grounded in food pathways and economics” (277)—it “extends both the literary and linguistic features of traditional prose out into techniques, strategies, and genres drawn from the topic of a woman's audience and community” (277). The audacity of Hunter's insight is blinding; she seems to be in the business of deciding how a black woman writer should write. Though she is careful to state that “There will be necessary differences between any position I could take as a White critic and those of these Afro-Caribbean women writers,” she seeks to validate them as creators of texts that “interact with some common historical grounds that bring the possibility of a socially immediate and radically engaging stance to feminism, at the same time as they open the door on the reality of racial difference and the history of problems that it carries” (258). Crucially, the works of Harris, Philip and Brand “could address these problems and make possible another discussion within feminism about race” (258). Here Hunter signals a utopian wish—or nostalgia (as suggested by the phrase “another discussion”)—for a racially unified women's movement. The chief duty of Harris, Philip and Brand is to create works that will rebuild a fractured solidarity, thus reanimating “a socially immediate and radically engaging stance to feminism” (258).
Predictably then, of the three writers, Brand fares best in Hunter's economy of feminist realism: “Politically the most assertive of the three writers discussed here, Brand is poetically the most traditional” (269). Brand is positioned as having had, like Philip, to evolve, as having abandoned mere “modernist dislocation” (270) for the shining path of prose—the pursuit of “the narrative impulse to conventional communication” (272). Still, Hunter adores Brand, for she enacts both “militant assertiveness” and “formality of style” (273). There is a risk of didacticism in this approach, but someone has to spoon-feed black history to ignorant (or oblivious) whites, who are, Hunter presumes, one of Brand's audiences: “Her work is firmly assertive with an anger that readers either immediately recognize or need to make a place for: the necessity of voicing the fears, reactions, rejections that are tied up in the Black experience of Canada's racism” (273).15
If Hunter prods Harris, Philip and Brand to produce more work in the vein of feminist realism, white Canadian academic Carol Morrell is not far behind. Introducing Grammar of Dissent: Poetry and Prose by Claire Harris, M. Nourbese Philip, Dionne Brand (1993), she lauds the trio for their employment of
three grand strategies in their otherwise highly individual writing projects: they take an essentialist subject-position, they use that subject-position for political intervention, and they startle the reader by interrogating standard English and substituting new usages, often in the Caribbean demotic, for old ones.
Morrell differs from Hunter in casting the works of Harris, Philip and Brand as “highly individual”; but, like Hunter, she values these authors as spokespersons for women and the African diaspora. Hence, Morrell tells us that “All three will assert that they speak ‘for’ their history and ‘on behalf of’ their people, especially the women, however distant in time or place” (10). This political ventriloquism allows the writers “both a community and a coherent sense of self—however fictive or imaginative—from which to act and write” (10). As well, the writers try to “represent a wide variety of women” (12). In opposition to the tendency of retrograde feminists to interpret
The old feminist rallying cry “the personal is the political” [as] inviting women to concentrate merely on their own personal lives, avoiding involvement with large social and political issues[,] Harris, Philip, and Brand … understand and apply the phrase in its original meaning.
Charitably, these black women writers reveal to middle-class white women the ideational truths of feminism. Morrell's comments echo Hunter's endorsement of these three writers as reconstructers of an originally unified feminism. She even submits that they will help Canadians to avoid “a disastrous future of racial conflict” (14). While Hunter strives to teach Harris, Philip and Brand a thing or two about proper political morality, Morrell expects them to teach others. She praises their status as ethical instructors:
When these three authors take up the black, feminist, signifying subject-position, they create a new subject-position: they become teachers of the white Canadian literary and political communities.
Morrell's declaration erases, perhaps unknowingly, nine generations of African Canadians who struggled against racism (and sexism), long before Harris, Philip and Brand began to publish their works. Moreover, her statement suggests that black women's writing is most valuable as a service industry: perhaps no black writer can author anything consequential unless she or he has first obtained a degree in sociology or, better still, performed a stint at social work, to establish his or her credentials.
Sadly, Italian-Canadian academic Joseph Pivato also buys into this idea: In ethnic minority writing we have not only the recuperation of the author, but also the exercise of his or her authority as a voice in and for the community. … When we write about ethnic minority authors we are implicitly recognizing their vital role as voices in their communities.
To support this point, Pivato cites Himani Bannerji's study of Brand, using a passage that appoints her a vox populi: “To read her poetry is to read not only about her but also about her people. Her identification with their struggles both in the metropole of Canada and in the hinterland of the Caribbean” (qtd. in Pivato 160), a comment that recalls the platitudes of Hunter. But with these critical clichés lodged in her consciousness, Morrell claims that the “eloquent contribution” of Harris, Philip and Brand to “literature in Canada is their making their universe visible, persuasive, acceptable” (Introduction 23). Here Morrell's ill-chosen words spark an ill-tempered query: What was the disagreeable condition of African-Canadian women that once rendered their universe “unacceptable”? Furthermore, what about other African-Canadian women writers, such as Nova Scotia's Maxine Tynes? Have they not also contributed to the contemporary literature of their experiences? Morrell's marginalization of “surplus” Black Canadian women writers reveals the ineffectual liberalism that Jewish Canadian academic Enoch Padolsky excoriates. He finds that multicultural Canadian writing fails to garner comprehensive study because once liberal academics pick their star minority-group writers, they treat all others as extras: “Who needs 17 other Mennonite-Canadian writers when there is Rudy Wiebe?” (“Canadian” 377).
In the end, Morrell prefers, implicitly, Brand to Harris, finding that “Harris's poetry is never straightforwardly life-writing” (Introduction 17), while “Brand's work is direct political challenge” (Introduction 23). Morrell views Philip as another speaker, like Brand, of orthodox, grounded truths; her work evinces an “emphatic insistence on the suffering, bleeding yet triumphant female body as the focal point of experience and meaning for women …” (Introduction 19). For Morrell, as for Hunter, the standard for literary achievement is a politicized fealty to realism. Hence, Brand is preferred to Harris and Philip. But both academics refuse to register that all three writers are hardly consistently linear—or even realist—in style.
Nevertheless, Morrell and Hunter represent what has become orthodoxy. Their criticism is endorsed by an essay by African-Canadian academic Rinaldo Walcott. Like Morrell and Hunter, he salutes African-Canadian women writers as definers and defenders of black female subjectivities within a hostile, white, phallocentric space. But he acts out a comedy of exultation, finding that “Philip's and Brand's poetic works perform the fluid movement between ‘hegemonic and ambiguously hegemonic discourse’ to utter black feminist and lesbian words which write/construct new black and white histories” (100-101). Walcott fails to identify these “new” histories, and he offers no description of the ways in which the texts of Philip and Brand intervene “between” hegemonies. It is all just the usual, feel-good rhetoric. Walcott seems to plump, implicitly, for the Morrell perspective that Philip and Brand are pedagogues. He exclaims that
Theirs is not a poetics of victimhood. Instead, Philip and Brand deform and (re)write the laws of the master; and in the process render law-making futile—because of the expressivity and performativity of blackness.
This overblown rhetoric does not distinguish a “poetics of victimhood” from a poetics of—presumably—liberation. Even if accepted at face value, however, it is deviant. For one thing, if Morrell and Hunter have anything right, it is that Philip and Brand (and—lest we forget—Harris) address the victimizations fostered by racism and sexism. Certainly, the most cursory glance at their works will turn up images of victimization—as well as narratives of resistance. Think, for instance, of Philip's “Discourse on the Logic of Language”:
my father tongue is a foreign lan lan lang language I anguish anguish english is a foreign anguish
(qtd. in Morrell 138)
or of Brand's depiction of the self-destruction of the Grenadian Revolution in Chronicles of the Hostile Sun (1984):
after a while, villainy fingers the eyes, / daubs the hills disenchant / and the mouth lies in its roof / like a cold snake.
(“Diary—The Grenada Crisis” qtd. in Morrell 212)18
Then again, how does “(re)writing the laws of the master” serve to cancel law-making? Would not the process of editing such laws constitute an act of legislation? Given the confusion inherent in Walcott's slipshod use of metaphors, it is almost churlish to note his counterclaim that Philip and Brand engage in “no mere rewriting” (97). His essay is no reveille for radicals, for one would think that it is not the task of revolutionaries to edit laws but to abolish them—or to die in the effort. When Verlia, one of Brand's characters, leaps to her death at the finale of the novel In Another Place, Not Here (1996), it is because her socialist pseudo-paradise, St. Vincent (that is, Grenada), is enduring an irresistible assault by the forces of imperialist reaction (245-47).19 She accepts the existentialist notion of revolutionary suicide as her escape from the crisis. A Jonestown philosophy propels her death leap.
Walcott also asserts that Philip, in her poem “Dream-skins” (1989), “alters the notion of ‘bloodcloth’ to reclaim it as a sign for mature womanhood and to articulate a black female self” (114). Characteristically, he deigns neither to explain what “bloodcloth” denotes nor to state how, precisely, Philip alters it, for he enjoys luxuriating in the comforts of a hollow sentiment. In contrast, Hunter reads Philip's “bloodcloth” imagery, with its allusion to mother-child bonding, as an attempt “to build bridges” between black and white women (276). Walcott's inability to define “blood-cloth”—the “nation language”20 term for tampon/binding—obscures what Hunter reveals: this binding
is not just to constrain and keep in but to provide some security: it is about baby binding, finding voice as the mother's voice teaches the child, but here there are two voices. The painful transition into White language is not, however, simply loss.
Hunter's theory that Philip uses “blood-cloth” to indicate an absorption of white language—the bloodiness of that language—contradicts Walcott's sense that Philip's metaphor articulates “a black female self.” But his sentence is so critically vacuous that it neuters any political meaning.
When Walcott declares that Brand “reworks words like ‘guerrillas’ to make them perform the experience and interior life of [a] poem's narrator” (114), he blunders into epistemological catastrophe. He thinks that Brand's “riffing evokes the idea of guerrillas as warriors for justice as well as racist notions of black people being genealogically linked to the ape family” (115). Walcott's sentence is accidentally racist. He uses “genealogically” where he means to use genetically. Too, it is hard to see how Brand's usage of “guerrillas” moves “beyond the discourses of victimhood to resist amputations and to plot and chart the coordinates of a new exodus, one that's embedded with the possibilities of freedom” (115). This phraseology is grandiose, rotund and sonorous, but signifies a fatal weakness in Walcott's approach to both Brand and Philip. He believes they seek “a new exodus” (115), presumably, from Canada. Yet, to depart the country would be an admission of defeat, not triumph; it would be the actual rendering of a “poetics of victimhood.” What Walcott is grasping to achieve is an articulation of how the experience of exodus is “central to the writing of the black diaspora” (96) but his formulation is not merely a tautology, it is a myth, for when he posits that Brand and Philip write from “in-between spaces” (97), he is actually recognizing their at-home Canadianness. For instance, in a book review, Christian Bök observes that Canadian intellectual Arthur Kroker psychoanalyzes Canada “in terms of a humanistic ambivalence toward the postmodern Zeitgeist of technocratic heteronomy … arguing that the imaginative space of the Canadian mind resides in an ‘in-between’” (9). If to be “in-between” is a Canadian predicament, the writing of Philip and Brand is as Canadian as it is anything else. Philip herself, in a poem titled “July Again,” comments that
the mornings … seem always to hesitate … caught between neither and nor like Canada
(qtd. in Morrell 123)
an analysis stressing Canada's ambivalent identity. Too, the themes of Brand and Philip—survival, ambiguity, struggle, et cetera—have long been staples of the nation's literature. In fact, Brand's award-winning poetry collection, Land to Light On (1997), opens with a sequence titled “I Have Been Losing Roads” in which her persona attempts to come to terms with the cold, misogyny and isolation of northern Ontario (3-17). Here, whether she intends it or not, she echoes another immigrant poet situated in a similar geography, namely, Alexander MacLachlan, the nineteenth-century, Scottish socialist bard who emigrated to Canada and wrote class-conscious dialect poems in eastern Ontario. Ultimately though, she seems to follow Ovid, the classical Roman poet exiled to the Ultima Thule of eastern Europe (whose poetry has also influenced Philip).21
Depressingly, Walcott's thuggish cheerleading reduces Philip and Brand to being perpetual exiles who, nevertheless, come in from the cold to instruct their readers in the techniques of cultural survival without ever really having to confront Canada itself. Luckily, the poems themselves scotch such superficial readings. When Walcott declaims that “In Canada, black identities must be rooted elsewhere and that elsewhere is always outside Canada” (122), he does not deign to consider that one of the prophetic projects for both Philip and Brand is to lay claim to a black identity in this place. So, Philip deplores the lack of a “tradition of writing [in Canada] which was in any way receptive to the African writer” (Genealogy 71), while Brand seeks to accent all the lost histories of this country:
Something there, written as wilderness, wood, nickel, water, coal, rock, prairie, erased as Athabasca, Algonquin, Salish, Inuit … hooded in Buxton fugitive, Preston Black Loyalist, railroaded to gold mountain, swimming in Komagata Maru.
