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The Language Of Resistance
by Beverley Daurio

In her poetry Dionne Brand is rewriting history `in a way that saves our humanity` DIONNE BRAND is the author of six books of poetry -- `Fore Day Morning (Khoisan), Earth Magic (Kids Can), Primitive Offensive (Williams-Wallace), Winter Epigrams and Epigrams to Ernesto Cardenal in Defence of Claudia (Williams-Wallace), and Chronicles of the Hostile Sun (Williams-Wallace) -- and a collection of short fiction, Sans Souci and Other Stories (WilliamsWallace). She is also the co-author of a non-fiction work on racism in Canada, Rivers Have Sources, Trees Have Roots (Cross Cultural Communication Centre), and has worked with Studio D of the National Film Board as a writer and director. Her sixth collection of poetry, No Language is Neutral, is published this month by Coach House Press. She was interviewed at her home in Toronto by Beverley Daurio. BiC: You`ve now lived about half your life in Trinidad and half your life in Canada. That place split and time split seems to be a major source of imagery in your work: the snow versus the ocean ... I wonder if you could talk a bit about how you ended up in Canada and how it affected you, particularly as a writer. Brand: I got exported, like a lot of other people, on the wings of international capital. I came to go to university and to go back, but ended up doing more than that -- getting involved in community work in the women`s movement and the Black movement -- and never really going back. I was born in a country town, near an ocean. It`s incredibly beautiful physically, but posed against that is incredible hardship in the ways that people live and eke out a living. I also come out of a history of a people who were enslaved, and a struggle toward freedom was central to the whole ethos of that people. It was also infused in me, in looking at that landscape. I guess if you were born in Northern Ontario, the inevitability of the earth, the greatness of it, Would strike you in the same way. But these things, the beauty and the hardships, posed as opposites in the beginning of my work, are somehow figuring themselves into each other. BiC: How old were you when you knew that you were going to become a writer? Did your impulse to write originally come out of politics? Brand: I think the first time I said I would do that I was 13. All through my schooling in Trinidad, what I read as English literature never had me in it. I always felt the need to put me in it, and by me I mean Black people. When it did have them in it, they were awfully misrepresented, stereotyped, so flat and thin, and always at the service of white characters. If countries of Black people were talked about, they were presented in colonial and derogatory terms. People need their lives to be elucidated, spoken about, and it struck me that the life I had known was pretty beautiful, so why couldn`t I write it down? BiC: Did that make it hard to see yourself as a writer? When I was a kid growing up in Canada, there seemed to be no Canadian writers, and it made it difficult somehow to believe writing was possible here. Brand: At the early stage of recognizing that I was not in the literature, it did strike me that it could be written, and that I could be part of doing that. And then I became aware of certain Black writing in the Caribbean and in the States. BiC: You co-authored a book about racism in Canada, Rivers Have Sources, Trees Have Roots. How did that come about? Brand: I`d always been involved in Black community action against racism in the city, and there was a real dearth of information about racism in this country and about peoples of colour. It was important to document those experiences. I was asked to write the book, which was supposed to be about personal experiences with racism -- but racism is a collective experience, a social experience. The word "personal" irritated me; it gave the impression that the perception of racism might be like paranoia, or something quite individual. We interviewed about a hundred people, Black, South Asian, Native, and Chinese; we asked them, what is it like in your daily life here?, when do you encounter racism?, how do you cope?, and where is it most virulent, where is it most painful? So the book talks about the randomness of racism, the way it permeates this society, the way it`s just ordinary, how it`s institutionalized, and where there are practices that you can see. BiC: All of your work is informed by politics, by philosophy, by history. It never rests on the beautiful phrase, the lovely story, though these things are present in your writing. Do you believe there can be such a thing as pure aesthetics? Brand: No, I don`t. In really vulgar terms, pure aesthetics means who`s in control. We name the worlds we`re in, and no one culture can define that. BiC: Would you agree that a basic tenet of writing is responsibility rather than just self- fulfilment? That it involves a responsibility toward a community? Brand: Every activity is social, and you don`t exist outside of that. Even if you think you`re not writing politically, you are in some way contributing to the making of the culture that we`re in. Those who think writing can be done without responsibility are choosing that, too. I clearly have a purpose, but I`m not a social worker -- I`m not an advocate for something that I`m not a part of. I believe that history, and the history of the people that I come from, is important, and that it is important to rewrite that history in a way that saves our humanity. Black people and women have to make their humanity every goddamned day, because every day we are faced with the unmaking of us. Sometimes any words I throw at this feel like pebbles. But the purpose in throwing them is to keep, to