Cover Story

Dionne Brand: Pushing Boundaries on the Literary Landscape  by Evelyn C. White
Dionne Brand: Pushing Boundaries on the Literary Landscape

The distinguished poet, novelist, essayist, editor, activist and filmmaker Dionne Brand has claimed many of the nation’s most prestigious literary awards. When she was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2017, her citation described how Brand’s art has explored, with beauty, the difficult themes of gender, race and sexuality in a post-colonial world.

True, true. But when Vancouver writer Nadine Chambers meditates on Brand, who in the 1970s immigrated from her native Trinidad to Toronto, this exquisitely personal image wafts through her mind:

“I watched Dionne Brand serve water at a poetry reading that she hosted,” recalls Chambers, who participated in the 2002 event. “People had glasses and she had a decanter. It was a gesture that has no easy definition or match.

“For me, it was a signal of deep welcome with the life essence of water for the body and the importance of poetry for the mind,” Chambers continues. “Dionne is not a very tall nor a big woman. She actually has the ability to move very quietly, which she did. She did not fill as though on an assembly line—it was subtle and measured. She moved slowly and by some internal compass that directed her to fill the glass in need.”

The water metaphor is not a one-off. Listed at $325 by a rare book dealer, Brand’s debut, 34-page poetry collection, ‘Fore Day Morning (1978), evidenced water as a powerful theme. In the poem “Rain Fall,” Brand writes, “it run up the hill/ We see it coming/ we put a pot on the bed/ where the galvanise roof had a hole/ Natural indoor plumbing actually …/ ten unsheathed toes gave thanks.”

The water imagery continues in Brand’s book-length poem thirsty, which won the 2003 Pat Lowther Memorial Award. In thirsty—meditations on the longing to be quenched—Brand writes, “but thirst I know, and falling, thirst for fragrant books, a waiting peace, … /you have to be on your toes or else you’ll drown in the thought of your own diminishing.”

Water likewise permeates the landscape in A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging (2001). “Water is the first thing in my imagination,” Brand writes in the stirring autobiographical release. “All beginning in water, all ending in water. Turquoise, aquamarine, deep green, deep blue, ink-blue, navy, blue-black cerulean water.”

For Brand, creativity, home and water are inextricably linked. About A Map to the Door of No Return, the Ottawa Citizen raved, “Open it anywhere and start reading and it makes sense… her true home is not Africa, the Caribbean or Canada, but poetry.”

The day I interviewed Brand was the same day her tribute to American author Toni Morrison, who died August 5, appeared on the front page of the Globe and Mail. “Ms. Morrison was not trying to coax whiteness into something,” Brand wrote about Morrison, who was the first Black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. She said the people she wrote for and about were Black. That Black equalled people for her.

“With care and concern, Morrison paid close attention to the everydayness of our mothers and grandmothers,” Brand said in our interview. “She took interest in reconstructing their lived lives. But it wasn’t magic. She achieved that effect, as I strive to do, with deep looking, sustained research and sitting with the historical record. After reading Morrison, I knew that something vital had been confided and confirmed about my existence.”

Brand mines her keen powers of observation in The Blue Clerk (2018). In the lyrical volume of 59 versos, a poet and the caretaker of her archives “argue about everything” in a dialogue about the nature of truth. The Blue Clerk received the 2019 Trillium Award for Ontario’s best English language release.

“When one writes, so much is withheld,” Brand, 67, says about The Blue Clerk. “The clerk has all that the author has collected over time. The author is one who has both told the reader everything and not told the reader 100 things.”

Pressed by the clerk to describe the origins of her “voice,” the narrator responds: “I collected it. … From everything, from the walks to and from schools, past funeral homes, past dumpsters, past cane fields, past ladies selling flour; … from listening, kicking surf, being tumbled in sand, being cut with nails … in noisy bars, in suicidal quiet, past gloom … past trees with rangy leaves, pierced ears … scraping ice on a windscreen … from the sound of shaved ice with red syrup.”

The visually striking 248-page book, which was published without a spine, is stitched together with blue thread. Designed by C.S. Richardson, The Blue Clerk was the first-prize winner for poetry in the 2018 Alcuin Society Awards for Book Design in Canada. Thumbing the volume, I recalled Brand’s reverence for The Black Napoleon, a book about Haitian leader Toussaint L’Ouverture that she read at the age of eight.

“Make your own vain flights.
Seehow it goes.”-Dionne Brand
in Ossuaries

“It was kept in the same drawer where my grandmother kept stores of rice and sugar,” Brand wrote in A Map to the Door of No Return. “It had no spine, though it had a back… It had been sewn together… This book was a mirror and an ocean… It was the first ‘big’ book I read to its end. When I was finished, I was made. I had lost innocence and acquired knowledge.”

Last year also saw the release of Brand’s new novel, Theory, a work that writer Madeleine Thein praised as a “masterpiece.” Theory tells the story of Teoria, an ungendered narrator who is struggling to complete a doctoral dissertation. Teoria’s ordeal is set against the backdrop of the character’s love affairs with three women. Theory opens with a reference to Occam’s razor, a philosophical principle for solving problems in which the simplest solutions are considered the most truthful.

