Alex Haley's 1977 Roots is remarkable for its story of the power and longevity of oral history¨how three words in an African language, handed down through seven generations, provided the evidence that could trace a genealogy back to a particular village in Africa, before slave hunters tore a young man away to exile in a new world.
A Map to the Door of No Return is Dionne Brand's exploration of her family's African origins. Her grandfather claimed to know the tribe of people they came from, but he never remembered after all. Unlike Haley, with nothing to go on, Brand examines the concept of nothingness, "of no; of no-ness."
Having no name to call on was having no past; having no past pointed to the fissure between the past and the present. That fissure is represented in the Door of No Return: that place where our ancestors departed one world for another; the Old World for the New. The place where all names were forgotten and all beginnings recast. In some desolate sense it was the creation place of Blacks in the New World Diaspora at the same time that it signified the end of traceable beginnings.
Of course, with no past, there can be no actual map to this place, this slave ship, fort or village where a particular person was kidnapped into a life of horror. Rather, there is the possibility of many maps, many possible points of disruption.
Instead of being one specific physical place and time for one particular person, as Haley was able to discover, the Door of No Return becomes for most blacks outside of Africa, any and all points of departure. Any black history might be their family's history. More profoundly, the Door of No Return is a spiritual and psychological reference point, "a space in the imagination," as Brand calls it.
I think that Blacks in the Diaspora feel captive despite the patent freedom we experience, despite the fact that we are several hundred years away from the Door of No Return, despite the fact that the door does not exist
This book is part memoir, part essay, part scrapbook of quotations from old documents. The text wanders, meanders, drifts from place to place, from the Caribbean to Canada to England to Australia to Europe to AfricaÓ Interspersed are Brand's commentaries on books by Toni Morrison, V.S. Naipaul and others. And there are bits of geographic and historic information that Brand labels as "Maps," an example of which is:
I first heard the word Sargasso in a history class when I was a child. It described the unending water across which Europeans sailed, bringing people and goods to the Caribbean. The water was supposedly treacherous and sickening, and sailors and ships and cargo were often lost there.
An early reaction to this loose structure might be impatience, even annoyance at its lack of linear order. Just make your points from start to finish, you might think. But upon reflection, it seems an appropriate structure for the subject, mirroring the fragmented histories, the wanderings and global movements of the blacks since their slavery began. There are very few unbroken lines in the black diaspora, almost no linear histories that go smoothly and logically from beginning to end. The beginnings for most Western blacks are unknown except for broad generalities.
Brand's own explanation or justification for the structure of this book might be understood from the last sentence: "A map, then, is only a life of conversations about a forgotten list of irretrievable selves."
This sense of permanently lost self seems to be constant in Brand's life. In a small village in St. Vincent, she meets three young children, and when they ask if she is from the town, she is struck by her own rootlessness.
I suddenly realize that I cannot answer this simplest of questions. I don't know where I'm from. I am from nowhere that I can explain to them. Town is their sense of the outside world. Town is the farthest that they can imagine. And I am from beyond TownÓ Where am I from?
In a small town in northern Ontario she feels like such a stranger that she fears that gas station attendants and store clerks might not serve her. "Here I feel that I do not share the same consciousness," she writes. "There is some other rhythm these people grew up in, speech and gait and probably sensibility."
Yet in the Carib territory of Dominica, she writes, "A Carib man looks me in the eye as if he knows me," and he gives her a basket as a gift. His son and daughter look like relatives.
I had noticed at the back of the shop, my sister, his daughter, a whole world was in her face, 3000 years of Ciboney, then Arawak, then Carib canoeing north from South America, before it was South America, 1000 AD... In her face, now African, which people? Ga? Ashanti? Ibo?
In Vancouver she notices how displaced a black man and a First Nations woman seem. The man is a black driver; the woman asks for directions. Brand sees the irony of how the bus route may be following old aboriginal trails across a landscape no longer recognizable by natives, the woman lost in her own land, while the man must be even more profoundly lost and without his own geography. "The driver through lost maps tells the woman of a lost country her way," Brand observes. "The woman with no country pays and sits down. The man with no country drives on."
In researching her own family's possible past, Brand discovers a text written by a geographer to King George III: "The currents near Tobago are very strong and uncertain especially [sic] between this island and Trinidad. At the full and change of the moon the sea will rise four feet perpendicular." The text continues to give precise sailing instructions.
This gorgeous prose dissembles, it obstructs our view of its real directions, it alludes, it masks. But it points, it says, there, that is where you land the ships bringing slaves to this islandÓLanguage is so wonderful, so deceitful. Which is why 230 years later I wrench it from his pen, I tear it from the wall of this museum, I cut it into pieces¨one piece for the title of this novel, At the Full and Change of the Moon, and the rest I give to my Kamena, who escapes the slave plantation at Mon Chagrin in this novel and who in this novel is searching for Terre Bouillante, a maroonage; who is searching in this novel for a place he will never find.
In using this document, Brand not only created something new, she claimed the oppressor's knowledge for the oppressed, and enriched the literature of a lost people. With her latest book, she has done the same in non-fiction. A Map to the Door of No Return is a thought-provoking effort at filling a historical and psychological void for millions of blacks. ˛
Gloria Hildebrandt's parents came to North America voluntarily in the 1950s.