Dionne Brand was born in Guayguayare, Trinidad and moved to Toronto in 1970, where she went on to build a reputation as one of Canada’s finest writers. Winner of the Governor General’s Award for Poetry and the Trillium Award in 1997 for Land to Light On, Brand is also known as an essayist, short story writer and filmmaker. Her latest book A Map to the Door of No Return, is a thought-provoking map of her own art in which she sketches the shifting borders of home and nation, the connection to place in Canada and the world beyond. paulo da costa spoke with Dionne at WordFest.
Dionne Brand: I wanted to write a piece of work that meandered around that image taken from the historical moment when blacks were taken from Africa to the so-called New World. I wanted to contemplate that moment, as it seemed to me that it existed still, hovered over the lives of blacks of the Diaspora.
I suppose, taking my own position as, if not generalizable, but certainly having some bearing on others in the same situation, others from the same history; I wanted to think about how it still worked as a metaphor for how we were taken, in the lives that we lived in the contemporary, how we were uprooted. I wanted to go beyond the historical fact of the door, or slavery, etc., because that we know and agree to.
My guess was that it still functioned, that it was the great metaphor; it functions as a quadrant, in the way that the world found us, or we found the world. Does that make sense? I’m still trying to find new ways of teasing out the idea.
paulo da posta: What is the “door of no return”?
Dionne Brand Africans were taken out of many ports along the West Coast of Africa, and these ports came to be known as the “door of no return,” for those Africans as well as for those who took them. I was fascinated by the fact that those places, those ports, had metamorphosed into this metaphor called the door of no return, and it seemed such a large phrase with great possibility for exploration.
pdc: There is a point in the book where you describe your encounter with three St. Vincent children and you muse, “I was really from no place at all.” Do you feel rootless in Canada?
DB: [laughs] That’s such a loaded question. I have to take it apart. No, I feel rootless in the world. You see, the word rootless comes along with all kinds of baggage, as if one should feel rooted. But why? I don’t presume rootedness as a given, or a wanted state, or any of those things, so I have to undo or untussle the words you just gave to me. They resound, they bound on me when I’m given those words.
Rootlessness is not a problem for me, and it doesn’t have to do with Canada in particular. I think it has to do with that door. I think that after that door, rootedness is impossible. I think that perhaps rootlessness is origin for some. How can you face that history and feel any rootedness? If rootedness means the things people want it to mean: family, place, land, etc. Frankly, I think we in the world should feel completely rootless – that would be the best starting place. It would stop a lot of war and a lot of awful things. If we were to use it well, this idea of no place, of rootlessness, it would be an incredibly interesting starting point for relocating selves in the world. On the one hand, you find something out of destruction, but what you can possibly make of it seems to me infinite.
pdc: What about continuity within a sense of self?
DB: As you can find it, I suspect, you cobble it together. But I think you also have to be very much aware of the fallacy, if you will, of continuity, or the pitfalls of continuity. Fanon spoke of the pitfalls of national consciousness.
pdc: Perhaps the same as puritanism, purity…
DB: Exactly. What could it possibly mean, continuity? We have to speak about very specific things if we wish to have that response worthy enough, honest enough, with enough clarity, enough truth to shape continuity around, rather than the continuity of old impressions – do you know what I mean?
pdc: It interrupts us.
pdc: Do we Canadians have a particular advantage in understanding issues of identity in light of our multicultural mosaic?
DB: I don’t think Canada is in any more of an advantageous place than any place else. I think it’s there for us to figure out, wherever we’re located.
pdc: Our blood does not seem to boil in the way it boils in other parts of the world.
DB: The blood boils on some issues. The blood boils in Canada around the French/English conflict, and the ground boils around First Nations issues, which are as yet unresolved after a couple hundred years or so. No, I don’t think we’re in a position to say we’ve got this or that figured out. I think we’re in an interesting state of becoming. I think there are great possibilities.