save, my humanity, and that is my responsibility. And also as a woman, as a lesbian, I have to redeem my life every day, in a society that thinks I should lead an existence that`s second class. Every day I get to say, no way. I do feel that responsibility, but it doesn`t feel like a burden because at the end of it is something wonderful, the day when I can be free of those things. Putting my skills toward doing that is the best thing I can do. BiC: A debate has been raging about the question of appropriation of voice. Lenore Keeshig- Tobias, for instance, has said that white writers telling Native stories is a kind of theft, and that it robs the stories of their power. Brand: Lenore Keeshig-Tobias is right about what happens to those stories; they become consumer items. This culture has always taught people that they can take, buy, other people`s things, consume everything, so why can`t we take your stories? People who do this are behaving like the Culture that conquered and took Canada away from Native people and finds Native life dispensable. That issue is part of this discussion, but it`s being neglected by white writers who simply yell, This is censorship, I can write what I want. I think white writers have to take on the responsibility of dealing with racism. Racism didn`t happen just to Black people and Native people; it happened to white people, too. It was a relationship in which we were involved. White people have to ask themselves what their role was in it. BiC: Is access to reviewing and critical writing part of the problem? Brand: Reviews are equally racist. Work by peoples of colour has to prove universality; a white writer is never asked to prove that. The other things you look for in a review are words like "anger." Reviewers always talk about the anger of Black writers. Anger is not the only word that can be used. The experience is far more complex: it is remorse, sadness, absolute joy, beauty, all those things. BiC: So the mistake is in making the description a kind of containment, not opening up to what is actually there in the work? Brand: Exactly. What some white reviewers lack is a sense of what literature that is made by Black people and other people of colour is about. If you read my work, you have to read Toni Morrison, you have to read Derek Walcott, Rosa Guy, jean Rhys, Paule Marshall, Michael Anthony, Eddie Braithwaite, and African writers and poets ... Bessie Head. I don`t consider myself on any "margin," on the margin of Canadian literature. I`m sitting right in the middle of Black literature, because that`s who I read, that`s who I respond to. BiC: In your book of short stories, Sans Souci, the women keep trying to solve Canada, even though it seems desolate and oppressive, racist and patriarchal. Brand: Survival is one of the running themes in our lives as Black women; when you get faced with the possibility of not existing, then you just don`t give in. Thats what I`ve learned from the women in my community, and I have a feeling that`s true of women`s lives in general, that we know how to make do, how to survive. BiC: When you were writing Sans Souci, how much of a struggle was it not to become didactic? Brand: To be didactic is to be outside of an experience, to think of it as an object, rather than from the point of view of the subject. When you are inside it, it is complex, and each decision you make is important, and dependent on a lot. To survive and not go crazy, you must distinguish how much of what you are going to take today, but not tomorrow. Because I was struck by the Little Black Sambo and god knows what other derogatory stereotypes I had to handle when I was growing UP, I always thought that the way I would present and articulate Black senses, if you like, would he in all their variousness. My job as a writer was to express all of it, to address how I knew I lived, how I knew my grandmother lived, address the motivations, because Black characters in those things never had any motivations. In Tarzan movies theres no motivation, you just see all these Black people running after Tarzan. What for? In order to dehumanize people, you strip them of reason, of motivation. I wanted to draw us as we were, with all the complexities and contradictions. BiC: The stories have such different voices ... were you consciously representing a whole range of different people? Brand: I listen well and I try not to impose myself on the story. My imagination is not only my own and out of no place; it is what I know and have seen and heard and felt. What I`m hoping and striving for is that each of the people that I`m writing about has an integrity -- they wouldn`t do weird things that are not part of that integrity, part of who they are. BiC: Your new book of poetry is called No Language is Neutral. Why did you call it that? Brand: It`s based on a line from Derek Walcott`s "Midsummer": "no language is neutral / the green oak of English is a murmurous cathedral / where some take umbrage and some take peace / but all help to widen its shade." Walcott and I come from different generations and different genders; the English language that he wants to claim is not the same one that I want to claim. The one that I want contains the resistances to how that language was made, because that language was made through imperialism, through the oppression of women. As women and as peoples of colour we write against that language. The more power we acquire to speak and act and so on, the more we change that language. I write to say something about the world. The language that I encounter as a response to me in the world is no more neutral than mine to it. BiC: The book really reads, not as a collection of separate poems, but as a unified structure. Did you set out to write it as one long piece? Brand: The title poem I