Bread Out of Stone:|
Recollections, Sex, Recognitions, Race, Dreaming, Politics
by Dionne Brand,
Post Your Opinion
|Love Which is Insight
by George Elliott Clarke
HOW CAN I READ DIONNE Brand's 11th book, the essay collection Bread out of Stone, with academic objectivity? I've known my Trinidadian-Canadian "sister," this fierce writer, far too long -- since 1978 -- for that. Her voice -- succinct, lyrically accented, love-and anger-tinted -- seeps too deeply inside the flesh to allow anyone the luxury of forgetfulness.
Besides, these 13 essays, subtitled recollections sex / recognitions race / dreaming politics, bear vital witness to the bitter gender, racial, and political battles in which she has engaged since the 1960s. A Black, lesbian, immigrant, filmmaker, university lecturer, writer, and 1990 Governor General's Award for Poetry finalist (not necessarily in this order), Brand believes fervently in the struggle for equality.
From the first page, Brand writes, no, speaks with beautiful, forensic clarity about the issues that demand our attention:
There's a hit-and-run game of police and drug dealers in my part of [Toronto], from Christie Pits, gaping wide and strewn with syringes, to Lansdowne and Bloor, where my cousin and so many Young men and women walk, hustle, dry-eyed, haunted, hungry and busily, toward a fix.
She eulogizes revolutionary Grenada, where she was stationed as a CUSO worker and from which she was evacuated in the wake of the US-led invasion of October 1983. (This experience engendered Chronicles of the Hostile Sun, her 1985 book of poems.)
Brand remembers her roots because she must:
There is never the room that white writers have in never speaking for their whole race, yet in speaking the most secret and cowardly language of normalcy and affirmation, speaking for the whole race.
She recalls the police killings of Black men in Toronto, the ugly fallout of the Just Desserts shooting, the 1993 streetcorner strip-search of Audrey Smith, the Show Boat and "Writing thru Race" controversies. Never does she flinch from saying what must be said. Her pithiest critique? "Once a Czech emigre writer, now very popular in the 'free world,' looked me dead in my Black eyes and explained the meaning of jazz to me."
Brand exposes the regressive liberalism of the wiiter Neil Bissoondath, the federal minister of culture Michel Dupuy, and Globe columnists Michael Valpy and Robert Fulford, but also the racism of white women, the sexism of Black men, and lesbian hostility toward heterosexism, Black and white. Like Marlene Nourbese Philip, Brand relishes playing the role of public intellectual.
One benefit of these essays is their incidental recovery of recent Black Canadian intellectual history. When Brand writes about the importance of Bathurst Street to the development of Toronto's Black community and comments on institutions like Wong's restaurant (which offers, arguably, the best saltfish and ackee in TO), on people like the activist Dudley ("Duds") Laws, and refers, seemingly, to others like the African-Nova Scotian musician Faith Nolan, she centralizes Blacks marginalized by "our" white society and culture.
But it's Brand's love -- erotic and platonic -- for Black women that fires this work. When she concentrates on the Black female form, that often maligned and banished body, her writing acquires its greatest force -- that of eyes seeing for the first time.
Often when we talk about the wonderful Black women in our lives, ... we forget that apart from learning the elegant art of survival from them, we also learn in their gestures the fine art of sensuality ... Didn't we take in their sweetness, their skinniness, their voluptuousness, their ample arms, their bone-sharp adroitness, their hot darkness; the texture of their skin, its plumminess, its pliancy; their angularity, their style when dancing, their stride across a piece of yard that sets the yard off, their shake as they sense the earth under their feet, their rock, the way they take music in their shoulder, the way they pause and then shimmy and let it roll?
This powerful love, which is insight, charges every word that Brand writes. She sees, and she demands to be seen, wholly.
Politics isn't everything in these essays. The natural description in "Just Rain, Bacolet" is exquisite. Other pieces made me bust my guts laughing.
I chide my "sister," though, for her Torontocentrism and for her statement that the 1970 Sir George Williams affair "awakened the Black Power movement in Canada." Black folks in Ontario and in Nova Scotia risked everything in the 1940s and 1950s to win small but vital victories -integrating schools, cinemas, restaurants, and the nursing profession. These quibbles aside, Bread out of Stone is important, imagistic, moving, memorable, admirable. Dionne, write again soon.