Grammar of Dissent:
Poetry & Prose of Dionne Brand, Claire Harris & M. Nourbese Philip

by Carol Morrell,
256 pages,
ISBN: 0864921411

The Other Woman:
Women of Colour in Contemporary Canadian Literature

by Makeda Silvera,
472 pages,
ISBN: 092081347X

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Strong, Troubled, Optimistic
by Hazelle Palmer

SHE LOVES SARAH VAUGHAN, but not even that smooth, melodious voice can soothe the passion rising in Dionne Brand. Call it passion, anger, rage, or political conviction. Blend it with being an immigrant, Black, female, and lesbian, and the cocktail can prove explosive. In Grammar of Dissent, edited by the University of Saskatchewan professor Carol Morrell, readers get to revisit selections of Brand's writing, to travel her life's journey, to experience her thoughts and intimate moments and, in time, to reach the personal space that pumps the passion into her work.

Brand is joined in this anthology by Claire Harris and M. Nourbese Philip. These writers have many things in common, the most significant being their ability to "throw their voices out": to write personally of experiences that speak to a diverse range of women. Morrell writes that Harris, Philip, and Brand believe

by understanding one's own experience, one is reaching out, finding hat what is personal to oneself is also personal to many others, and thus that one's experience is not Unique, to be suffered through in isolation.

For these three poets writing is an instrument to deconstruct and challenge the status quo; to write honestly about the conditions of their community; to accuse Canadian society of racism, sexism, and classism; and, to substantiate those accusations with examples drawn from the core of their communities. For example, Harris's poem "Policeman Cleared in Jaywalking Case" displays her reaction to the acquittal of an Edmonton police officer who strip-searched a 15-year-old black girl and arrested her for jaywalking. Harris relates her own experience in a similar jay-walking incident in Trinidad where the outcome was quite different:

I was released with a smile with sympathy sent on in the warm green morning Twenty years later to lift a newspaper and see my fifteen year old self still dumb now in a police car still shivering as the morning roars past but here sick in the face of such vicious vomit.

How Harris's words occupy the page even challenges "customary connotation and meanings." This is true of Brand's and Philip's work as well. Philip explains,

Poetry came to us in the Caribbean as another form of colonization and oppression. So, for instance, in the poem "Discourse on the Logic of Language" I set out to subvert the poem itself. ... to put ... that particular poem back in its historical context, which is what poetry is not supposed to do.

Those examples of Philip's poetry included here focus on how the use of language or the loss of language is political. In "Discourse..." she cleverly writes,

English is my mother tongue. A mother tongue is not not a foreign lan lan lang/ language l/anguish

anguish/ -- a foreign anguish.

English is my father tongue. A father tongue is a foreign language, therefore English is a foreign language not a mother tongue.

Brand's poetry and essays conclude this remarkable anthology. With her essay "Bread Out of Stone," we land firmly in the middle of all the events that feed and create Brand's rage: police shootings of Black men and one Black woman, and the massacre of 14 women in Montreal, for example. Philip and Harris are angry too, but their responses are more controlled. Brand doesn't care. She takes direct aim at Canadian society and uses language, with effect, to accuse white Canada of racism against Black people, and of "pathological hate for Native people." You can feel her tension when she remembers "a white woman asking me how do you decide which to be -- Black or a woman -- and when. As if she didn't have to decide which to be."

It is easy to dismiss Brand's use of language, her rage, and what I call her passion as extreme. Brand is angry, there's no question about that. But it is far more courageous to examine this essay and her previous works included here, and recognize the source of that rage. It doesn't arise from nowhere. Its roots are firmly planted in Canada.

The strength of Grammar of Dissent is the fine poetry and prose it features. In The Other Woman: Women of Colour in Contemporary Canadian Literature, the reader is taken straight to the writers themselves. This anthology, edited by the Toronto writer Makeda Silvera, is a series of essays by and interviews with selected writers of colour. Most of the interviews are conducted by Silvera, except when Karlyn Koh talks to Joy Kogawa, Elaine Savory interviews Ramabai Espinet, and C. Allyson Lee talks to Sky Lee. Also included are essays that examine writing from a personal or abstract point of view, such as Uma Parameswaran's review of South Asian Canadian women's writing or Car-men Rodriguez's piece, "I live in a language that's not mine."

But the high points in this anthology are the interviews. We learn first hand from each author about her upbringing, formative influences, and writing process. Because the diversity is considerable, their experiences are wide-ranging. One of the interviewees is ahdri zhina mandiela, who has published two books of poetry, Speshal Riqwes and dark diaspora. Mandiela's poetry has been defined as dub poetry, but in her interview with Silvera she rejects labelling her work:

I don't even care to define, label, the poetry I create. My work plays with one foot firmly placed in this centre, my arms and second leg reach out to harness the images in my head, just in the groove.

The Other Woman and Grammar of Dissent signal very clearly that the present and future of Canadian writing comes in many colours, and from a diversity of experiences. These anthologies are strong, troubled, and optimistic. And definitely political.


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