set out to write as one piece, and it kept getting bigger and bigger. Then some other piece would come up in something else that I was writing, and I`d say, oh, that piece doesn`t belong here, it belongs somewhere else, and so on. No Language is Neutral was like a journey, like a memory of when language became possible, changed, through that experience of colonization. So the poem starts somewhere back then -- about how a people, if they got transported to a distant place where they no longer had names for things, how they began to name anything, how they began to say anything, and how, faced with incredible brutality, how they did not refuse to say, and what they did say of the experience. There`s an image in the poem of standing near the sea and looking out into great possibility, but endless hopelessness, too. There was no other way of saying it, but to rely on dialect and show how the relations of slavery, of brutality, and also of silence, of distance, of loss, begin to shape the language that I speak. My great-great-great-great-great-grandmother and -grandfather made that language. They passed it on and passed it on, and I`ve been making it. Within that language, it`s not just questions of race for me, but questions of gender. What was there for my great-great-grandmother between the ocean and the sink? How did that shape what she said? And how did what she didn`t say about being a woman shape it too? BiC: In the first part of the poem "Hard Against the Soul," you say: 11 this is you girl ... this is where you make sense ... and to be awake is more lovely than dreams...," which implies that being asleep sure as hell isn`t. Brand: Ordinarily people think fantasy is more interesting; I guess I find reality more interesting. That poem is about my first lover, but it is also about recognizing I was a lesbian, and why. I looked at ocean and earth, and I thought, thats right, I love that, there`s something about the fecundity of it, the richness, that somehow verified my love for women. To know this was really startling, and also to come to a kind of completion. We live in a world that doesn`t love women, and I suddenly faced the possibility of having to live that out. For us, as women loving each other, there could he no heterosexual fantasy, and there is no lesbian fantasy. You`ve got to make whatever you`re going to have. So the real was more wonderful than anything. It was great to be awake, to be walking up and down the street, to be suddenly solid. BiC: The first section is followed by one called "Return," which contains poems about particular women, political women. How are they related to the rest of the poem? Brand: At one time I admired those two women greatly, and still do at certain levels. Phyllis Coarde was the minister of women`s affairs in Grenada. She had been part of the coup, and is in jail now. I looked at them in that revolution, in that struggle, as very strong and capable women who were finally realizing the dreams of women in a way. BiC: Aging, for women, is also a political issue, which you address among other places, in the poem about Mammy Prater. Brand: I`ve always liked old ladies, because they have endured. It must take a hell of a lot for a woman to grow old in this society, with all the discrimination against women, all the taking care of the world that you do. Part of my culture, too, is that when you grow old you gain respect. When I was about eight years old I saw this woman sitting on the beach naked, throwing water over her head and bathing herself, and I remember at first going by her, and looking back and Suddenly thinking, she`s naked, you know, and smiling to myself And later, I thought, what freedom, she finally made it. She had earned the right not to be looked at in a certain way. It was in my mind, earning that right some day. The poem came out of looking at a photograph of a woman who was 115 years old, and thinking of all that was in her shape, all the days and days and days of waiting to sit there for the photograph ... and while being enslaved, never allowing slavery to keep her from waiting for the day when it was over. That old woman had endured. BiC: The general structure of the book is very interesting. "Hard Against the Soul" begins before the section called "No Language is Neutral," and ends after it, but it does more than begin and end the book; it wraps around it. Brand: I wanted to come back to "Hard Against the Soul" because there was something I had begun to say, that didn`t work itself out. I usually write in blocks, and I needed to say the rest. I needed to fully come out as a lesbian; I needed to say what that did in terms of how I was going to speak now as a poet. Much of my work before didn`t deal with sexuality as political; somehow I`ve gotten a deeper, more honest sense of myself since coming out. BiC: The woman that you address here, the "you," is a simple yet complex construction: it`s you in the past and in the future, it`s the reader, it`s history, it`s even the future itself. Brand: When I was writing this, as when I first read One Hundred Years of Solitude, I realized that you could write anything, put anything into words. The "You" that I talk to is the reader; its a way of jumping across the possibility of being ignored, across the possibility of your saying that we do not know each other. And the "you" is sort of historical too. One of the poems is about going to the Museum of the Revolution in Cuba. Suddenly I was looking at this goddamn coffle, this iron cuff that was used in slavery. It was maybe 200 years old, and yet it looked so dangerous, and I was scared, as if it was still that day. I didn`t know if I should run from the room, or stand watching it. That`s the history I address personally.

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