Dionne Brand was born in Trinidad in 1953 and moved to Toronto in 1970. She is the author of six volumes of poetry, including the acclaimed No Language is Neutral (1990); Sans Souci & Other Stories; Bread Out of Stone (essays); and her first novel, In Another Place, Not Here (Knopf Canada, 1996). She has also made several NFB documentaries, the most recent of which is Listening for Something: Adrienne Rich & Dionne Brand in Conversation (1996).
Brand has a BA in English and an MA in the philosophy of education from the University of Toronto. She has been an assistant professor of English at the University of Guelph and a writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto. She has also taught at York University.
I spoke with Brand in an upstairs office area lent to us for the occasion by the Women's Bookstore in Toronto.
ET: You came to Canada when you were seventeen. What brought you here?
DB: There was a wave of immigration to Canada moving from the Caribbean in the 1970s. Canada was experiencing a "boom" economy. Thirty years before, in the fifties, my mother went to England when England was having a boom, but by the seventies England was bust. So the destination was Canada. I came to go to school, but at seventeen I also came to get the hell out of "home" like any other teenager. All families mark this moment in life, a certain moment of growth when one leaves one's family, one's neighbourhood. Some people stay, but if you have the opportunity, or if you have the creativity or the daring, you go.
ET: What is your earliest political memory?
DB: I've talked about this in my essay "Cuba". An uncle of mine in '59 heard about the revolution in Cuba and decided to see what was going on. He got into a fishing boat, and he went to Cuba. I don't think that at the time I was aware of the political ramifications of what he had done, just the sense that in our family he was a bit of an outlaw and that something momentous was happening and he was going to it. The memory stayed with me at a sensual level until I too began to question the possibilities for politics. I suppose I did the same thing as he when I went to Grenada to work in the revolution in '83-followed my politics, my conscience really.
ET: When did you break away from the British classics that you were taught in school? When did you discover there was something else?
DB: I don't know that I broke away so much as became aware of the perniciousness in being educated out of yourself and how deliberate that was, insofar as the island that I came from was a colony of England, and there were assumptions about its "inferiority" within the mind of the colonizers. So the "classics" were not taught merely for the sake of literature but for the purpose of colonizing. I began to feel uncomfortable with who I was reading about. Those works never "contained" me. And when that became apparent, but more, when I felt myself or "us" as an absence in that work, I felt not only resentment but loss and loneliness for myself. Then I began seeking other writing, writing which would mend that loss.
ET: Who was your earliest influence?
DB: I discovered history first. At eight I read a book about Toussaint L'Ouverture, the Haitian revolutionary who fought the French for the independence of Haiti. Later, The Black Jacobins by C.L.R James. I had an uncle who was a teacher and a Caribbean Black nationalist, and I got these from him. One of the first Caribbean writers I read was Samuel Selvon. He wrote in the vernacular. When I was thirteen, the English teacher, after having taught us Dickens, read Selvon. And we broke up. We were joyous. It was so wonderful, so familiar because it sounded like us. The literature we were schooled in we didn't find at all horrible. We loved it too. If you were like me and you loved language, then you just loved how things sounded. And you wished you were in them.
ET: You've written essays, poetry, short stories, and a novel, and you've been involved in the making of several documentary films. Do you have a favourite genre now that you've tried so many?
DB: At the risk of being presumptuous [laughter], I'm a poet firstly, and that's what I absolutely love. Everything else comes from there. I have to have poetry going on to feel a certain sanity. The shape and order of poetry, its ability to contain universes of ideas which can lift you out of the immediate dread of living-and I don't mean lift you by deceit or fantasy but by clarity, a kind of sense-making which doesn't spare you the dread but offers you this clarity which is like being able to feel air or night, to feel the intangible. I like the way in which poetry makes you reach for perfect speech, the perfect expression of your breath, your singular breath, at the same moment as it joins you to all other breathing. I tried the other "shapes" because I was curious. I wasn't interested in writing a story though that was a beginning-middle-end type of story. I was interested in seeing how poetry could shape a short story. Whether I could bring the same quality of tension of language and luxuriousness, whether the story could be as elliptical as poetry and still work.
ET: In your novel, Elizete embodies that poetry, doesn't she?
DB: Yes, I wanted to give her that. I wanted to give Verlia much less trimming. She had the less sumptuous line. She's more abrupt, more action-oriented, less contemplative, or impatient with mere contemplation.
ET: A number of Verlia's biographical details parallel yours. Does she express a particular part of yourself?
DB: I grew up here with a lot of women who were political activists. Their mind life was about politics and distinct from what the mind life of women was "supposed" to be about. I was trying to write such a woman. Verlia is pieces of all the women that I knew, studied with, worked with, hung with, flyered with. Women who were committed to political action in their own lives.
ET: You've said that you are much more interested in writing about politics and history than you are in writing about your personal self or personal life.
DB: I write about the dynamics of the world around me. How do we think of ourselves as living in the world and then how do we work those things out with other people? And what are the kinds of forces involved in working them out? And can we see ourselves beyond our small world? Can we see beyond the compulsive routine of power as we are subjected to it? Of course I enter it and can never fully say that it does not involve my personal self. I am not only an observer, I am implicated as well.
ET: Do you think your writing changes anything?
DB: I hope so. When I first began to write at seventeen, I was convinced that it would. I recently did a reading at York University-about three hundred people-and I was totally overwhelmed. What they got out of the work, and the questions they could engage in about our times, the way we live, the power relations. So if writing can stir us to think about who we want to be, if it can stir us from repressive ways of thinking and oppressive ways of being, then I want to keep writing.
ET: In one of your essays you comment that when you're in Trinidad, you feel surrounded by "spirits, history, ancestors." Then you say that life in Canada seems much less concerned "with how you are in the soul." Why is this, do you think?