Brand likens Teoria’s plight to Occam’s razor when she writes, “There are multiple reasons why I find myself in the situation of not having completed my dissertation; on the other hand, I believe one ought to take stock of one’s own bullshit.”

In the Toronto Star, Sadiya Ansari hailed Theory for its transformation of a banal subject into a compelling narrative. “What Brand does so adeptly in this book is reveal how the many layers of power and personality destroy romantic partnerships, stress familial bonds and muzzle intellectual potential,” Ansari wrote. “Just as the narrator struggles to get through a PhD,m Brand shows how difficult it is for her character to live outside the presiding confines of gender, heteronormative relationships and capitalism.”

For decades, Brand’s work has reflected a determination to move perceived “outsiders” into the centre of Canadian history. In 1994, Brand was among a group of Black women whose essays appeared in We Are Rooted Here and They Can’t Pull Us Up: Essays in African Canadian Women’s History. The volume opens with a photo of an 1806 advertisement for the auction sale of a Black woman named Peggy and her son Jupiter, both “owned” by a prominent white man in Ontario. Among other topics, the book documents the history of enslavement in Canada. Brand’s essay examined Black labourers and their recruitment as factory workers during the Second World War.

Another contributor to We Are Rooted Here and They Can’t Pull Us Up and a professor at Syracuse University in New York, Linda Carty, also appeared in Sisters in the Struggle, a 1991 documentary Brand made, together with Ginny Stikeman, for the National Film Board. Sisters in the Struggle recounts the story of the Black

Women’s Collective, a pioneering Toronto activist group. The collective’s achievements include the publication of Our Lives, the first newspaper (1986–1989) in Canada by and about Black women, of which Brand was a founding member.

“The corpus of Dionne’s very impressive work has had a significant impact on the political and literary landscape because other writers across race, ethnicity and class have followed her in … challenging the Canadian state to acknowledge its racial history,” Carty said. “Her work is visionary.”

Brand, who is the poetry editor for McClelland & Stewart, has a reputation for nurturing up-and-coming poets. Sonnet’s Shakespeare by poet Sonnet L’Abbe stands among the recent works that Brand has steered to publication.

“As a queer Black woman, Brand has contributed powerfully and indelibly to the representation of Canada, to storying urban Toronto and to championing diasporic Black lives,” L’Abbe said in an interview for this article.

“Her decision-making power and support of young writers is helping to diversify the voices we’re hearing, and her influence will impact the Canadian literary landscape for generations. Getting to sit down in Dionne’s living room to work with her on [my] manuscript [Sonnet’s Shakespeare] will always be one of the highlights of my literary journey.”

Brand aims to develop collegial relationships with young writers. “I tell them that I have some living, some experience that may or may not do them any good,” she explains. “I don’t give advice, but rather, I offer insights about the perils and dangers of the time.”

She emphasizes that emerging writers should not fear failure. “Make your own vain flights,” mBrand wrote in Ossuaries, which was awarded the 2011 Griffin Poetry Prize. “See how it goes.”

Brand, who is admittedly someone unable to “pause or take a rest,” seeks solace in travel, something which enables her to “get a sense of people and think about the world.” She counts trips to the Venice Biennale, Cairo, Mexico City and Delhi as especially restorative. “I like crowded mplaces,” she says, laughing.

Brand’s predilection for travel calls to mind “Sketches in Transit… Going Home.” Included in her story collection Sans Souci (1988), the masterful saga examines a group of holiday travellers en route from Toronto back to their native Caribbean communities. “They arrived at the airport… suitcases stuffed with blue jeans, pots, microwaves, bicycles, toys, whiskey,” Brand writes. “All the things which were the reason for emigrating in the first place, piled up, ready to go back.”

As the multi-stop flight in “Sketches” gets closer to its final destinations (Antigua, Barbados, Grenada, St. Vincent), the staid reserve of the passengers relaxes “into easiness,” illuminating themes of Black Canadian experience that few authors explored 25 years ago. “The accents returned,” she writes. “They felt they owned the airspace, the skies going south. Coming north maybe, the Canadians could tell them what to do, but not going home. They blared the music even louder and danced in the aisles.”

As the author of more than 20 books and nearly as many awards, Brand stands as an undisputed force in Canadian literature nearly half a century after her arrival in Canada.

“Everything that emanates from my work is a surprise,” says Brand of the waterfall of praise that has greeted her art and activism. “I’m not writing thinking about prizes or accolades. I am not connected to that. I write a novel or a poem or an essay hoping that it will arrive in the consciousness of the reader, resonate and be taken up by others in some way. We are all living on the same damaged earth.” 

Subscribe to Herizons, Canada's foremost feminist magazine now and we'll send you the entire print edition of the Winter 2020 issue free. Offer valid until March 9, 2020.

-->