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A Map to the Door of No Return

by Dionne Brand

A Map to the Door of No Return is a beautiful book. It’s also a sad book, and a maddening book. Governor General’s Award-winning poet, novelist, and essayist Dionne Brand has created a work that is part memoir, part travelogue, part history, and part philosophy. It’s a reflection on her art, her origins, and her place in Canada (and elsewhere), described from her vantage point as a descendant of slaves taken from the slave-forts of Africa – the doors of no return – and relocated to the Caribbean.

The book is almost shapeless, and the first half contains enough woe-is-me-I’m-so-oppressed rhetoric to tire even the most sympathetic of readers. The language is accomplished and poetic, so poetic that one is tempted to steam right through, overlooking meaning and concentrating instead on sound, shape, and form, the sheer loveliness of the words as they tumble atop one another to describe people, places, and events. Look hard at the words, though, and you’ll find Brand often disagrees with her own ideas: the book centres on slavery’s “rupture of geography,” yet Brand also says that “Too much has been made of origins.” She also has a tendency to wrap her ideas in postmodern theory that substitutes code for true meaning.

Brand does write convincingly and eloquently on many topics, including the reasons why young black males have a hatred of white authority, on the difference between Canadian and British customs agents, and on youth culture and the disconnection that locks so many teens into delinquency. There is also a brilliant extended comparison of J.M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace with Toni Morrison’s Paradise, and excellent insight into Brand’s process as a writer, as she describes finding her characters.

And that’s the most surprising thing about The Door of No Return: Brand begins by talking about blacks in the Americas and their “hereditary sickness with life,” but ends by trying to come to terms with the pain involved with being a writer. Writers also pass through a door of no return, and in doing so create with their bodies a ruptured geography filled with voices of characters that are not their own. Brand contradicts herself when she says she has “no ancestry except the black water and the door of no return.” She clearly does: in her novels and poems and essays, Brand conjures the voices that tell the stories of her people.