At the Full & Change of the Moon

by Dionne Brand,
ISBN: 0676971016

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Black Moon Over Trinidad
by Jack Illingworth

Many readers turn away from a book when they learn from the press that the author is "political". Even if they are comfortable with having their own beliefs challenged, they are wary of encountering didacticism when all they are really interested in is a good read.

Nearly everyone who has read the poetry, essays, and novels of Dionne Brand has called her something to the effect of "one of Canada's finest political writers". That often-repeated piece of praise is true: Brand is a fine writer, and she is first and foremost a political writer. Her writings, however, move far beyond the territory of polemic. They are beautiful and frightening works of art.

At the Full and Change of the Moon, Brand's second novel, is an extremely ambitious book. It is simultaneously a family novel, a history text, and a political tract. Brand's strategies are very similar to those of Gabriel García Márquez, probably the best known practitioner of this particular type of novel; but her technique, subject, and intention are entirely her own.

In At the Full and Change of the Moon, Brand has written a history of the black population of Trinidad, her childhood home. Her acknowledged factual sources are primarily white, primarily male, and primarily concerned with the colonial occupation of the island. (One notable exception is V.S. Naipaul's The Loss of El Dorado, which takes a broader look at the natives and slaves who were drawn into the process of early colonialism.) These sources tend to remain in the background, supplying detail for the story that Brand is determined to tell.

She begins with the remarkable story-based on an event recorded by Naipaul-of Marie Ursule, a slave woman who organizes the mass suicide of a plantation's slaves. This is a dire mode of resistance, the dismissal of life in slavery as a tenable possibility. Brand tells the story with more bravery than horror, fervently demonstrating that a slave's existence is far more terrible than the death of a suffering community. In the final words of the model for Marie Ursule: "This is but a drink of water to what I have already suffered."

Just before her death, Marie Ursule has her former lover carry her daughter, Bola, away from the plantation. Bola is raised in the abandoned settlement of two nuns who had once owned Marie Ursule. The village of Culebra Bay gradually springs up around her as she bears over a dozen children by a succession of indistinct fathers, always looking "down at her swollen belly in surprise and as if it was not something she had lived with for nine months, but forgetting, all of a sudden looking down and wondering what she was carrying, forgetting it was her third child, it was her fourth child, it was her sixth."

The remainder of the novel tells the story of these children, their children, and their great grandchildren, as they are dispersed throughout the world. Their fates are bleak: they travel to Canada, America, Holland, England, doomed to lives of menial labour, drug pushing or prostitution. Trinidad, despite its poverty and limited opportunity for personal gain, becomes a haven by the end of the book, a refuge from the squalor and hopelessness that confront the Trinidadian blacks who attempt to make a living in the Western world.

The stories of Bola's children are told with anger and sympathy, with an awareness of the beauty that lies in the lives of even her bleakest and most alienated characters. Some survive, some are mentally and emotionally crushed, some are killed by the society that they move out into.

This is, of course, the political aspect of At the Full and Change of the Moon. It isn't didacticism, manifesto-art or cultural theory. Brand is fully aware of the political possibilities of storytelling and representation, and she is trying to make the most of them. The political nature of the book is closely allied to its historical nature. The tales of Brand's Trinidadians have generally escaped the scope of conventional history: they have hitherto gone largely unrecorded; they are generally undignified by charismatic (wealthy European) leaders or meticulous records; instead, each chapter is the story of a cultural exemplar-sometimes abstracted into a fertile matriarch who tries to talk to the whales, sometimes rendered in stark realism.

The seriousness of Brand's purpose and the obvious care that she takes in developing her novel make At the Full and Change of the Moon a viable alternative to white, male, colonial histories of Trinidad. It does not matter that she finds her history in the "sudden and big lust" of an older woman named Cordelia, who has connections beyond her husband and family. This is social history, and Brand manages to slide the violent labour disputes of the island's oil drilling projects behind a beautifully rendered account of Cordelia's marriage, childbearing years, and subsequent sexual birth.

While At the Full and Change of the Moon is an intensely political book, it does not propose any single, simple message. Its content is confrontational, but it is not preachy or programmatic. It is the sort of book that lends itself to political theorizing (I could venture my own reading here, but I will not). In interviews and public life, Brand makes no secret of her socialism, her activism, and her feminism. These views are manifested in the text, but not in an overt way. The readers have to develop their own critical responses to the novel. At the Full and Change of the Moon does push its reader towards understanding, towards activism, and towards empathy, but its politics are more about how one should live than how one should vote.

Politics aside, At the Full and Change of the Moon is simply a beautiful, frightening, and engaging book. The few criticisms that I could make-namely, that the characters lack the kind of individualism that I enjoy seeing in a novel, that the book lacks a certain exactitude, a certain specificity-are simply results of the type of project that Brand has attempted. Her book is an attempt to generalize, to draw the story of all of the blacks of Trinidad into a coherent novel, and this sort of writing frequently leaves individualism in its wake. It is a readable and satisfyingly inclusive history, a political firework, and a powerful novel. 

Jack Illingworth is a Thunder Bay poet, a Toronto editor, and a Montreal student.


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