One can only wonder what Walcott may make of Philip's identification of Tobago with Cape Breton Island:
[F]or the first time in almost thirty years in this land they call Canada, I am reminded of the love in home. In Cape Breton Island as I witness the heart-stopping beauty that I have only ever seen in Tobago.
Here a supposed “exodus” prefaces a homecoming.22 Philip also sights links between herself and Lucy Maud Montgomery, the “bard” of Prince Edward Island: “On a tiny tropical island a little Black girl develops an odd affinity with a red-headed girl. … Prince Edward Island: source of Lucy Maud Montgomery's writing life. Tobago: source of my own writing life” (Genealogy 28).
Where Walcott leaves off, Myriam Chancy begins. She takes up the imagery of exile and exodus in her analysis of Philip and Brand, whom she defines as “displaced Afro-Caribbean writers in Canada” (78). The subtitle of her chapter on Philip, Brand and Jamaican-Canadian writer Makeda Silvera marries them to the topic of “Women's Dignity in Canadian Exile” (78). Chancy's studies of their work depend mightily on her feeling, as a black, Haitian-born, Canadian-raised academic, now installed in the United States, that
we enact the principles of Afro-Caribbean diasporic feminism in paying attention to those markers of status (race, sex, class, sexuality, and so on), which delimit the quality of our existence in this world, and move more swiftly toward a transformative progress that will better the condition of Black women's lives and of all others concurrently.
Chancy's utilization of “we” is instructive here. She reads Philip and Brand (and Silvera) against the terms of her own uprooting, and displacement, and she is honest about her personal alienation in a way that Walcott is not. There is romanticism here, a sort of feminist Pan-Africanism: “By focusing on our personal existence and politicizing the parameters of that existence, we actively transform the terms of our exile and bring our alienation to an end” (91). Chancy seeks to palliate her own academic estrangement by announcing her own participation in the Andersonian “imagined community” she reconstitutes in her essay. In doing so, she upholds Brand as the paramount articulator of an “Afro-Caribbean diasporic feminist vision” (117), for her work “steadfastly foregrounds and defines the oppression of Afro-Caribbean women as being comprised of homophobia in addition to racism, sexism, and classicism” (117).
foregrounds an identity of her own making, which encapsulates Black women's history in Canada and in the Caribbean as well as her own history as a displaced Afro-Caribbean artist struggling to survive against the forces of racism, sexism, and homophobia.
One can almost imagine Brand heroically donning a helmet, à la Marxist Chilean President Salvador Allende, and making some quixotic last stand. In comparison, Philip fails “to illustrate the growth of an explicitly lesbian relationship [in a novel]” (116). To use a Stalinist analogy, Brand is Lenin, Philip Trotsky. Chancy disapproves of Philip's novel, Looking for Livingstone: An Odyssey of Silence (1991), for it makes no
valuable connections between the presence of racist, sexist, and homophobic oppression in the lives of Afro-Caribbean women in addition to illustrating the difficulties of surviving between the memory of “home” … and the imposition of assimilation in English cultures.
Thus, Philip is just not as politically advanced as Brand, which is a pity.23 To employ a pop trope, if Philip and Brand are both bridge builders, Brand is better off. To Chancy, she “suggests that bridges can alternatively be built out of understanding for the dissimilarities in our eyes, as each of us struggles to survive in the face of a misogynistic, racist, and homophobic patriarchal world order” (91).
In light of the readings proffered by Hunter, Morrell and Chancy, Brand is the demigodhead of justly progressive expressions, with Philip and Harris (or, for Chancy, Silvera) assigned lesser positions—as semi-benighted divines—in this literary trinity. Worrisomely though, while Hunter and Morrell save space on their syllabi for Harris, Chancy and Walcott do not. They exclude her from scrutiny, perhaps because her seeming cosmopolitanism implies a watering-down of black and righteous anger. Not radical enough for their tastes, they ignore her—a warning that her literary stock may be losing some scholarly capital.
Harris need not fret—yet—for her work is saluted in a 1996 essay by Euro-Canadian academic Susan Rudy, titled, “‘What There Is Teasing beyond the Edges’: Claire Harris's Liminal Autobiography.” If some African-Canadian feminist intellectuals have dropped Harris, Euro-Canadian feminist intellectuals have not. Rudy upholds Harris, then, in stereotypical terms:
Harris's representation of a black feminist consciousness requires a complex, constructed, and yet certain … subjectivity. … She speaks out against the potentially unravelling oppressions of race, gender, and class in contemporary Canada, refashioning poetry, narrative, autobiography, and the English language itself in the process.
Like her colleagues Hunter, Morrell, Walcott and Chancy, Rudy highlights her preferred member of the Trinidadian-Canadian trinity as representing an ideal politics, thus reducing her to the mouthpiece of, not even identity politics, but appearance politics, and superficial at that. Moreover, Rudy identifies Harris as that beloved dream of liberal critics, a racial bridge builder:
Reading Harris's work as autobiographical writing, I feel, more overtly than usual, a desire for communication, for social relation with this person writing, for connection across the barriers not only of language but also of racism.
Once again, this Black Canadian woman is exalted as a kind of Trudeaumanic Liberal, permitting the ensconced, institutionalized academic to feel—more soulfully, more philosophically—the thrill of progressivism.24
When Rudy (writing as Susan Rudy Dorscht) reviews Morrell's Grammar of Dissent, she expresses a like delight in discovering works that affirm her ideals: “I am delighted by the appearance of Grammar of Dissent since it will enable me to teach the visceral, intellectual, political work of black, feminist women in Canada” (Review 188). Excitingly too, Morrell's work “makes real and available some of the most committed feminist and anti-racist writing and thinking in contemporary Canada. For that reason alone, I know I shall return to it often” (191). So, Rudy lauds Harris, Philip and Brand for the standard, gospel reasons, using them as mascots or talismans, as madonnas of a humane humanism, a bountiful economics, a Just Society. Faced with such neo-medieval holiness, critique may be surrendered.
Intriguingly though, Rudy protests Morrell's honourable politics by proposing some right honourable politics of her own. Noting Morell's assertion that the “oppositional literature” of Harris, Philip and Brand shows that literature
formed from a context, that speaks directly and passionately about the contradictions in our society and its oppression of certain groups, can be also excellent, stunning not only thematically but technically,
Rudy replies that Morrell's thesis is “not useful” (Review 189). To Rudy, Morrell seems to be positing that
only literature which speaks out against racism, sexism, classism, is formed by its context, that such “oppositional” literature is thematic, and that it is surprising when oppositional work is also “excellent.”
For Rudy, Morrell's words “have the alarming effect of marginalizing the book's contents” (189). Morrell's introduction seems so wrong-headed that Rudy even calls into question Morrell's feminism by stressing that the person who is so patently muddling things is—incredibly—a “she (yes, ‘she’)” (189). When Rudy attacks yet another of Morrell's faux pas, namely her “unproblematized use of terms like ‘outsiders'” (189) to denote “blacks, immigrants, women, and lesbians” (Morrell, Introduction 23), she becomes—exultantly—the political pedagogue that Morrell has failed to be: “Women with a radical politics—which these anti-racist feminists certainly have—do not speak of themselves as outsiders” (Review 189). Paradoxically though, by battling Morrell in this way, Rudy also innocently destabilizes Walcott's ascription of an exilic outsiderness or migrant “in-betweenness” to Philip and Brand.
Though Rudy does not engage explicitly in any ranking exercises, she seems—like Hunter and Chancy—to finger Brand as the stand out of the group, that is, if line count is any guide. She assigns Harris a nine-line paragraph, Philip a 10-liner, but Brand a solid 13-liner (exclusive of a nine-line quotation from a poem) (Review 189-90). Despite these telling apportions of space, nothing substantial is said about the writers. We learn that “Harris's work is nothing short of a gift,” that Philip foments an “analysis of racism in Canadian culture,” and that Brand “takes on these issues [of race and sexualities] directly.” Here is the evacuation of critique, vapidly conducted.
The South Asian-Canadian academic, Victor J. Ramraj, in his article, “West Indian-Canadian Writing in English” (1996), also canvasses well-trodden territory in his commentary on Harris, Philip and Brand. Ramraj finds that the three writers
are fundamentally concerned with past and present abuses, marginalization, and “dehumanizing exclusivity” of the black woman as a colonial in imperial societies and as an immigrant in North American societies.
He deems Harris the most adept racial bridge builder of the trio, judging that, in Dipped in Shadow (1996), a quintet of long poems, Harris “downplays ethnic particulars as she explores the lot of women of various racial and ethnic backgrounds” (165). But “Brand and Philip are far more militant and confrontational than Harris in their writing” and “they make greater use of narratives of slavery and colonization to accentuate the plight of contemporary blacks” (165-66). While they may be more authentic agents of fury than Harris, Ramraj favours Harris's apparent belief that “in a society with conflicting but interpenetrating cultures it is important to recognize differences as well as commonalities” (165). Yet, by taking this stance, Ramraj jeopardizes Padolsky's celebratory statement that “Brand's championing of ‘Black and immigrant working class women and white working class women’ clearly shows a bridging that crosses racial categories, without of course denying them” (“Ethnicity” 31). For Ramraj, Harris is the Great Communicator across racial and ethnic divides;25 for Padolsky, it's Brand; for Hunter, it's Philip, the “generous” bridge builder (275), though at the cost of perhaps neglecting her “Black heritage” (276). These are paltry, prettifying—no, petrifying—findings.
With collaborationist ease, Hunter, Morrell, Walcott, Chancy, Rudy and Ramraj exalt Harris, Philip and Brand as standard-bearers of feminism, or anti-racism, or socialism, or anti-imperialism or anti-homophobia (and, in Brand's case, all of the above). By addressing this choice troika, white female critics are given leave to talk about race; white male critics (though suspiciously few to date) are freed to discuss repressed issues (see Padolsky “Ethnicity”); black critics are enabled to discuss sexism and homophobia; and exilic post-colonial critics are empowered to focus on the utopia of the lost home and the cold evils of the “new land.” It is safe to assume that most of the criticism to date on Harris, Philip and Brand falls into one of these conventional—even conservative, racial bridge building—paradigms.
Yet, we do Harris, Philip and Brand a vacuous—but vicious—injustice, and we short change the entirety of African-Canadian literature, by elevating them to triumvirate status without paying them the compliment of examining all aspects of their poetics. We should also be troubled by our refusals to engage the work of black male homosexual writers like Nova Scotia's Frederick Ward and Walter Borden,26 or the feminist writings of Tynes, who also champions the rights of the physically-challenged and who holds, like Brand, a national award, namely, the People's Poet Award (1988). We must also examine the reason for the critical neglect of the work of younger, Canadian-born, black female and male writers—British Columbia's Wayde Compton, Alberta's Suzette Mayr, Québec's Robert Sandiford. Is it because they lack the glamour of exoticism?
Bluntly, much of the criticism of Harris, Philip and Brand is irrelevant. It is not enough to acclaim them as poets of exodus; no, not when Brand writes about Toronto and northern Ontario, not when Harris centres her writing career in Alberta, not when Philip identifies with Anne of Green Gables (Genealogy 28). Nor is it sufficient to rank them according to some scale of political virtue. If an “Afro-Caribbean diasporic” aesthetic is preferable to any other, what does this option do for (or to) indigenous African-Canadian writers? If realism is the only valid mode of literary expression, why should African-Canadian writers attempt other modes? (Perhaps they should be journalists.)
To avoid these intellectual lacunae, we need to shift the terms of the debate. It is no longer enough to applaud a coming to voice of writers from ex-centric locations. We must engage their poetics, their structures, styles, influences; the histories of their textual productions, receptions and circulations; the literal connections between their theoretical poesis and their political praxis, if any. When we undertake these analyses of Harris, Philip and Brand, we will discover the subversively erotic, the effort to reclaim black bodies from inscriptions within white patriarchal and racist/homophobic hegemonies.27 We will discover that it is their search for a true tongue—a mother tongue—despite all the grammars of imperialism and the primers of subjugation—that enables these writers to create their most authoritative poetry and fiction. We will bare these truths—unless we are tiring of writing.
In his Marginal Forces/Cultural Centers: Tolson, Pynchon, and the Politics of the Canon (1992), Michael Bérubé establishes that
Institutional criticism … involves not only Weberian bureaucracy but also, for all of us in post-Weberian capitalism, the power to keep texts in circulation, to keep them current in an economic sense, even if only by teaching them, distributing them, assigning them in courses.
Importantly, the critic serves to assist the consumption and reproduction of texts, and “we may say that consumption and reproduction constitute the existence of texts” (4).
US scholar Victor Strandberg complains that Leftist critics believe that
Under the high-minded banners of Theory—Feminism, Marxism, Race & Ethnic Studies, Queer Theory, anti-Colonial/Imperialism—the study of literature might serve the ends of social justice and liberation, casting off its historic role as a mere aesthetic enterprise.