DB: It's the difference between a rural culture and an urban culture. I've lived mostly in Toronto, a highly urbanized, anonymous place where people know other people very little. There are no connections to yesterday, the day before that. And we move to these cities precisely for this anonymity. There is less of an attachment to buildings, landmarks, sites, places where things have happened. A culture that does have that attachment hasn't lost its references-and even though Trinidad is now urbanized, it hasn't quite lost these. I guess what that statement about living in the soul meant that when one arrives in a rural place like Tobago (I go there more than I go to Trinidad) one is called to account for being human. Nobody knows me, but they know me. In this way of being they say, "You can't be in our presence and act as if you are not."
ET: What has most significantly shaped you as a writer?
DB: My politics. I am a committed socialist-and that despite what all kinds of people have done with socialism and despite immense opposition to a notion of social justice. I don't feel that capitalism in any of its forms can make people live right with each other because it's based so much on greed, and it can so quickly dismiss our relations and obligations to each other. If anything, I have been shaped by a deep opposition to capitalism.
ET: What is your view of "cultural appropriation" as it applies to literature? For example, the idea that I shouldn't write as a male because I'm not a male sort of thing.
DB: That's the simplistic reading, and sometimes I think it's the deliberately simplistic reading of something important. Something important, for instance, that people of colour are trying to say about how they've been represented in literature as shallow cardboard characters, as basically inhuman. I think that what people are saying is that literatures from dominant or dominating societies have invariably cast the dominated in the worst light and cast the dominant as the arbiters, interpreters, and authorities for human existence; that within these literatures there are mythologies about the dominated which perpetuate their condition. And there are also practices of imperialism and colonization-of necessity acquisitive, racist, prejudicial, etc. Practices which have affected all spheres of life, literature being a major and important one of them-where life is represented and where ideas, theses, are fleshed out.
ET: Are you saying that we should be responsible for the consequences of taking on someone else's voice?
ET: If I want to, I can write as a black male, but I'd better damn well know what I'm talking about. [Laughter]
DB: Or be prepared for the criticism. I too might want to write as a black male living in, say, Amsterdam. I want to make sure I get it right though. I'm going to check it out very carefully. People of colour never had the power in the literary world to respond to these stereotypes, these characterizations. It's fine to make characterizations, but not if there's no balance of power, nobody who says, "What the hell are you talking about? What do you mean exactly?" Usually, people who talk about cultural appropriation get slapped with, "You're talking about censorship." That's not true. That elides the point. It's the people who didn't have the power to respond who were, in effect, censored.
ET: Has that balance of power changed at all?
DB: I think it has to the extent that many writers of colour write now all over the world, and represent all aspects of their lives.
ET: You've written that poetry is "useless but something dangerous and honest."
DB: Not useless to me! [Laughter] But in the society we live in, people think of it as fairly useless.
ET: How dangerous is poetry in this country? How dangerous is your poetry?
DB: I can comment on the political situation. I can object in poetry to the ways in which we are living, the ways in which we are made to live by the social structure. I think a poet is two things: someone who writes those things down, and also someone who advocates, vigorously, living in a great way. Why I think poetry can be dangerous-and that's different from being dangerous, I suppose-is, as Adrienne Rich says in one of her essays, that poetry is the least commoditized art. That is, one cannot sell it really. It resists markets, commercialism. And perhaps in today's world it can offer an alternative to the unrelenting idiocy of corporate culture.
ET: A couple of specific questions about your novel. First of all, the title, In Another Place, Not Here, comes from the last section of your long poem "No Language is Neutral". Were you deliberately trying to forge a connection between that poem and the novel?
DB: When I wrote that poem and I came to that line, I wanted to continue the poem, but the poem was ending. That line came to me very easily, but it was the kind of easy that you feel after you've thought a long time. It kept puzzling me. And I kept thinking that the next piece of poetry I write will begin with that line. The funny thing is I didn't know what to call the novel, but that line kept coming up in it about place and about being "here", not wanting to be "there", everyone not wanting to be where they were.
ET: The novel begins with the idea of "grace". "Grace" is a word that comes up a lot in the book. What does it mean to you?
DB: Respite. A moment like honey, like clarity, a stop, a silence. And for the characters, it's when something ceases. Strife ceases. It's unexpected honey, unexpected silence. It's not redemption because not everything is solved. It's a moment of clarity for which they are utterly grateful. It isn't continuous. It's a moment of sight, of being sightful.
ET: How would you describe the relationship between Elizete and Verlia?
DB: Each sees some quality in the other which she longs for or lacks. Elizete sees Verlia's ability to change her situation, to dream and act; she is willing to leap in this way with Verlia but is braced by what she knows about the world. Verlia sees Elizete's connection with the physicality of the world. She envies Elizete's ability to exist simply, but she knows somehow that it isn't simple and that she romanticizes Elizete. Their relationship is unlikely but is for each a clearheaded gasp at the future.
ET: The novel is in many places very "sensory".
DB: I did want to put sense together in a new way. A friend of mine, after reading the novel, said to me about a certain point where it appears the two women are having sex: "Dionne, this is sex, right?" [Laughter] I didn't want to write sex in a conventional way. I wanted to find some way of saying it, of writing it, that brought something else to it. I'm more interested in language than story, in how language can float you in the story. The language the characters are wrapped in creates its own sensory space. Sometimes you don't even know who the hell is talking, you identify the people in the novel not through the usual expository passages but through their voices. I also shift a lot between first and third person, sometimes in the same paragraph. I wanted to approximate thinking, which shifts like that. It's the way jazz works.
ET: Does your feminism inform your writing in any specific way?
DB: It's probably instinctive by now. Your politics isn't just the party you join. Your politics become a lived thing, how you integrate your life.