When I walk around Toronto, the city I live in primarily, and I see people from all over the world make a living out of it, I think that’s fantastic. Fabulous possibilities exist, things haven’t been worked out, and we see the becoming of it. We’re in the middle of becoming, we have these yet-to-become people, and that’s interesting, definitely. But these other issues remain. The thing that burns the ground in this country is the condition of First Nations peoples. I think there are deep resistances to resolving these issues and we can see them through state practices. I was stunned the other day when Matthew Coon Come went to South Africa for the Anti-Racism conference and spoke about the condition of First Nations people in this country and was reprimanded by speakers from the state here, saying that he ought not to have gone, he spoke out of turn, and how dare he say this about this country.
If that moment still exists alongside the moment of our becoming, we know that we haven’t arrived. At least we’re conscious that we haven’t arrived, but we can’t take too much for granted on that score. We always have to apprehend ourselves in the fullness of the historical moment in which we live.
pdc: In terms of Canadian identity, what did you see in Canada when you arrived in the 70s as opposed to what you see now? What has changed and what has remained?
DB: Well, what I have just discussed remains: this persistent disenfranchising of First Nations peoples.
pdc: Do you see any movement?
DB: Not really. I don’t at all. No movement will be recognizable until it’s resolved. That would be like saying if you give just an inch or so, then that’s supposed to be some deep progress, and it isn’t, it really isn’t – there is no progress in human fealty. But before 1970, when I arrived, it was a different place; there wasn’t the cosmopolitan mix of some cities that there are now. And interestingly, as I go across the country, when I think of ten years ago when I went across the country and talked to newspapers, etc., I certainly had to do more biography than I do now [laughs]. There is an acknowledgement of this state of becoming, and that’s a positive. Then I was doing history lessons, and now I don’t have to.
pdc: In a society like ours, invested in the self-image of inherent goodness and moral superiority, how are those who live on the margins going to be heard?
DB: Power is not always completely overwhelming. There are more different voices now in Canadian literature than there were twenty or thirty years ago. You have a conversation going on, and about to happen, that is more critical and that suggests that there ought not to be only one dominant opinion. We have people in various places in their lives, whether they are writers, or people who work nine to five, asserting themselves in that conversation. I think it’s not how are they going to be heard, but when.
pdc: When did the passion of writing begin for you?
DB: I think when I was a teenager. I don’t know if at that moment I knew what it was going to turn out to be, but I’m glad it turned out to be as compelling a passion as it is – as painful and as difficult as it is at times. But I can’t complain about it; it has rewarded me.
I think it started when I was a young person, perhaps when I came here. I had thoughts of it before, but only in the romanticized way that a fifteen-year-old or thirteen-year-old thinks they’re going to be an artist.
When I began to go to the University of Toronto, it began to make more sense to me, even though it made less and less sense to my family, that that was what I was going to do.
pdc: In your poetry book, Land to Light On, you write, “I did not write poems about stacking cords of wood, as if the world is that simple”. Where did the beginnings of your political engagement in your writing come from?
DB: I was lucky enough to be a teenager in 1970 in Toronto; it was also the moment of the Black Power and the Pan-African movements, and of the support for liberation struggles in Africa. It was an important historical moment, teeming with philosophy and poetry. I was lucky enough to be there. I felt that those ideas and that political engagement would also free me from the bonds to the ideology that racism contains.
It was an opening for me – the possibility of living without those ideas dominating one’s life – a sculpting, a choreographing of one’s way in the world. So it began there, in my early teenage years, hearing about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King and reading James Baldwin: that inspired me. It was also a way out for me, and suddenly the world made sense. It made sense to be politically engaged, to be that kind of an artist. I learned from writers like Jean-Paul Sartre. Those were the people who suddenly opened the world for me.
pdc: It seems to me that at that time there was a dialogue between the people, the intellectuals and the arts, which I don’t see today. Many people today insist that poets should not address politics, although many great poets, such as Neruda, addressed the politics of their time and were widely read by the people. Is most of today’s poetry removed from the matters that are close to people’s hearts, and is that why they don’t engage with the arts?