At the same time, “Theory [itself] either proves untrue, by falsifying actual experience, or it tells me something I already knew: in essence, that sexism, racism, and homophobia are bad” (2). While one cannot “deny its achievement, most notably [raising] the self-esteem, -understanding, and -empowerment of social victims,” the exulting of Theory “was a noble enterprise, but not primarily a literary one” (3). His case is central, for too many excellent writers are being cast aside in the name of a censurious moral rectitude. Bérubé points out that the African-American modernist poet Melvin B. Tolson has been excluded from canonization because of his valorization of “the avant-garde over against the ‘kitsch’ of mass culture even as he renews the Romantic revolutionary's faith in the power of the avant-garde to transform the masses” (71). The result has been that “Tolson's white critics” praise him “for not writing black” (167), while black critics “sift through Tolson's poems and set aside everything that does not look sufficiently ‘black'” (177). The work of American poet James Dickey endures like critical furors:
Dickey's career became—and remains—a battleground between the advocates of criticism that directly foregrounds political and social issues and those who favor aesthetic criticism that indirectly affirms humanistic values.
For her part, French Canadianist Marta Dvorak asks that scholars understand, “We need not settle for language being sacrificed to issues” (27).
See John Berger's argument that, in photographs of war atrocities, “the issue of the war which has caused that moment [of photographed obscenity] is effectively depoliticised. The picture becomes evidence of the general human condition. It accuses nobody and everybody” (40).
In Survival, Atwood asks her readers to “suppose, for the sake of argument, that Canada as a whole is a victim, or an ‘oppressed minority,’ or ‘exploited.’ Let us suppose in short that Canada is a colony” (35). She then implies that “the Thirteen Colonies”—that is, the United States—constitutes a new “Rome” or imperial power (36). In Morning in the Burned House, the poem “Half-Hanged Mary” argues that its subject, Mary Webster, was hanged for supposed witchcraft by men “excited by their show of hate, / their own evil turned inside out like a glove” (59-60).
See, for instance, Mouré's poem, “Miss Chatelaine”:
Finally there are no men between us. Finally none of us are passing or failing according to Miss Chatelaine. I wish I could tell you how much I love you, my friends with your odd looks, our odd looks, our nervousness with each other. … Finally I can meet with you & talk this over. Finally I can see us meeting, & our true tenderness, emerge.
Perhaps Mouré's feminism is not as advanced as Hunter would prefer a white woman's to be. Even so, it must be confessed to be present.
Perloff seems to obliterate the quite political Romantic poets, including: William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron and Percy Bysse Shelley. Yet, these figures admit no political exhaustion.
Here, Perloff seems to void the comical-political work of a Byron (see his Don Juan) or the didactic-narrative work of a Wordsworth (see his The Prelude) in her definition of the Romantic.
Strandberg reminds us that for many critics with “social aims, … aesthetic values should merit more friendly consideration (2).”
For instance, see Mouré's work, “The Acts ,” a prose poem that scrutinizes the politics of grammar:
To break down the noun/verb opposition that is a kind of absolutism in the language itself. So that using the words affirms, no matter what, the dominant Order.
Seeming to respond to the radical interrogations bruited by M. Nourbese Philip in her She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks (1989), Atwood's later “Marsh Languages” also critiques the construction of language:
Translation was never possible. Instead there was always only conquest, the influx of the language, of hard nouns, the language of metal, the language of either/or, the one language that has eaten all the others.
While Mouré and Atwood are—at times—provocatively avant-garde in their perceptions, practices, and preoccupations, they are also—like Harris, Philip, and Brand—rooted in the diurnal, the practical reality of political disputation.
In the last two scenes of this cinematic poem, the prose ‘panning shot’ reveals the Indian wife's recognition of her alienation from her white husband's Occidental and bourgeois household wealth:
she takes bacon from the microwave empties the dishwasher struggles against the contradictions of grief/rage/pride rising in her like bile (one final act to free her from kinship to the formal contemptuous caricature the shorthand of gaunt eyes and CARE cupped pathos those fly haunted dyings that this evening will spring from screen and newspaper confirming images of grotesque otherness). …
The verse “shot”—focussing on the breakfasting husband—establishes that his wife has just broken several cups and is “riding / a pale staircase her / sari / unwrapped and flailing” (20). The poem concludes with a “close-up” of the wife as
she stoops picks up a fragment a handle [of a cup] curved and sure in her palm cool perfect and without feeling.
This final image implies both the callousness of the husband (who has commented, about a massacre in India, “some things / get worse before they get / better” ) and the ebbing of “feeling” within the marriage.
Compare Brand's use of imagistic anaphora in her “Canto I”—
white of beaten iron and guns white with the ancestors' praise and white with the breath of the whites on our land white as of eyes on sand on humid vastness white as the tune of fingers, brisk on dry skin not even pursed hungry lips were as white
(qtd. in Morrell 185)
with Pound's allusion-saturated technique in his “Canto XLV”:
With usura hath no man a house of good stone. … with usura hath no man a painted paradise on his church wall. … with usura seeth no man no Gonzaga his heirs and his concubines. … with usura, sin against nature, is thy bread ever more of stale rags. … with usura the line grows thick. …
Obviously, Brand's interests diverge from those of Pound, and I do not argue that she has only his example in mind. Certainly, her use of number-titled lyrics in later books—No Language Is Neutral (1990) and Land to Light On (1997)—flags an attentiveness to another male poet, Derek Walcott, who also employs this strategy. Brand has acknowledged, in a 1991 interview with Frank Birbalsingh (Brand, “Dionne” 123), the influences of two male writers—the Cuban Alejo Carpentier and the Guyanese Wilson Harris on her writing of Primitive Offensive (1982).
The sourcing of Pound's dictum negates Hunter's idea that Philip strikes “a stance different from the modernist directive to ‘Make it New'” (278).
The title of Brand's No Language Is Neutral is borrowed from a line in Derek Walcott's “LII” (1984):
No language is neutral; the green oak of English is a murmurous cathedral where some took umbrage, some peace, but every shade, all, helped widen its shadow.”
Brand differs from Walcott in that her socialist vision of history allows for the potential victory of a popular and paradisal revolution. Walcott seems to believe, contrarily, conservatively, that history recycles sameness, so that revolutions become repetitions. In any event, Philip attacks Walcott for his rumoured sexism:
Over supper the name of a famous, male writer (of African and European heritage) comes up in a discussion, as well as his reputation for sexually harassing women. Arthur, a Jewish American novelist, defends him by saying he is a Great Write. … But I must ask, and do—very quietly!—“What does being a great writer have to do with harassing women?”. … The conversation ends with a woman, saying that she had worked for the Great Writer and that he had told her that if he was in a room alone with a woman, he assumed she wanted him.
Finally, Brand owes an apparent debt to the Chilean Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda, for the twin inspirations of his Marxism and his use of catalogues inside the canto form.
The trope of “building bridges” is the sine qua non of politically righteous, liberal-identified criticism. Hunter even states that “Philip's attempts at bridge building are immensely generous” (275). The trope is so common in post-colonial criticism, it suggests the entire field is about—in essence—race relations. Thus, in the discipline-defining work, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (1989), authors Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin swear that comparative studies “drawn between countries or regions across Black and white diasporas … form important bridges for the discourse of post-colonialism” (20). Such formulations inspire pugnacious questions: Who's crossing these bridges and why?
Here Hunter is engaging in the kind of dramatic—or traumatic—imbrication with notions of Négritude that are germane to post-colonial literature. The sexy fetish of anger represents a newly chic Africanism, one not far removed from the concept of Négritude developed by the Martiniquan Aimé Césaire and the Senegalese poet and politician Léopold Sedar Senghor, which was “the most profound assertion of the distinctive qualities of Black culture and identity” (Griffith, et al. 21). Hence, Hunter does not escape the central dilemma of this model, “the adoption of stereotypes which curiously [reflect] European prejudice” (Griffith, et al. 21). For one thing, the philosophy of Négritude implies that African-heritage cultures are “emotional rather than rational” (Griffith, et al. 21). In loving Brand's “anger,” Hunter loves a black stereotype. Sadly, she enters a trap that Jacques Derrida outlines in Positions (1982), principally, that “the hierarchy of dual oppositions always reestablishes itself” (41-42). The spectacle of Brand's anger enraptures Hunter—like the objective white explorer encountering the display of the native Other's emotion. Yet, her intellectual duty is to remember the requirement for “an interminable analysis” (Derrida 41-42).
Despite her brave reference to “the Caribbean demotic,” Morrell never interrogates the use of “nation language” by Harris, Philip and Brand; nor does she treat any relevant linguist, such as Edouard Glissant, or even J. Edward Chamberlin's Come Back to Me My Language: Poetry and the West Indies (1993), a work which appeared a year before Morrell's anthology. Yet, an appeal to Glissant's understanding of demotic black speech is helpful:
Creole organizes sentences on the mode of machinegun bursts. … [A]ll over the Creole world, the people speak like that. … This introduces a new factor in Creole sentences: speed. Not speed, perhaps, as much as staccato. Another feature is also the fast unrolling of a sentence into a single indivisible word. … Thus the meaning of a sentence is sometimes concealed … in accelerated nonsense rumbling with sounds. But this nonsense ferries the true meaning while keeping it from the master's ear.
Chamberlin agrees. He mounts this argument regarding Caribbean English:
In its resistance to appropriation by the center, especially in circumstances where communities feel themselves under seige, local language often paradoxically confirms the marginality against which it is a protest. Images of solidarity and betrayal also become indispensable to the ideology of language in these situations, so that terms like “nation language,” which [West Indian poet] Kamau Braithwaite (among others) has proposed to represent the authority of local languages (though not necessarily along national lines), carries with it the same political logic of loyalty and treason that we associate with nationality.
Perhaps the style of any marginalized group's language mirrors Andrew Ross's characterization of the rhetoric of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard as “a vendetta, a highly ritualized feud with culture itself” (214).
Morrell's comment echoes Hunter's assertion that “these writers write about issues I recognize intimately when they write about their position as women, as lovers, wives, mothers, daughters, women at work” (259). Indeed, Hunter affirms her need to be “taught” about racial difference by Harris, Philip, and Brand:
When a familiar common ground like mothers and daughters, which women might expect to remain stable or at least recognizable, is suddenly refracted through racial difference, the effect is often a radical impetus to extend discussion.”
The idea is treacle that lacerates.
The trauma of the implosion of the Grenadian Revolution in 1983 defines Brand's œuvre. The collapse into political chaos, assassinations masquerading as executions, public turmoil, and a lethal US invasion, inform her subsequent works. Yet, no one has tried to contextualize Brand's lyrics on the matter—for instance, “October 25th, 1983” (1984)—against military accounts such as Chapter 11—“October 25: The Struggle For Point Salines”—in Major Mark Adkin's Urgent Fury: The Battle for Grenada (1989). Yet, the poetry acquires new poignancy when read against Adkin's report that, though US Rangers and Special Operations Forces were scheduled to leave Grenada on 25 October 1983, they were forced to remain because “Resistance had been heavier than expected, the Cubans and P[eople's] R[evolutionary] A[rmy] were still fighting [US troops],” and, moreover, there had been a “successful PRA counterattack at Beausejour” (223-24). PRA resistance was so fierce that “Within another three days [of October 25th], no fewer than six battalions of the 82nd [Airborne Division] were in Grenada [as reinforcements]. Given the struggle of many Grenadians—and some Cubans—to repulse the invasion, Brand's defeatist tone in “October 25th, 1983” marks not just the demise of the Grenadian Revolution but the cessation of a life-sustaining dream:
america came to restore democracy, what was restored was faith in the fact that you cannot fight bombers battleships, aircraft carriers, helicopter gunships. … you cannot fight this with a machete. …
certainly you cannot fight it with dignity. …
And finally you can only fight it with the silence of your dead body.
(Qtd. in Morrell 217-218)
The US Joint Chiefs of Staff would salute the speaker's depression. Their post-mortem on the invasion insists it brought quick and thorough victory:
The surprise airborne assault on Point Salines airfield by the Rangers effectively neutralized Cuban forces at the outset, and led to the capture of several hundred Cubans despite stiff resistance. Capture of Pearls Airport by the Marines, as well as their successful amphibious operation in the vicinity of St. George's on the 25th led to the capture of Fort Frederick, the Grenadian command and control headquarters, the next day. Successful execution of the US plans on the 25th and 26th led to cessation of organized enemy resistance.
