Toronto
3 min

A geography beyond reach

Dionne Brand pesters for history's retelling

MAP IT. Dionne Brand's new book won't let you forget. Credit: Xtra files

Dionne Brand has always produced highly political work. Her earliest published poetry from the 1980s was politically charged and her more recent works of fiction have a sharp political edge. Her work has always been complex and in many ways difficult. She’s clearly in love with the way words can be strung together, but it’s a passion that must serve a purpose as well; it’s not enough to merely sound good; it must have meaning as well.



Her latest book, A Map To The Door Of No Return: Notes To Belonging, is work of non-fiction which might be best described as an elegant and extended meditation. The book is part memoir – in the best sense of that word, which is to say that it’s about the pursuit and exploration of memory – and part essay on belonging.



Brand begins the book with an anecdote about her grandfather in which she recalls her childhood self “pestering” him to recall the people her family came from. When he cannot, she sets up the premise of the book: “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.”



The rest of the book is about the meaning of that order of forgetting and the nature of that erasure.



Brand lays out the book in fragments and episodes. Throughout, she offers commentary under various headings such as “Voyage,” “Water” and “Maps.”



Or for example, under “Forgetting.” “The Door of No Return – real and metaphoric as some places are, mythic to those of us scattered in the Americas today. To have one’s belonging lodged in a metaphor is voluptuous intrigue; to inhabit a trope; to be a kind of fiction. To live in the Black Diaspora is I think to lice a fiction – a creation of empires, and also self-creation. It is to be a being living inside and outside of herself.”



If it’s necessary to select a single idea that stands out in the swirling mass of ideas Brand uses, it would be the one in which she tries to get at the psychic effects of slavery and colonialism.



A great deal has been written on the history of race and racism in North America (and elsewhere, of course) and its roots in the slave trade. But Brand takes a different approach here. She combines the personal and individual with something that is very abstract and far ranging. It’s impossible not to quote at length simple because there is little point in offering what could only be a crude summary.



“Very few family stories, few personal stories have survived among the millions of descendants of the trade. Africa is therefore a place strictly of the imagination – what is imagined therefore is a gauzy, elliptical, generalized, vague narrative of a place.



“Many in the Diaspora have visited the Door Of No Return at slave castles in Ghana or Goree Island. They tell of the overwhelming sense of grief and pain these visits give. One does not return to the Diaspora with good new from the door except the news that it exists and that its existence is the truthÂ… but their grief, our grief, remains unassuageable at a profound level. No seeing can truly verify the door, no real place can actualize the lost place. Not in any personal sense.”



After laying out this concept, Brand takes the reader on a series of journeys, some real and some imagined. She tells of arriving in Toronto from Trinidad as teenager, or travelling to London, England and making a kind of pilgrimage to South Africa. She also offers a section on one of the most persistent themes in her work: the 1984 coup in Grenada. She talks of how being in that particular place at that particular time – her witnessing of people being killed by gunfire – has shaped her and caused her to “have trouble with life.”



The experience of reading this book is not unlike taking a journey; Brand extends an invitation to the reader to accompany her as she travels through her individual memory and experience as well as a much broader cultural excursions.



Whether she talking about a gas station attendant in rural Ontario, a parking lot employee in downtown Toronto, the proprietor of a rum shop in the Dominican, or quoting from a book on the history of map-making it’s a highly provocative and heady mix of elements.

A MAP TO THE DOOR OF NO RETURN:

NOTES TO BELONGING.

By Dionne Brand.

Doubleday Canada.

230 pages. $32.95.