DB: It’s possible, but I count myself in that tradition of writers who take up the hard questions, who are never satisfied with our condition, who want to see equality in the world and who will push their ideas and their language and their minds to embrace that. In some ways, I count myself lucky to be part of that genealogy, if you will, of poetry and of writing. Much as it is sometimes denounced, it is still the most important poetry that has been written. I try to keep that focus in my work, but I don’t have to try very hard: that’s in some ways where I live, and I’m convinced of its frailty. I’m convinced of the possibility of the openness of it, of trying to engage people in that way…
pdc: What do you mean by that frailty?
DB: What do I mean by frail? I think that kind of politics is hard to sustain in the world we live in. The power structures that exist are overwhelmingly against that investigation. When I say frail, I don’t mean it in the sense of weak, but I mean tender.
pdc: It is my impression that much of the Canadian literary writing is by and large politically disengaged writing. What is your perspective?
DB: I don’t think that’s entirely true. If you think of Michael Ondaatje’s last book, I don’t think it is disengaged in that way. I can’t account for the rest of it, and I do think that some writers whose origins are down East have a project, if you will, of recovering communities, given the rationalization of Canada into its central space, into the centre. I think that there are writers from different parts of the country who try to establish a way of seeing that’s rooted where they live.
Perhaps for them that is the political preoccupation. Let’s say someone situated in Vancouver writes about what seems inane, but it’s a response they feel to the centre or to how they feel the conversation about Canadianness is going. Sometimes I do feel that that writing is void of even its own landscape. There seems to me a willful attempt not to address people, not to address issues, currents – a willful attempt to be glib. I don’t know what that’s about.
pdc: The lack of history…
DB: Or a lack of acknowledgement. I honestly feel (maybe I’ll write something about this) that there is this shaking ground under this country which is this business of First Nations peoples that never gets said, so one blithely crosses it quickly. If one doesn’t embrace that discussion in some way, then how can the literature feel present?
Kerri Sakamoto, in her novel The Electrical Field, begins to redraw the Canadian landscape, and redraw it through a particular Japanese-American woman’s experience in it, who has as a background the internment camps. Suddenly a landscape in Northern Ontario is redrawn; we see it differently, and we see it as contested terrain. If you also take Eden Robinson’s novel, we see the country in her physical descriptions of the water and the land, etc. It gives us opportunities to reimagine the country.
There is a conversation going on among the writers, and perhaps that is when you don’t see what the stuff of it is, how it may coalesce. It’s a very long subject.
pdc: You are a writer of dissent, who questions and challenges. What do you feel will be the atmosphere for a writer of dissent after September 11?
DB: I think these are dangerous times, very dangerous. It is dangerous to speak at this moment, and I’m sure that within the narrative of free speech that people live on in North America, it wouldn’t even cross their minds that the ground is becoming more dangerous for writers, but it is. That’s precisely what’s happening. And I’ve been sharing that with people, with some of the other writers at this festival and at other places in the world, and we’re scared. Of course you can’t stop speaking. I think an atmosphere of intolerance of ideas is being cultivated.
I’ve been asked that question across the country in the last little while as I’ve been traveling with the book, and it’s always a question about patriotism. It’s not a question of trying to get at the possibilities one can attach to these events, or to plumb these events for what we might learn from them as human beings, or what they might mean… It’s usually a question of us saying which side we’re on, and that always frightens the hell out of me. Because, you see, I’ve always been on the other side.
Anyway, there are even some issues for blacks of the Diaspora that will be subsumed by this call to patriotism that we never felt anyway, precisely because of our condition in the world. So I find it a very terrifying moment, but I don’t know how to do anything else: It’s either write or perish, and that might be the same thing (laughs). I wonder whether people know what they’re choking off when they choke off the discussion.
A month ago Susan Sontag had an interesting piece in the New Yorker where she says we’re being reduced to baby talk about the issue, that the American propaganda machine is making up these statements like: We will be strong, We will fight. And she says, of course we’ll be strong and we’ll fight, but what are the issues exactly here – what exactly is going on? I think it’s an interesting turning point in the world in general, and I’ll be interested in how it turns out. I think that we live in an American empire, an empire run by the USA. That is clear to me. But to say that today is dangerous. That is what is scary about it: to say what the historical record has is dangerous. That’s frightening. That ought to be frightening for everyone.