(Qtd. in Adkins 345)
Brand's poem recognizes this history, beginning with the observation that “The planes are circling, / the american paratroopers dropping, / later Radio Free Grenada stops for the last time / In the end they sang— / “ain't giving up no way, / no i ain't giving up no way” (qtd. in Morrell 216-217). Though Adkins judges the capture of Radio Free Grenada to have been frivolous, for it could “easily have been ignored and allowed to fall into U.S. hands when the [invasion] was over” (174), Brand feels differently. For the poet, the silencing of the ‘people's’ radio station is equivalent to the silencing of revolutionary song and of the prophecy of redemptive revolution itself. The muting of Radio Free Grenada prophecizes only the “silence of your / dead body.” (qtd. in Morrell 218)
Aptly, in Brand's novel, words of antithesis and negation—no, nothing, nowhere, no one, nobody—are used recurrently by the protagonists Verlia and Elizete to describe their realities of oppression—sexual, racial, colonial. One also finds a Nerudian emphasis on the elemental metaphor and the catalogue, on political fire and cussing, on the lyricizing of analysis.
The Anglo-Caribbean poet Edward Kamau Braithwaite discusses the idea of “nation language” in his History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry (1984).
Brand's use of a number-titled lyric sequence, running from “I i” to “III v” (in “I Have been Losing Roads”), recalls the titling style of Ovid, as in his “The Amores,” where the capital Roman numeral refers to the overarching sequence, while the minuscule numeral denotes a specific lyric within the sequence. Philip's nod to Ovid is clear. Her poetic sequence, “And Over Every Land and Sea” (1989), uses quotations “from Ovid, The Metamorphoses, translated by Mary M. Innes” (qtd. in Morrell 128). The quotations trigger Philip's project, for her sequence is a Caribbeanization cum Canadianization of the Greco-Roman story of Ceres's search for her daughter, Proserpine.
In an interview, Philip notes that “You won't find Canada in my work in that sense of ‘wilderness,’ but I think that the work could only have been written here” (“Secrecy” 18). Philip's comment suggests that, in terms of exile, it is safer to trust the views of Derek Walcott over those of Rinaldo Walcott.
Brand was a member of the Communist Party of Canada, a point she references in her essay, “Cuba” (1994): “And then a poet friend of mine said to me one June, ‘I was so disappointed when I heard that you joined the Communist Party” (97). As for Philip, before deciding to write full-time, she practised law in Toronto, “working in the areas of immigration and family law, primarily as a partner in the firm Jemmott and Philip, the first black women's law partnership in Canada” (Rose 911). Brand contributed to the building of socialist Grenada because “nothing had felt right until getting there.” Why I went there was because I could not live in the uneasiness of conquest and enslavement, and it didn't seem to me that paths with even the merest suggestion of acceptance of these could lead me out” (“Cuba” 96). Likewise, Philip pioneered contemporary black women's law in Canada and practised direct action against racism in Toronto, mainly among its white artistic élites (Rose 912). Chancy would likely classify Brand as being revolutionary and Philip as being bourgeois. Yet, Philip's project had the effect of assisting black women where they were living—in Canada, while Brand's efforts were utopian and alien. Crucially though, both writers have striven to help construct a New Eden: all ideological labels are mischievous obfuscation, a chic chicanery.
Perhaps Rudy also feels a regional affinity for Harris. A professor of English at the University of Calgary, in Alberta, Rudy resides in the same city where Harris has lived since 1966. Moreover, Harris served as the poetry editor of Dandelion (1981-1989) and was the co-founder and managing editor of blue buffalo (1984-1987) (Rose 516). The regional connection between Rudy and Harris merits mention because it proves that literary criticism is a secretion of autobiography. (Thus, the black immigrant Toronto critic Walcott hails the black immigrant Toronto poets Philip and Brand, but not Harris, the Calgarian.) Yet, none of this detracts from the attractiveness of Harris's global interests, her landscape ecstacy, her joy in poetry.
Ramraj's preference for Harris may also reflect his position as an Albertan professor of English. See Note 22.
My own regional allegiance is—well—obvious.
See Philip's erotic fiction, “Commitment to Hardness” (1992), a hymn to black nationalist heterosexuality: “That commitment to [penile] hardness belonged to the race—making Ben's cock a part of him and yet not a part of him” (96).
This paper was presented at the 14th Biennial Meeting of the Association for Canadian Studies in the United States, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on 20 November 1997. I dedicate it to Hardial Bains, the late chair of the Communist Party of Canada, Marxist-Leninist, to laud his achingly brilliant polemics and his bracingly seditious text, Communism: 1989-1991 (1991).
Adkins, Major Mark. Urgent Fury: The Battle for Grenada. New York: Lexington-Macmillan, 1989.
Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. London: Routledge, 1989.
Atwood, Margaret. “Half-Hanged Mary.” Morning in the Burned House. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1995. 58-69.
———. “Marsh Languages.” Morning in the Burned House. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1995. 54-55.
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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7983
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 “opposition to a nationalistic aesthetic that continually attempts to expropriate difference into its own consuming narrative,” the hyphen further helps to develop what he terms a “‘synchronous foreignicity’: the ability to remain within an ambivalence without succumbing to the pull of any single culture (cadence, closure)” (62). While Wah usefully explicates how this ambivalence manifests itself in the scene of writing (i.e., the formal site of the poetic text), we could extend analysis to the social scene in which texts and writers are constituted and circulate. As Jeff Derksen puts it, “emphasis could perhaps be moved from the multiplicity and contingency of identity formation to the shifting and multiple social relations that these identities are situated in,” a move that would involve a shift “from multiplicity to situatedness in the analysis of identity formations” and, I should add, of literary texts (62). Critical commentary on Dionne Brand's No Language Is Neutral has tended to focus on how her writing develops a site of ambivalence adequate for the articulation of an identity triply rendered (gendered, raced, sexed) Other. My approach here is to read the title poem of that collection through its doubled position within two particular national/cultural localities, examining how the poetry's procedural workings and linguistic enjambments rearticulate these localities themselves as sites of ambivalence, demonstrating the porosity and contingencies of nationalist constructions that the phenomena of diasporic communities necessarily bring to the fore. In other words, I wish to extend the questions of cultural hybridity that Brand's work provokes from a focus on singular identity to the social context in which the text circulates—to read “No Language Is Neutral” as evidence of what Homi Bhabha describes as the “transnational and translational sense of the hybridity of imagined communities” (5).
What we might term Brand's “hyphenated” identity, for instance, mirrors the sort of doubled reputation that Brand enjoys in terms of audience, academic study, and access to institutional sites of cultural power. Her work is known both in the Caribbean and in the worldwide academic study of Caribbean literature; Edward Kamau Brathwaite calls her “our first major exile female poet” (“Winter Epigrams” 18), and J. Edward Chamberlin devotes five pages to her work in his book Come Back to Me My Language: Poetry and the West Indies, hailing her as “a final witness to the experience of migration and exile” and arguing that her “literary inheritance is in some genuine measure West Indian, a legacy of Walcott, Brathwaite and others” (266, 267). While critical approaches toward Brand's writing to this point have often framed her work in terms of literary theories emerging from a Caribbean context (in particular Brathwaite's History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry), we need to recognize that these theories not only provide us with useful critical tools for approaching Brand's poetry but also constitute to a large extent the intellectual and cultural tradition informing production of the work. If, as I demonstrate below, a text such as “No Language Is Neutral” can be read as a contestational dialogue between differing national localities and languages, then it also offers a dialogue between differing literatures—recognized as fluid and contradictory discursive fields. Broadly speaking, Brand's oeuvre demonstrates, politically and aesthetically, a closer identification with Latin American and Caribbean poetic traditions than with those of North America. However, her work has always occupied an ambivalent position within those traditions—particularly in relation to the patriarchal undertones of certain nationalist projects and the male-dominated canons of those national literatures. Her “Epigrams to Ernesto Cardenal in Defense of Claudia” (1983; see Winter [Winter Epigrams and Epigrams to Ernesto Cardenal in Defense of Claudia]), for instance, mimics the epigrammatic form, anecdotal tone, and political reflections of Cardenal's Epigramas (1960), but it does so “from a feminist and dialectical stand” (McTair n. pag.), questioning the Nicaraguan poet's misogynistic apostrophizing of a femme fatale.1 Similarly, “No Language Is Neutral” manifests this ambivalence through its intertextual dialogue with Derek Walcott's Midsummer, specifically part LII, from which Brand's poem derives its title:
Have we changed sides to the moustached sergeants and the horsy gentry because we serve English, like a two-headed sentry guarding its borders? No language is neutral; the green oak of English is a murmurous cathedral where some took umbrage, some peace, but every shade, all, helped widen its shadow. I used to haunt the arches of the British barracks of Vigie.
Brand simultaneously inserts her text into the context of a Trinidadian nationalist project (by an overt echo of Trinidad's most established poet) and questions the neocolonialist undertones of Walcott's stance, in particular his monophonic “Island English” syntax and diction. With its polyphonic collision of socially stratified versions of world English, “No Language Is Neutral” develops its identification with an oppositional, decolonial nationalist project at an explicitly formal level:
No language is neutral. I used to haunt the beach at Guaya, two rivers sentinel the country sand, not backra white but nigger brown sand, one river dead and teeming from waste and alligators, the other rumbling to the ocean in a tumult, the swift undertow blocking the crossing of little girls except on the tied up dress hips of big women, then, the taste of leaving was already on my tongue and cut deep into my skinny pigeon toed way, language here was strict description and teeth edging truth. Here was beauty and here was nowhere.
Here the north/south, developed/underdeveloped antagonism that marks Brand's work is not simply articulated representationally, testimonially, or polemically but is also embedded in the formal proceedings of the text's syntactic ruptures and localized idioms such as “backra white” or “teeth edging truth.” Rather than widening the shadow of the “green oak of English,” Brand's poetry contests such a myth of organic, naturalized linguistic authority.
By emphasizing Brand's ambivalent relation to the decolonial nationalisms of Nicaragua or Trinidad, I do not intend to obfuscate the differences either between those specific national contexts or, in particular, between those contexts and the Canadian context. In fact, while much of the literary and theoretical work that emerged from the Caribbean in the past two decades remained, it seemed, firmly grounded in these nationalist projects of decolonization, the situation in Canada was quite the opposite. To be sure, the nationalist project still largely framed the production, distribution, and critical reception of a significant proportion of writing in Canada over this period. Yet that project was simultaneously challenged, explicitly or implicitly, by writers—including Brand—who emerged from differing, transnational, and/or diasporic communities. Lynette Hunter, for instance, has located Brand to some extent outside dominant Canadian cultural institutions, in contrast to a writer such as Marlene Nourbese Philip, whom she argues “is an institutional fighter recognizing that the social and political roots of marginalization are something that in Canada may be changed within the institutions of power themselves” (75). Similarly, Peter Dickinson has recently suggested that “Brand's race, gender, and sexuality necessarily preclude full participation in national citizenship, and thus prevent her from ever ‘being’ a Canadian writer” (161). While I agree that Brand clearly sets herself in opposition and antagonism to the Canadian cultural dominant and that her work, as Hunter puts it, realizes “the necessity of voicing the fears, reactions, rejections that are tied up in the Black experience of Canada's racism” (75), she has largely articulated this antagonism—like Philip—through the nation's established network of institutions, including Coach House Press, the National Film Board of Canada, and writer-in-residence appointments at large, influential universities such as the University of Toronto. Brand is regularly placed on university syllabi, she has received Canada Council grants, and her work, relatively speaking, is widely anthologized.2 The strength of her reputation in the dominant Canadian cultural milieu was recently demonstrated by her reception of the 1997 Governor General's Literary Award for anglophone poetry for her collection Land to Light On.3 Brand's writing, particularly since No Language Is Neutral, thus offers a curious paradox: significantly informed by a particular national literary and intellectual tradition (Trinidad-Tobago), it challenges another particular national construct (Canada) and increasingly articulates this challenge by and through its institutions.
Although postcolonial theory as a field has developed useful vocabularies and critical frames to address these questions of cultural hybridity and overlapping narrations of the nation, the theory itself as a global project of positing alternative canons and ways of reading remains bedevilled by the same problematics of asymmetrical relations of power that it attempts to contest. Monica Kaup has pointed out that immigration from the Caribbean to Canada means at once “crossing the invisible border between the Third and First Worlds” and “moving from one postcolonial culture to another, albeit one of a very different makeup” (172). Indeed, while international academic study has tended to locate “Canadian literature” within a postcolonial frame, in Canada itself there is little consensus about the accuracy of the term “postcolonial” in relation to Canadian cultural production. Recognizing that a wealthy nation-state such as Canada is too complicit in present-day colonialism and transnational capitalism to be aligned with the nation-states of Latin America, Africa, or the Caribbean, or for its literature to be discussed using the vocabulary of pain and oppression characteristic of much postcolonial discourse, Linda Hutcheon has argued that the term can be applied accurately only to the writing of indigenous peoples in Canada and not to the writing of descendants of European invaders-settlers such as Atwood or Kroetsch (156). Hutcheon further contends, however, that “The specificity of Canadian postcolonial culture today is being conditioned by [the] arrival of immigrants from other post-colonial nations” (159), including Brand. As a taxonomic category, then, the term “postcolonial” seems to be problematic when critics discuss literatures produced in Canada. If by “postcolonial,” however, we mean a theoretical approach that situates literature within a global context of asymmetrical power relations and diasporic communities, then such an approach seems to be not only productive for but also crucial to a more accurate historical understanding of contemporary cultural practices.
