Dionne Brand’s new house is blindingly, glaringly white – the walls, the appliances, the cupboards, the counter, the fixtures, the floor. There is a small wood table and two very hard wood chairs that turn a bum to mush in minutes. There is one piece of art, lovers entwined, on the wall in the entranceway. Her front door looks exactly like all the other front doors in the neighbourhood, and the machinery that built these west-end Toronto townhouses is still sitting out back, waiting to complete the landscaping.
“I don’t necessarily like places where people have lived before,” Brand says of her current surroundings. “I can walk into a place and feel things – who’s lived there, and what might have been. And sometimes that’s too heavy for me. It scares me. People scare me. That’s probably why this place is spare. I like clear space.”
That may also explain why Brand chose to write her new novel, At the Full and Change of the Moon (released this month by Knopf Canada), in the solitude of a cabin in deepest, darkest “Reform country,” as she puts it, somewhere in snowy central Ontario. For more than three years, Brand’s life revolved around early mornings, days spent writing, and evenings in front of a crackling fire with her dog, Bessie (as in Smith).
“I got a lot of writing done. I learned things about myself. I learned to be by myself. It was terrifying, but not terrible. When I came back to Toronto last year, I had to catch up. It was so noisy!” Brand exclaims. “In the country, there’s no traffic, no hum of electricity. Places with lots of people were really frightening.”
So why is she living in a virtual construction site, surrounded by people, in Canada’s largest city? “I was lonely for a community of people,” she answers, finally. That’s not as contradictory as it sounds. Much of Brand’s life, like her work, is taken up by issues of belonging – or not belonging – and with complicated notions of boundaries and place.
“I am directed by rootlessness,” she says. “I want to draw new maps.”
And so do the characters in Brand’s writing. At the Full and Change of the Moon is the story of Marie Ursule, an African slave in the early 19th century, and six generations of her descendants. Marie Ursule prepares the poison for a mass suicide of slaves on a Trinidad plantation, but saves her daughter, Bola, whom she sends away to safety. Marie Ursule’s actions confer a shared history upon her descendants, whose shifting realities cannot be defined, Brand says, by either physical geography or the concept of blood memory alone.
The history of slavery – the forcible relocation of African people to the Caribbean and elsewhere – forces Brand to view both her native Trinidad and her adopted Canada as places where she lives but does not necessarily feel at home. In a way, then, she refuses the choice, and lives with them both at once. Her characters do much the same thing in their travels. “I love this notion of wandering forever to find a place. That search is a way of reaching beyond boundaries,” she says.
“Some of us want to tie the world down into spaces that we own. You can map a place, and write observations, but that’s strictly a reflection of your own point of view,” Brand asserts. “If that point of view is rigid enough, that’s all you see. A map should be a larger place – a place filled with the endlessness of living, the hugeness of the imagination.”
Brand has been in Canada for almost 30 years. During those three decades, the 46-year-old poet, short-story writer, essayist, documentary filmmaker, and novelist has wandered purposefully from discipline to discipline. She was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Poetry for No Language Is Neutral (1990) and shortlisted for both the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award and the Trillium Award for In Another Place, Not Here (1996). She won the GG and the Trillium for Land to Light On, her 1997 collection of poetry. She has organized meetings and handed out leaflets and worked for social change. She went to Grenada for the revolution. She was at Oka. And now, she is tired.
When we first spoke, in Halifax in 1990, Brand had just finished writing and co-producing a video for the National Film Board on the history of black women in Ontario. She was strong, mouthy, intelligent – and fully aware of how her ancestry has defined her life and her art. She said then that African people have survived because “we have managed to sustain a history within us. People from generation to generation have kept that history as a gift for us. I see myself as created out of all that. I am part of a continuum. And sometimes I think to myself, ‘It’s too much. I’m not big enough for that.’”
Even then, Brand recognized that memory is both a burden and a gift. And that fighting to give voice to memory – and a history of dispossession that colonial Canada would rather not hear – would always involve a trade-off. “A lot of us are going to get our energies wasted and used up in fighting the struggle, instead of writing,” she acknowledged. “But that’s fine, that needs to be done.”
Nearly a decade later, Brand has changed her mind. The trade-off between community work and writing no longer seems necessary or fair. She admits to a new political pessimism, a realization that the multinational machines of capitalism are gaining new ground. The past is the past – she needs newness now. She is no longer responsible for anybody but herself.
In “Nothing of Egypt,” an essay written after the U.S. invasion of Grenada, she writes: “This is why I do not believe in magic any more. This is why my ancestors fail me with all their chants and potions…. I wanted a day when the enemy would be so overwhelmed by the sound of my ancestors dragging their chains that they would be killed by the clamour. I wanted a day when they would be compelled by that same spell that enveloped me, and their weapons would seize up or they would run away with screams in their heads. And at least if that did not happen I wanted to die. But this is why I had to find a theory instead of a powder because I didn’t die and the ancestors only have mouth for me, not for American bombers.”
Except she cannot drown out those voices, or she would not be a writer. And theories are useless when it’s 4 a.m. and the voices are whispering and the writer is writing and one is not one’s self anymore. Brand tried moving away from the city, from its relentless, never-ceasing activity, to see if the voices would go away. They didn’t. If anything, the silence only heightened the din. The chains are dragging, despite her protestations.
I tell her these speculations, and she laughs, sharply. Then, as I am leaving her new house, she pulls out Caribbean writer Derek Wolcott’s new collection of essays, The Muse of History. She points to a page and tells me to read. It is something about memory, about how all memory is invented. A new theory. She has underlined it in red.
Brand is interested in defining and constructing her own interior terrain, her own physical and emotional space, her own shifting boundaries, and the map to go with it. In At the Full and Change of the Moon, Bola’s great-great-granddaughter does the same thing. “Little Bola,” as Brand refers to her, lives between the boundaries separating this world and the world of her ancestors.
“Little Bola just wrote herself,” Brand remembers. “She scared the hell out of me. I felt really … funny. I’d hate to write her at night. Oh my god! I wondered if I would lose myself in her, so I just stopped writing at one point. I knew the next day that I would have to pick her up again, and I did. But it was scary to write her.” Little Bola’s boundaries shifted right off that empty page, one guesses, and into Brand’s cabin in the woods, conjuring up voices that will not be silenced. Except Little Bola gives herself over to that world, and is called crazy for it. Surely Brand knows that all writers are crazy, too.
“The difference we normally place – to differentiate this existence from that one, dead from alive – is not a concern to Little Bola. The boundaries are movable, they’re exchangeable, they’re equally symbolic, and she can move through them. This is the thing about the book,” Brand says. “Boundaries are pliable.
“These notions of real and unreal – that is a construction of this particular universe,” Brand states. “They’re not so different. To choose to slip in and out of them, as some of my characters do, is more freeing. The business of not being able to live in this world is not a terrible thing. Little Bola thinks this world is totally unbearable. And I don’t blame her. It is unbearable.”