Published in 1990, No Language Is Neutral was part of a historical period—still very much under way—that witnessed the transformation of the Canadian polity as well as challenges to its cultural dominant. Such challenges prompted both vigorous critical debates within the academy surrounding issues such as access, pedagogy, and canonicity and attempts by successive federal governments to acknowledge the country's increasing ethnic diversity within a constitutional frame, the most recent attempt being the Canadian Multiculturalism Act of 1988. This unique piece of legislation has provoked considerable academic attention in Canada because it offers what can be so elusive: an official, judicial articulation by the state of the relations of ethnicity to citizenship. At the same time, the act has justifiably come under fire within the academy as yet another in a series of constitutional attempts to “defuse, rather than address directly, ethnic unrest” (Thompson 55), on the grounds that it “endorses, and appropriates, ethnos … with no minority or marginal overtones attached to it” or that it “depicts the ethnic subject as a stable entity whose characteristics are already fossilized, or are seen as exotica” (Kamboureli 210, 212). Smaro Kamboureli argues, in fact, that the act is not merely descriptive but also performative—that it constitutes the technology that produces ethnicity in Canada. Yet if the Multiculturalism Act becomes in this sense a hegemonic macrotechnology of ethnicity, then we could read the poetic texts of a writer such as Brand through and against this official state articulation as providing a counter-hegemonic microtechnology of ethnicity. This distinction would correspond to the split that Bhabha describes between “the continuist, accumulative temporality of the pedagogical, and the repetitious, recursive strategy of the performative” (145)—wherein the Multiculturalism Act would be part of the former and Brand's text an instance of the latter. The ninth section of “No Language Is Neutral” recollects an attempt to reproduce a synchronically frozen cultural practice in a different context and the contradictions that arise when doing so:
I walk Bathurst Street until it come like home. Pearl was near Dupont, upstairs a store one christmas where we pretend as if nothing change we, make rum punch and sing, with bottle and spoon, song we weself never even sing but only hear when we was children. … Pearl coaxing this living room with a voice half lie and half memory, a voice no room nowhere could believe was sincere. Pearl hoping this room would catch fire above this frozen street. Our singing parched, drying in the silence after the chicken and ham and sweet bread effort to taste like home, the slim red earnest sound of long ago with the blinds drawn and the finally snow for christmas and the mood that rum in a cold place takes. Well, even our nostalgia was a lie, skittish as the truth these bundle of years.
Here the recontextualization of the cultural practice—by which I mean both the practice recollected by the text and the text's markings of cultural difference themselves—figures that practice not as an appendage to an extant Canadian cultural milieu but as an antagonistic element within it (“the mood that rum in a cold place takes”). Derksen asks how a text can “move from being oppositional—from a position of refusal—to an agent of rearticulation” (64-65). He argues that a text, “situated not in an exterior position of opposition but as an articulatory agent within a site, could be designated antisystemic: writing that consciously counters a system that seeks to interpellate a subject within a particular field of relations” (65). Derksen's argument not only demands a new model of antisystemic writing but also necessitates a new model of antisystemic criticism: a criticism that similarly refuses to imagine an “outside” and grants the text a certain degree of transformative agency within an interpellative system.
Academic reception of a text establishes another field of social reflexivity: a text becomes increasingly “social” through public articulations of readings of it. In one of the more extensive critical pieces on Brand's work, Teresa Zackodnik reads No Language Is Neutral through Mae Gwendolyn Henderson's seminal essay “Speaking in Tongues: Dialogics, Dialectics, and the Black Woman Writer's Literary Tradition.” While Henderson's compelling essay offers a useful vocabulary for a generative, discursive approach to poetics, Zackodnik's practical application of it to Brand's text, much like Henderson's own exemplary approach, is at times reductively narrative-based. For instance, Zackodnik reads “the swift undertow blocking the crossing of little girls” in the opening poem (cited above) as an allegory of the restrictions of “standard English” (195); similarly, while she argues that Brand foregrounds the “trace of the colonizer's English in nation language” in the second poem (197), she reads the poem as metapoetic commentary rather than precisely locating these traces. Although I recognize that Brand's prose poems are intensely metapoetic, particularly the second of the series, in which the homology between language, the landscape, and the body is firmly established in the collision of corporeal, geographic, and grammatical lexicons, and that a poetic text can provide a strategic location for the circulation and development of these ideas within a particular reading community, I am more interested here in the praxis rather than the theory. The limitations of “standard English,” for instance, necessitate the construction of those bizarre metaphors that dot the first prose poem: “the smell of hurrying,” “almond leaves fat as women,” “the rock stone dry like water” (No Language [No Language Is Neutral] 22). While these metaphors demonstrate the restrictions of “standard English” in articulating a Caribbean experience, they also suggest a degree of poetic agency by the writer who productively works within and against such restrictions. Moreover, Zackodnik argues that Brand's writing “determines her identity as dialogic and dialectical” and that it deploys a nation language that is “transformative, polyvocal, and constantly shifting” (205), suggesting to me an enunciative space that is, while not indeterminate, certainly contingent and contradictory. Yet Zackodnik tends to equate the speaking voice almost unproblematically with the authorial voice, and her diction often situates the poetry as theoretical polemic (“Brand argues” or “Brand expresses” [197, 195])—although, if we accept the argument that “the major concern of Caribbean women poets has been to define an ‘authentic’ self which is Black and Female” (Sarbadhikary 118), it might account for a critical tendency to read Brand's texts in this way.
Despite my differences with some of Zackodnik's readings, I agree with her position that Brand “locates her critique of language not in an attempt to resurrect or construct a neutral language, nor from a liminal position between standard English and nation language, but in the heteroglossia of both languages” (194). However, Zackodnik's approach seems to rest on the assumption that “standard English” and “nation language” are givens: “Attempts to determine which phrases are ‘standard English’ and which are nation language in these poems must necessarily rely on criteria such as ‘correct’ grammar and ‘sophisticated’ vocabulary” (205). But are such value-laden criteria necessary to a process of discernment? If we are to move beyond an abstract position that simply grinds the text through a preestablished theoretical mill (which I don't think Zackodnik necessarily does), then a discernment of the concrete instances in which the two languages are in contestational dialogue is crucial. Postponing for the moment a critique of the problematic, and perhaps untenable, notion of a “standard English,” I would locate this contestational dialogue in, for instance, the appropriation of the racist epithet “nigger” in the opening poem as an adjective connoting beauty. Here an act of hate speech, a word replete with a brutal history, itself linked etymologically to a previous (mis)nominative act of differentiation and debasement, becomes recontextualized and thus opened to alternative significations. Yet its inherited cachet cannot simply be abandoned, and the resulting semantic slippage establishes a contestational dialogue between the speaker's clearly affectionate usage and the echoes of its violent history. I also read this dialogue in the gap between written and spoken languages: “calling Spadina Spadeena until I listen good for what white people call it” (No Language 29). Here the speaker's failed utterance not only occasions cultural embarrassment but also, given the circumstances, reinforces her sense of cultural and racial alienation and disempowerment. Unlike “nigger,” “Spadina” resists appropriation because its significance is too site-specific; its meaning develops and circulates exclusively within a set of social relations from which this speaker is clearly precluded or in which she is situated as subordinate: “the thin mixture of just come and don't exist” (29).
Brathwaite defines “nation language” as “the kind of English spoken by the people who were brought to the Caribbean, not the official English now, but the language of slaves and labourers” (History 5). Distinguishing nation language from dialect, he further argues that it is “the submerged area of that dialect which is much more closely allied to the African aspect of experience in the Caribbean” (13), whose poets borrow from the resources of the calypso and deploy a dactylic rather than iambic rhythm in their work. Similarly, in an essay on one of Brand's short stories, Sylvia Priestley-Brown discusses what she calls Brand's “‘dialectical’ maneuvers,” including “the absence of possessives and grammatically correct personal pronouns” (97)—manoeuvres that we can also identify in these serial prose poems:
This time Liney done see vision in this green guava season, fly skinless and turn into river fish, dream sheself, praise god, without sex and womb when sex is hell and womb is she to pay. So dancing an old man the castilian around this christmas living room my little sister and me get Ben to tell we any story he remember, and in between his own trail of conquests and pretty clothes, in between his never sleeping with a woman who wasn't clean because he was a scornful man, in between our absent query were they scornful women too, Liney smiled on his gold teeth.
(No Language 25)
In “No Language Is Neutral,” these conventions construct an enunciative space characterized not so much by a contestational dialogue with a “standard English” as by “standard English” utterances themselves that become submerged, appropriated, and placed in a subordinate position—an example of what Mary Louise Pratt terms “code-switching,” “the power to own but not be owned by the dominant language. Aesthetically, code-switching can be a source of great verbal subtlety and grace as speech dances fluidly and strategically back and forth between two languages and two cultural systems” (177). Look at how the reported speech becomes absorbed into the markedly different cadences and grammatical structures of the speaking voice in the following passage from “No Language Is Neutral”:
Is steady trembling I trembling when they ask me my name and say I too black for it. Is steady hurt I feeling when old talk bleed, the sea don't have branch you know darling.
(No Language 29)
By not directly citing the utterances spoken from the privileged position (“too black for it,” “you know darling”) but framing them within free indirect discourse, Brand's text at once relates a personal narrative of debasement and subordination, demonstrates the contingencies of power in determining authority in language, and performs a poetic act of resistance. And this is the fundamental problem with narrative-based readings of the text: they tend to grant the poetry a testimonial agency implicit in the two textual effects that I have discussed here, but they ignore the practical and transformative agency that it also demonstrates.
So far, I have placed the term “standard English” in quotation marks in what seems to me to be a necessary qualification. A “standard” tends to posit a hypostatized, homogeneous, rigid language around which heterogeneous tongues circulate—an illusion that might serve some purpose in language textbooks or for national broadcasters but that in practice cannot ultimately be realized. Even if we were to accept this standard as a broad, strategic formulation, where would we locate it? South London? Southwestern Ontario? The U.S. midwest? Are not all “standards” necessarily localized, contingent, and contested? As American poet Charles Bernstein has pointed out, “Brathwaite's nation language is as much a new standard to rally national spirit as it is a break from standardization” (7), and it thus plays a strategic role in specific decolonial movements of national self-determination. I also recognize that these terminologies of standard English and nation language are strategic and provisional, foregrounding the material differences in power between so-called First and Third World sites, enabling a sense of national solidarity with a commensurate sense of a shared, differentiated language and poetic tradition and aimed at privileging a traditionally deprivileged version of world English. However, since such a “standard” arises through a process of negation (common to all but particular to none), it cannot accommodate the particularities of cultural difference, not to mention the complications introduced by the notion of hybridity.
Maria Caridad Casas's sociolinguistic study of “No Language Is Neutral” offers a possible alternative to the terminologies of nation language and standard English, positing the empirical categories of Trinidad English Creole (TEC) and Non-Creole English (NEC) in her analyses of the code switching in Brand's text. Although based on empirical methods and assumptions, Casas's study also acknowledges the problems posed to this method by the poetic medium—not the least of which is that the written medium makes the codes much harder to identify. Casas attempts to account for such potential ambiguities in identification through the concept of a creole continuum, which develops when “a creole is in direct contact with its lexifier language” and through which a “wide range of variation arises that, over time, restructures both the creole and the lexifier language” (7). Given that hers is a sociolinguistic study, Casas often makes broad prescriptive statements about the responses of potential readers, claiming, for instance, that “there exists in the minds of readers idealized polar varieties that give meaning to variation, that tell readers ‘this is more TEC’ or ‘this is more NCE’; and these idealizations are quite invariable and fixed” (14). Yet she also acknowledges the specificities of poetic language and that the TEC code itself is poetically interrogated and transformed from within (she points out that “teeth edging truth” is a variation of the idiomatic “edge your teeth”—which refers to something unpleasant ). However pragmatic these sociolinguistic categories are (Casas's readings of Brand's poem through them are certainly provocative and illuminating), their rigid hypostatization of linguistic codes does not adequately allow for the text's socially transformative potential—that readers' understandings of “correct” or “standard” grammars and idioms, and the social value of those grammars and idioms, will necessarily shift during the reading, and rereading, process. The code-switching of this passage from the sixth poem of the series, for instance, could certainly be read as shifting along the creole continuum that Casas describes:
A woman who thought she was human but got the message, female and black and somehow those who gave it to her were like family, mother and brother, spitting woman at her, somehow they were the only place to return to and this gushing river had already swallowed most of her, the little girl girls drowned on its indifferent bank, the river hardened like the centre of her, spinning chalk stone on its frill, burden in their slow feet, they weeping, she, go on home, in futility.
(No Language 27)
The preposition in “those who gave it to her” is unexpected and thus implies a jarring switch in codes from TEC or nation language and NCE or standard English. On the other hand, we could also read the code-switching between grammars here as a manifestation of the overlapping consciousnesses of the present reflective narrator and her childhood self—the italicized “go on home” a citation from the past erupting into present consciousness.
A more adequate terminology, then, would take into account the particularities and differences between codes and readers, the ambiguities and ambivalences produced by the written medium, and the socially transformative potential of the antisystemic text, without attenuating the politics of history and place so crucial to “No Language Is Neutral.” Bhabha's essay “DissemiNation” is, in his own words, an attempt “to write of the Western nation as an obscure and ubiquitous form of living the locality of culture”:
This locality is more around temporality than about historicity: a form of living that is more complex than “community”; more symbolic than “society”; more connotative than “country”; less patriotic than patrie; more rhetorical than the reason of State; more mythological than ideology; less homogeneous than hegemony; less centred than the citizen; more collective than “the subject”; more psychic than civility; more hybrid in the articulation of cultural differences and identifications than can be represented in an hierarchical or binary structuring of social antagonism.
Shifting Bhabha's notion of “locality” into the more specific terrain of world Englishes, could we not describe the collision of varying linguistic registers in “No Language Is Neutral” as a dialogue between differing “anglocalities”?4 This is not meant to be a sort of liberal, relativist position in which all Englishes are equal (and thus neutral), widening the shadow of Walcott's green oak. Rather, the notion of anglocalities acknowledges the complexities introduced by the phenomena of diasporic communities and recognizes that the English spoken in anglo-North (of) America is itself both uncategorizably diverse and markedly different from the imperial “standard” of the queen's English—a standard that seems to be more useful as a conceptual straw dummy than as an accurate measure of the language's “official” grammar and pronunciation. The idea of anglocality also allows for difference within as well as between the Englishes spoken in the residue of the British Empire—accounting for the linguistic specificities of place, but without losing the tactical potential of Pratt's code switching. As Bernstein further points out, “English languages, set adrift from the sight/sound sensorium of the English people, are at their hearts uprooted and translated: nomadic in origin, absolutely particular in practice” (5).
In the end, then, my differences with the positions of Zackodnik or Casas seem to turn on a difference in terminologies: a reading of the poetry that takes into account the social reflexivity of language, of the material differences in power embedded in discourse, need not posit various world Englishes as discernible totalities: the codes to be switched are never static, their borders and contours never entirely locatable. The idiosyncratic particularities of language use—particularities of which poetry continually reminds us—allow for an endless “dialogic of differences” among various subject positions: gender, race, nationality, ethnicity, class, and sexuality.
In addition to a polyphonic collision of competing languages, “No Language Is Neutral” also establishes a contestatory dialogue between their corresponding geographic sites on the global grid. Just as the text demonstrates the differences in power and authority granted to certain languages, here it lays bare the disparities in economic and geopolitical power between the two localities:
… the taste of leaving was already on my tongue and cut deep into my skinny pigeon toed way, language here was strict description and teeth edging truth. Here was beauty and here was nowhere. The smell of hurrying passed my nostrils with the smell of sea water and fresh fish wind, there was history which had taught my eyes to look for escape …
It don't have nothing call beauty here but this is a place, a gasp of water from a hundred lakes, fierce bright windows screaming with goods, a constant drizzle of brown brick cutting dolorous prisons into every green uprising of bush.
The series of binary oppositions established here is further developed throughout the serial poem, including rural/urban, wild/developed, community/anonymity, subsistence/consumerism, warmth/cold, freedom/imprisonment, belonging/alienation, humour/solemnity, voice/silence, victimization/power, and the pairs of beauty/ugliness and nowhere/place. As Priestley-Brown puts it, in Brand's writing “Black third world culture is depicted as being at war with postcolonial white North American culture” (98), and, while the privileged term in most of these oppositions is usually associated with the Caribbean, it remains a site denied what the text establishes as its most crucial terms: place and power. While “No Language Is Neutral” sustains a sufficiently ambivalent tone and thus appears to deconstruct these binaries even as it establishes them (e.g., “one river dead and teeming from waste and alligators” ), it appears iteratively to reify an inherited—in fact widely commodified—construction of the Caribbean as paradisical but powerless. If “beauty” and “nowhere” are so firmly associated, then celebratory, descriptive passages such as
… never to pass her eyes on the red-green threads of a humming bird's twitching back, the blood warm quickened water colours of a sea bed, not the rain forest tangled in smoke-wet …
That little light trembling the water again, that gray blue night pearl of the sea, the swirl of the earth that dash water back and always forth …
might appear to reify the Caribbean as a purely aestheticized nowhere, a site that is not a place, absent of history.
Yet we could further argue that the text only constructs a site “absent of history” given Western or metropolitan criteria of history: linear temporality, rigorous archival documentation, or authoritative cartographies marked with proper names, for instance. Edouard Glissant, however, puts forward as part of his notion of antillanité an alternative, Caribbean-centred understanding of landscape as history:
La rapport à la terre, rapport d'autant plus menacé que la terre de la communauté est aliénée, devient tellement fondamental du discours, que le paysage dans l'oeuvre cesse d'être décor ou confidant pour s'inscrire comme constituant de l'être. Décrire le paysage ne suffira pas. L'individu, la communauté, le pays sont indissociables dans l'épisode constitutif de leur histoire. Le paysage est un personnnage de cette histoire. Il faut le comprendre dans ses profoundeurs.
As Debra L. Anderson explains, for Glissant “the sea and land/landscape are inseparable from Caribbean history. Man's [sic] relationship to the land becomes so important in his discourse that landscape becomes a ‘character’ in this story or history” (32). And landscape is personified in “No Language Is Neutral” as a heaving, howling register of the particular violence of this history: “Here is history too. A backbone bending and unbending without a word, heat, bellowing these lungs spongy, exhaled in humming, the ocean, a way out and not anything of beauty, tipping turquoise and scandalous. The malicious horizon made us the essential thinkers of technology” (23). Yet, despite Glissant's persuasive arguments for a different understanding of landscape and history, or Krishna Sarbadhikary's observation that, “For Brand and other Black women poets, landscape and nature often play an important part in fostering a sense of wholeness” (122), this emphasis on the physical landscape of Trinidad is not unproblematic given the colonial dynamic in which the text circulates. When a reviewer of No Language Is Neutral suggests that Brand writes “a new nature poetry in order to bring into the domain of Canadian literature, both visually and viscerally, the landscape from which … [she] derives meaning and inspiration” (Sanders 30), we cannot ignore the appropriative overtones of “bring into the domain of Canadian literature.” Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak maintains that “The national artist in the Third World has a responsibility not to speak for the nation in response to a demand made by this craving for intercultural exchange” (798)—that is, a responsibility to resist the urge to commodify the underprivileged space for consumption by a liberal audience in metropolitan centres. Such an act of commodification would be entirely complicit with the Multiculturalism Act's “cabinet of curiosities” approach to ethnicity. Does Brand remain a “national artist in the Third World”? If so, then does her text perform this act of commodification? I have been reading her work throughout this paper as occupying partial positions in both “worlds,” and the consumerist overtones of transitive verbs in passages in “No Language Is Neutral” such as “Like a holy ghost, I package the smell of zinnias and lady of the night, I horde the taste of star apples and granadilla” (31), seem to suggest a sort of transcultural “smuggling” of material difference. Brand's deployment of a Caribbean “nation language” could be read in a similar way; the “inherent danger” in using the “demotic” tongue, according to Sarbadhikary, “is that the audience interest may be predominantly nostalgic, rather than a concern for what is being said by the poet” (128).5
Toward the end of “No Language Is Neutral,” however, the speaker begins to question and eventually rejects this nostalgia as “a lie” (30, 33), and the text moves toward negotiating a space “between beauty and nowhere” (34), a negotiation that appears to be gradually developed out of a dialogue between here and there. One of the textual strategies for actualizing this dialogue is through the referential slippage of the deictic “here,” as in the line “Not a single word drops from my lips for twenty years about living here,” a line embedded in the eighth prose poem, which vacillates between frustrated silence about her current location (“This city, mourning the smell of flowers and dirt, cannot tell me what to say even if it chokes me”) and astonished alienation from her mother tongue (“I return to that once grammar struck in disbelief”). Spliced with such textual ambivalence, as well as site-specific references (Spadina Avenue, Bathurst Street, “the race conscious landlords” ), “No Language Is Neutral” addresses Toronto as much as Trinidad-Tobago. When I say “address Toronto,” I do not mean in the simply referential sense of a textual celebration of geographic specificities; I mean that in its contestational stance the text intervenes in the social discourses of that locality and that this intervention necessarily has a transformative effect. And this intervention is multiple: the text addresses a local set of social relations, but it also addresses a constellation of local audiences. In this reading, the contradictory utterances that conclude the final prose poem of the series—
I have come to know something simple. Each sentence realised or dreamed jumps like a pulse with history and takes a side. What I say in any language is told in faultless knowledge of skin, in drunkenness and weeping, told as a woman without matches and tinder, not in words and in words and in words learned by heart, told in secret and not in secret, and listen does not burn out or waste and is plenty and pitiless and loves
articulate a movement from an exiled, diasporic subjectivity to a restlessly hyphenated subjectivity, occupying the position of “synchronous foreignicity” that Wah describes. Although the text may appear to duplicate the logic of the Multiculturalism Act, the curatorial logic of the cultural mosaic in which difference becomes synchronically frozen, compartmentalized, and defused, the text's diachronic unfoldings and dialogic collision of global sites and languages ultimately critique this logic. If “an immigrant is an outsider whose difference is defined by his or her origins, whereas the ethnic subject's difference … is defined by the surrounding culture” (Kamboureli 208), then “No Language Is Neutral” manages to negotiate a space in excess of these offered positions—simultaneously and paradoxically demonstrating the porosity of national boundaries while documenting, and indeed contributing to, “a slowly emerging new polity of the space we have come to know as Canada” (202).
This rejection of nostalgia and ambivalence toward nation(alism) that Brand develops in “No Language Is Neutral” recurs in her work, as the following passage from Land to Light On suggests:
I'm trying to put my tongue on dawns now, I'm busy licking dusk away, tracking deep twittering silences. You come to this, here's the marrow of it, not moving, not standing, it's too much to hold up, what I really want to say is, I don't want no fucking country, here or there and all the way back, I don't like it, none of it, easy as that. I'm giving up on land to light on, and why not, I can't perfect my own shadow, my violent sorrow, my individual wrists.
At the risk of conflating the lyric voice with the authorial voice, this passage, occurring at the end of the title sequence of the volume, offers an even stronger position toward nation than that articulated in “No Language Is Neutral”: ambivalence appears to have shifted to refusal. Yet as literary texts continue to be deeply imbricated in nation-state structures, both here and abroad, a consideration of national contexts will remain necessary in approaching these texts critically. As Dickinson suggests, although Brand may indeed be refused a position of full citizenship, her poetry necessitates and works toward developing a differing—and I think enabling—position of citizenship. Such a position would be transnational, accommodating of difference, and radically democratic—akin to what Chantal Mouffe describes as “the articulation of an ensemble of subject positions, corresponding to the multiplicity of social relations in which it is inscribed” (376). Yet such a position of citizenship would continue to be circumscribed—at least judicially—by the state.
Anderson distinguishes between “locating” and “colonizing” a literary text: “rather than imposing foreign (Western) structures and values upon the text, location situates or embeds the text within its own social, cultural, historical, and political realities” (4). Yet Brand's work, as I have tried to demonstrate, poses a problem: in seeking to locate rather than colonize “No Language Is Neutral,” where do I choose to locate it? Locating this text cannot be done a priori but through the necessarily selective act of criticism, itself a located and locatable practice. My location of “No Language Is Neutral” has embedded it to a certain extent in Canada, a Western and metropolitan site. By situating Brand's work in this way, however, I may be running the risk of appropriating and absorbing it into a Canadian literature, suggesting a not-so-latent and perhaps pathological obsession with nationalist constructions on my part. As an academic and a literary critic, I am part of a state apparatus whose social effect is perhaps not unlike that of the metanarratives of Canadian state discourse, including the Multiculturalism Act. In her article “From Visions of the Other to Theories of Difference: The Canadian Literatures,” Barbara Godard points out that “Meaning develops within discursive fields agonistically, shaped and preceded by what it is opposing and so never existing in its own terms” (5). Insofar as the metanarratives of Canadian literature or the Multiculturalism Act offer discursive fields within which Brand's text agonistically produces new meanings, situating her work vis-à-vis these metanarratives remains productive. If, as I have suggested above, “No Language Is Neutral” can be viewed historically as a touchstone text of a period marked by challenges to a white Canadian cultural dominant, then its oppositional and transformative potential within the institutional apparatuses of that dominant and its production of new meanings have actually appeared to increase as the text's distance from its author has widened. Godard continues:
From their within-without positions, the writing of ethnic minorities troubles the homogeneity of the ethnocentrism of the singular discourse of power, works at its limits, on the margins, to interrogate its silences, absences, its politics of exclusion. It exposes boundaries, challenges the hierarchy of sites of discourse, forces the threshold and moves into the liminal, working the in-between, site of movement and change. The complexity of this double articulation arises from the fact that the discursive practices are both connected and disassociated: the logic of subject-identity that posits one subject for one discourse for one site or practice is confounded in this concept of a network of intersecting discourses where inside and outside are relational positions with respect to specific discourses not in subjection to a singular power. Through permutations and instabilities emerges the possibility of shifting the terms of the semiotic system itself, of conceptualizing an open system as a site of struggle rather than a closed system of binary oppositions organized on hierarchical lines that conceal the operations of power by naturalizing these differences as fact.
According to Godard's argument, by situating Brand's text within multiple sites, we destabilize the terms of its signifying practices as well as those of the wider semiotic system. White Canadian readers of “No Language Is Neutral” in a sense always “overhear” the text, since they certainly do not compose the text's target audience. It is because the text's socially transformative potential relies on its social hybridity that, while the text could and should be read as “Caribbean” (its cross-textual signs, theoretical underpinnings, and anticolonialist stance invite such a reading), I have located it to a large extent “here.” From this location, Brand's work can be seen as offering alternative technologies not only of ethnicity but also of nationality, and “No Language Is Neutral” can be seen not as the articulation of a placeless or alienated subject, or of a gentle reconciliation of competing and different languages and sites, but as a simultaneously performative and transformative intervention in a pair of anglocalities—localities in which the sutured limits of the nation, while remaining a major determinant of the political, economic, and cultural specificities of these localities, have sufficiently frayed to expose an ambivalent site where resistance may be voiced, located, and heard.
The penultimate epigram in Cardenal's collection, for instance, reads as follows:
Yo he repartido papeletas clandestinas, gritado: ¡viva la libertad! en plena calle desafiando a los guardias armados. Yo participé en la rebelión de abril: pero palidezco cuando paso por tu casa y tu sola mirada me hace temblar.
Brand's work is included in, among others, The Penguin Book of Caribbean Verse in English (1986), Poetry by Canadian Women (1989), Other Solitudes: Canadian Multicultural Fictions (1990), Making a Difference: Canadian Multicultural Literature (1996), and Eyeing the North Star: Directions in African-Canadian Literature (1997).
As Dickinson points out, this may have as much to do with the publisher of that text (McClelland and Stewart) as it does with any significant shift in the cultural dominant.
This position is similar to Bruce Robbins's notion of “discrepant cosmopolitanisms” (181), an attempt to recode the world's particulars in a way that exceeds a local/cosmopolitan binarism. I had originally considered the term “anglo-locality”; Susan Gingell, in an e-mail to me, suggested that I modify the term to the more mellifluous “anglocality.”
Indeed, Brand comments about No Language Is Neutral that “I didn't want to be party to white Canadian titillation at the exoticism of a Trinidadian language” (“In the Company” 367), demonstrating an acute awareness of potential cultural commodification. “I thought it important enough to wait until I could do something more with it than only use it for the minimal purpose of exoticizing it” she continues (367), suggesting that her larger political project in this book justifies and in fact exceeds this problematic.
Anderson, Debra L. Decolonizing the Text: Glissantian Readings in Caribbean and African-American Literatures. New York: Lang, 1995.
Bernstein, Charles. “Poetics of the Americas.” Modernism/Modernity 3.3 (1996): 1-23.
Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.
Brand, Dionne. “In the Company of My Work.” Interview with Makeda Silvera. The Other Woman: Women of Colour in Contemporary Canadian Literature. Ed. Silvera. Toronto: Sister Vision, 1995. 356-80.
———. Land to Light On. Toronto: McClelland, 1997.
———. No Language Is Neutral. Toronto: Coach House, 1990.
———. Winter Epigrams and Epigrams to Ernesto Cardenal in Defense of Claudia. Toronto: Williams, 1983.
Brathwaite, Edward Kamau. History of the Voice: The Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry. London: New Beacon, 1984.
———. “Dionne Brand's Winter Epigrams.” Rev. of Winter Epigrams and Epigrams to Ernesto Cardenal in Defense of Claudia, by Dionne Brand. Canadian Literature 105 (1985): 18-30.
Butler, Judith, and Joan W. Scott, eds. Feminists Theorize the Political. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Cardenal, Ernesto. Epigramas. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1961.
Casas, Maria Caridad. “No Language Is Neutral: A Sociolinguistic Analysis of Code-Switching in Dionne Brand's Text of the Same Name.” M.A. thesis, York University, 1994.
Chamberlin, J. Edward. Come Back to Me My Language: Poetry and the West Indies. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1993.
Derksen, Jeff. “Unrecognizable Texts: From Multicultural to Antisystemic Writing.” West Coast Line 24 (1997-98): 59-71.
Dickinson, Peter. Here Is Queer: Nationalisms, Sexualities, and the Literatures of Canada. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1999.
Glissant, Edouard. Le Discours antillais. Paris: Seuil, 1981.
Godard, Barbara. “From Visions of the Other to Theories of Difference: The Canadian Literatures.” Resources for Feminist Research 23.1-2 (1994): 3-7.
Henderson, Mae Gwendolyn. “Speaking in Tongues: Dialogics, Dialectics, and the Black Woman Writer's Literary Tradition.” Butler and Scott 144-66.
Hunter, Lynette. Outsider Notes. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1996.
Hutcheon, Linda. “‘Circling the Downspout of Empire’: Post-Colonialism and Postmodernism.” Ariel 20.4 (1989): 149-75.
Kamboureli, Smaro. “The Technology of Ethnicity: Law and Discourse.” Open Letter 8th ser. 5-6 (1993): 202-17.
Kaup, Monica. “West Indian Canadian Writing: Crossing the Border from Exile to Imagination.” Siemerling 172-93.
McTair, Roger. Introduction. Brand, Winter n. pag.
Mouffe, Chantal. “Feminism, Citizenship, and Radical Democratic Politics.” Butler and Scott 369-84.
Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London: Routledge, 1992.
Priestley-Brown, Sylvia. “Dionne Brand: The New Wave Writing that Hates Suffering.” Open Letter 8th ser. 9 (1994): 97-102.
Robbins, Bruce. “Comparative Cosmopolitanism.” Social Text 10.2-3 (1992): 169-86.
Sanders, Leslie. Rev. of No Language Is Neutral, by Dionne Brand. Journal of Canadian Poetry 7 (1992): 29-32.
Sarbadhikary, Krishna. “Recovering History: The Poems of Dionne Brand.” Intersexions: Issues of Race and Gender in Canadian Women's Writing. Ed. Coomi S. Vevaina and Barbara Godard. New Delhi: Creative, 1996. 116-30.
Siemerling, Winfried, ed. Writing Ethnicity: Cross-Cultural Consciousness in Canadian and Québécois Literature. Toronto: ECW, 1996. Rpt. of Essays on Canadian Writing 57 (1995).
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Acting Bits/Identity Talk.” Critical Inquiry 18 (1992): 770-803.
Thompson, Dawn. “Technologies of Ethnicity.” Siemerling 51-69.
Wah, Fred. “Half-Bred Poetics.” Absinthe 9.2 (1996): 60-65.
Walcott, Derek. from “Midsummer.” Collected Poems, 1948-1984. New York: Farrar, 1986. 467-510.
Zackodnik, Teresa. “‘I Am Blackening in My Way’: Identity and Place in Dionne Brand's No Language Is Neutral.” Siemerling 194-211.
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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 we had been scattered out with a violent randomness.” In this moving and brilliantly evocative text, Brand addresses the problem of cultural memory by imagining a tenuous genealogy linking the offspring of Marie Ursule, “queen of the Convoi Sans Peur,” who leads a mass suicide of the slaves on a plantation in Trinidad in 1824. Marie Ursule's act of defiance ties memory to the erasures of colonialism, as Marie Ursule learns about the poison she prepares from the nearly extinct Caribs who are “moving reluctantly toward memory, Marie Ursule, willingly.”
Perhaps to achieve her aim of becoming memory, Marie Ursule saves her daughter Bola from both death and slavery, sending her off with her father Kamena in search of a “maroonage of two.” Bola, and those of her children who are not “unrecalled” nor “left in the sea,” people the pages of the novel, scattered across the Americas: in Trinidad, Curaçao, Venezuela, the US, and Canada. The narrative connections among chapters devoted largely to individual characters are genealogical rather than diegetic, carrying the reader from Marie Usrule's 1824 revolt to the 1990s in a more-or-less chronological fashion. From the safe haven of Culebra Bay—safe because it has been forgotten by the rest of the island—that is haunted by the ghosts of the Ursulines who once owned Marie Ursule, to Kamena's desire to make Bola the repository of his efforts to map out a route to the Maroon settlement of Terre Bouillante, or from Bola's coming of age which requires a fading of memory, to Eula who instructs her mother not to “saddle her [granddaughter] with a memory that's not hers,” Brand offers a series of conundra having to do with the role memory plays in the lives of these diasporic individuals. Kamena, who is “starved with remembering,” asks “Do we arrive empty already, gut of everything already, knowing no remedy will ease the drift of our soul?” Eula longs for a genealogy without gaps and for memories that need not be forgotten: “I would like one single line of ancestry, Mama. One line from you to me and farther back, but a line that I can trace … one line full of people who have no reason to forget anything, or forgetting would not help them or matter. …”
The frustrations and disappointments occasioned by these genealogical gaps and by memories too painful to recall mark Marie Ursule's offspring with the scars of slavery. The novel traces the uneven and contradictory processes by which the history of slavery maintains a legacy, so that some 160 years later its diasporic offspring experience its trauma in a way akin to the aching of a limb long since amputated. Brand presents cultural memory as a spiritual and bodily knowledge inscribed by the material forces of history, including by its silences. Richly imagined, and written with Brand's customary stylistic eloquence, this is a powerful, intelligent, and profoundly ethical novel that ought to find a broad readership.
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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 Brand, the hinge to the door of brutal history is the beginning of the prolonged oppression of people of African descent, beginning with the European trade in the buying and selling of fellow beings for mercantile profit.
With a poet's sensitivity; she revisits, via the cartographies of her acute mind, the terrains of childhood and adulthood in the Caribbean, her ambivalent years in the Ontario bush, her searching travels in Africa, Europe and Australia.
The inter-textuality between her memorial cartographies is matched by the evocative map-readings she does of colonial cartographers and the mine detectors of the human heart, such as poets Pablo Neruda and Aime Cesaire.
When I shared excerpts from Brand's book with friends, some of them asked me: beyond writing about the wound, are there solutions, or is there one book on healing the wound (for all time)? I tried to understand the impulse, or the need, behind the question, at the same time that I felt a certain irritation. My irritation has to do with late modernity's demand for instant answers and quick solutions. There can be no worthwhile healing of anything before the issues have been thoroughly examined and dealt with. Brand's text does just that—thoroughly examines the deep pain and what it might say to us.
Any longing for anchoring is both gift and affliction. There is no stability without its negation, even in nature. As Brand would say, one is always on the brink of something—whether this is acknowledged, or not.
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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 early search for identity was a “moment of rupture,” and a realization that she had no traceable beginnings. “We were not from the place where we lived and we could not remember where we were from or who we were” (p. 5). Brand's book describes stories of her childhood in the Caribbean and her later life in England and in various parts of Canada. She draws on travel memoirs, cartography, history, politics and literature. Many of her stories of childhood and adolescence are woven through with excerpts of writing and quotes from favourite authors. Her accounts of travel around the world are narrated in fragments, with remembered incidents highlighted. Excerpts from newspaper articles dramatically recreate difficulties of discrimination and racism encountered by some “visible minority” immigrants to Canada.
Brand weaves fact and fantasy, history, memories, and the imagination in a seemingly effortless way. Her facility with language and her ability to deal with the subtleties of emotion make her work a pleasure to read, yet never detract from her ability to cut to the bone with her condemnations of slavery and discrimination. Her sense of dislocation, of being cut off from her past and her efforts to situate herself in a fragmented world will resonate with many readers. This book is not for everyone, but it is an evocative and important Canadian work.
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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. Brand's quest is to retrace the vestiges of the experiences of black displacements and to recover what identity, origin, and home mean in the fragmentary space of our globalized world. Her journey is as much an investigation into memory and colonial history as it is a search for a space on the literary terrain and an attempt to mark there the vectors of her own art.
Although Brand's book [A Map to the Door of No Return] is autobiographical, her personal story is only a basic guide to wandering over the web of individual and communal dislocations emanating from the Black Diaspora. The first step of Brand's journey is the act of remembering, a move which exposes the void of the forgotten. This space is the fissure which Brand identifies as the Door of No Return, since the forgotten memories represent “a rupture in history, a rupture in the quality of being [… and] also a physical rupture, a rupture of geography” (p. 5). From this point, a point she entitles the “circumstantial state of things,” Brand creates a series of fragmentary overlays forming a set of maps that outline a discrete space and provide a unique direction to the Door. Each map is a lyric admixture of reflection, memory, criticism, anecdote, travelogue, quotation, or news report which together span her childhood and adulthood spent in the Caribbean, Australia, Europe, Africa, and the bush of Ontario. While the maps function structurally as chapter divides, they are not part of an overarching narrative of progress. This is clearly Brand's unstated reflection that there is neither structure nor progress in the movement of Blacks of the Diaspora; there is only the solvency of experience, of ontology, of origin in the traveled course. Brand encodes these rapidly vanishing memories into language, an act of self-creation which simultaneously allows her to connect with the black community and to explore her own art.
In this process, memory functions synchronically and diachronically to recall the heterogeneous identity of Blacks in history, politics, and literature. This effort to “map out” the roots of her African consciousness by recording her personal experience is new for Brand, though the motif of the map and its corresponding concern over the meaning of place underlie her two earlier prose works. In fact, this novel seems part of a trilogy concerned with identity, place, and dispossession in the Caribbean-Canadian migration experience. The first of these, In Another Place, Not Here (1996), a novel which was short listed for the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Trillium Award, is a sensuous, lyric story of the immigrant experience of two Caribbean slave women to Canada. The second, At the Full and Change of the Moon (1999), traces the interconnected lives of six generations of descendents of the slave, Marie Ursule, the mythic leader of a revolting band of militant slaves on the isle of Trinidad who plot a mass suicide in 1824. In each work, Brand attempts to define the meaning of a map and the process of map-making. However, in her first work, the characters are so dislocated that they are unable to create or even imagine maps, and in the second novel no one is able to use the ones drawn by Europeans or Americans. It is only in this work that Brand herself traces the geographical, emotional, and political maps of her own life and those of her ancestors.
This map-making journey continuously circles back, however, to a central question for Brand and consequently for her reader: Can language and literature itself provide a map for a person or even a dislocated people? She attempts to answer her question at one instant early in the book when she considers that, “To have one's belonging lodged in a metaphor is voluptuous intrigue: to inhabit a trope; to be a kind of fiction. To live in the Black Diaspora is I think to live as a fiction—a creation of empires, and also self-creation. […] So I am scouring maps of all kinds, the way that some fictions do, discursively, elliptically, trying to locate their own transferred selves” (pp. 18-19). This intersection between rhetoric and subjectivity which Brand identifies is not only something to be located and read from the maps of dominating empires, it is also a chiasmus presenting an opportunity for inverting dominant discourses such that the subjugated, transferred selves appropriate and shape language to create—as Brand does—a new map or fiction of being. This newly evolving fiction raises another question though: How can non-migrant readers of the experience of diasporic groups even begin to relate or understand it? Brand does not attempt to answer this question directly, but her novel, which acutely and sensitively depicts feelings of exile, deracination, and isolation, nonetheless represents an overarching and pervasive global condition of cultural disjunctions produced by perpetual demographic movements.
At the close of her quest, Brand concludes that, “A map, then, is only a life of conversations about a forgotten list of irretrievable selves” (p. 224). This book forms perhaps several conversations about many of Brand's selves, and her literary career will no doubt produce many more that are as compelling and interesting as this one.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1996
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 post-modernist strategies of flashbacks, cyclical time, and fragmented prose. In the North American context, the most popular examples of this genre are Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987) and Octavia Butler's Kindred (1979). Dionne Brand's novel, At the Full and Change of the Moon, is a Caribbean neo-slave narrative, which traces the lives of a Trinidadian slave, Marie Ursule, and her descendants. The novel spans the time and geography of the African Diaspora itself, from the early nineteenth century to late twentieth century, from the sugar cane plantations of Trinidad to the urban streets of Amsterdam.
The novel opens in Trinidad with the chapter “… But a Drink of Water,” which describes the early nineteenth century mass suicide revolt led by the enslaved Marie Ursule. Brand's revolt is based on one which occurred in 1802, but which the actual slave Thisbe and her fellow slave conspirators did not survive. Brand masterfully blends fact and fiction to create the story of Marie Ursule and the Le Chagrin (French for grief) slave plantation. In the novel, Marie Ursule and her secret society, San Peur (“without fear”), plan a mass suicide in which each slave drinks a cup of poisoned water. They all commit suicide at the new moon because the complete darkness of the sky cloaks their deception and resistance to their slave owner, De Lambert. Although Marie Ursule leads the mass suicide by creating the fatal potion, she ensures that her only daughter, “her one curiosity and one vanity,” the young Bola, is saved from death by Marie Ursule's lover, Kamena, a runaway slave. Kamena takes Bola away from the plantation and searches for a fabled maroon society called Terre Bouillante. Kamena obsessively yearns for the freedom of Terre Bouillante, and when he is unable to find it, he resorts to taking Bola to the abandoned Culebra Bay. In this first chapter, Brand establishes that Bola's freedom from slavery is inextricably linked to the death of her mother, Marie Ursule, and to the futile dreams of the escaped slave, Kamena.
Culebra Bay is where Marie Ursule was initially enslaved by an order of Catholic nuns who eventually died, leaving an empty house in an empty village. Culebra Bay is the only character, so to speak, in the novel that rivals Bola in importance and omnipresence. Culebra Bay grows as Bola grows, it is populated as she constantly bears children, and it both loves and stifles its inhabitants as Bola both loves and rejects her children. Because Culebra Bay is so completely desolate when Bola arrives, she is able to literally restore its life by inhabiting and populating it. Culebra Bay and Bola symbiotically provide one another with a sense of freedom and isolation from New World slavery.
Brand includes at the novel's beginning a genealogical chart that documents Bola, her thirteen children, and their offspring. This genealogy is of special importance because Bola gives her children ambiguous names such as “The one unrecalled,” “The ones left in sea,” “The one she washed out with lime,” and “The one who stole her footsteps.” The only children with formal names, Eugenia and Rafael, originally named by Bola respectively “The one who went to Bonaire in a Basket” and “The one who loved gold things and who was taken to the Main,” are reared by others. Bola's peculiar naming practice reflects her desperate attempts to defy the inhumanity of slavery. We learn early on that Bola “… spread her children around so that all would never be gathered in the same place to come to the same harm.” As both the image of Marie Ursule and the legacy of slavery continually haunt the novel, Bola appears driven by an almost obsessive need to both protect and reject her children. She protects them from being sold or taken away from her, by offering them the isolation and exile of Culebra Bay. Like Toni Morrison's Baby Suggs, Bola believes that her children can be saved, if she rejects them from the intimacy of her thoughts, her desire and her comfort—in short, if she does not give them too much mother-love. Through an ironic gesture of naming each child “the one …,” Bola protects her children's individualism by generalizing them.
Each of these children and their descendants has a story that also must be told. The majority of the novel is actually the story of Bola's children and grandchildren, whose lives constantly overlap but whose lineage is unknown to each other. Bola's desire to scatter her children “so that all would never be gathered in the same place to come to the same harm” is a metaphor for the creation of a postcolonial Black exile. Bola's descendants belong both to the Black Diaspora through which African slaves were brutally transplanted to the New World, and to the Black postcolonial exile in which Caribbean natives migrate from their islands and become assimilated Black immigrants in Europe, the United States, and Canada. While Bola does protect her descendants from slavery, she cannot save them from the incessant sense of wandering and homelessness that plagues them once they leave Culebra Bay.
Unlike Bola's children, the chapters that follow Bola's narrative have specific and highly descriptive titles, such as “Tamarindus Indica,” “A Sudden Big Lust,” “Priest,” “Soft Man,” “In a Window,” and “Blue Airmail Letter.” Each of these chapters focuses on the different descendants of Bola's clan who are located in Culebra Bay and their respective Diasporic communities of Amsterdam, New York, and Toronto. The chapter “Tamarindus Indica” explores the departure of Bola's grandson, Samuel Sones, to fight on behalf of the English during World War I. Private Sones does not complete his service and returns to Culebra Bay earlier than expected. He is dejected, abandoned, and lost after having experienced military racism and receiving a dishonorable discharge. In Culebra Bay, Private Sones repeatedly wanders, in military uniform, from his house to the local tamarind tree. Unlike his trip to Europe, the tamarind tree provides him with an unprejudiced solace and stability. His constant sojourn to and from the tamarind tree represents his desire to be both free and mobile—a desire that the segregated camps of the British army denied and thwarted.
One of the main strengths of Brand's novel is characters' reappearances within each other's lives and stories. At the Full and Change of the Moon is not a chronologically conventional novel in which the chapters appear in sequential order. The chapters “A Sudden Big Lust,” “Priest,” “Soft Man,” “In a Window,” and “Blue Airmail Letter” function more like self-contained short stories, each with its own distinctly different settings and protagonists but with overlapping plots. The main character of “A Sudden Big Lust” is Bola's granddaughter, appropriately named Cordelia Greaves because she is plagued by the grief and gravity of her middle-class marriage. In 1953, Cordelia is a fifty-year old woman who rescues herself from the confines of her marriage by desiring and having sexual relationships with the local refrigerator man and a seamstress. Her lust is sudden and big in its rupturing of the Victorian social codes and colonial sexual conventions expected of her generation and gender. In “Priest,” forty-year-old Carlyle “Priest” Childs migrates to the United States, where he tries to achieve the “American Dream” by way of the seedy underworld of drug dealing and crime. In his journey, he befriends a cousin he has never met, much less known about, named Adrian Dovett. Ironically, Adrian is not simply twenty years younger than Priest, but bears an uncanny, almost doppelganger, resemblance to him. Selfishly, Priest uses Adrian's likeness and naivete to his advantage and forces him to work for him as a drug mule.
In “Soft Man,” Adrian Dovett must flee a life of rape, drugs, and deportation. Once in Amsterdam, he steals from his sister, Maya, to buy drugs that eventually lead to a blinding drug hallucination. The story of his sister appears in “In a Window,” which describes her conflicted life as a sex dancer and a prostitute. In “Blue Airmail Letter,” we traverse Venezuela, New York, and Amsterdam, and then visit Priest's younger sister, Eula, in Toronto. Unfortunately, in Toronto Eula learns the same lesson that Adrian learns in New York and Maya learns in Amsterdam: that limited job options exist for Afro-Caribbeans in these cities filled with immigrant dreams. Although each chapter is distinct, Brand creates a sense of simultaneous fragmentation and completeness in which the stories of lost hopes and defeated dreams can only be saved by a return to Culebra Bay.
The final two chapters “Bola” and “At the Full and Change of the Moon” are the stories of Bola and her great-granddaughter also named Bola. Although these chapters are set sixty years apart, they parallel each other in structure and meaning. In “Bola,” Bola the great-granddaughter—the illegitimate daughter of the Toronto immigrant, Eula—is sent back to Culebra Bay to be raised by her grandmother, Dear Mama (the original Bola's daughter). When Dear Mama dies, Bola mourns her death by ritualistically visiting Dear Mama's grave. Eventually Bola convinces herself that Dear Mama is still alive and living in her birthplace of Culebra Bay. In a desperate attempt to watch over Dear Mama, Bola travels to Culebra Bay to nurse and protect her familial ghosts. Similarly, in the chapter “At the Full and Change of the Moon,” the original Bola also spends her last days in Culebra Bay, prophesying for herself and her descendants that “life will continue, no matter what it seems, and even after that, someone will remember you. And even after that it could be just the whiff or thought of things you loved.” While these narratives are not concurrent, they are indeed similar. Although Bola the great-granddaughter's illusions, her inability to cope with the death of her grandmother Dear Mama, and her fear of change plague her, she, like her great-grandmother Bola, uses the quiet solitude of her imagination to save herself. Her choice to live alone in Culebra Bay, where the ghosts of her foremothers protect her, resembles the freedom of her great-grandmother. If both Bolas have found freedom in the solitude of their own minds at Culebra, perhaps one of the novel's central tenets is that freedom is found through remembering home before losing one's self in the cosmopolitan centers of Europe, Canada, and the United States.
At the Full and Change of the Moon is a story of dislocation and fragmentation rooted in slavery, colonization, and New World imperialism. It also reveals the complex dreams of several generations who continually long for something they already possess. The Bolas are free because they are able to communicate with the past and bring spirits forth in the present. At the Full and Change of the Moon's uniqueness lies partly in its ability to transcend time and space to highlight the power of preserving the past. The characters who leave Culebra Bay, abandoning their ties to Marie Ursule's family and to Trinidad, are fractured and limited by the racism and economics of their migrant countries. In the worlds of this novel, freedom is not an illusion to be chased, but an experience that is achieved through remembrance, ritual, and renewal. At the Full and Change of the Moon is an honest narrative that does not valorize freedom or romanticize resistance. It reveals the exile, the wandering, and the desires of one family, who flee and ultimately find freedom in their returns to the strange safety of Culebra Bay, Trinidad.