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Book Reviews

In Another Place, Not Here

by Dionne Brand

Dionne Brand’s 1990 volume of poetry, No Language Is Neutral, sold over 6,000 copies, a remarkable number, even with a Governor General’s Award nomination. Her first novel will please those intrigued with Brand’s politically mediated, emotional writing. As much poem as prose narrative, as much romance as exposé of Toronto’s dirty try at multiculturalism, In Another Place, Not Here flashes with Brand’s social acumen and lyricism.

The novel is set in Canada and the Caribbean and follows two women, Elizete and Verlia, who do their nomadic dance of immigration, desire, and death. The first half of the book deals with Elizete in her thickly poetic, Caribbean drawl – Brand’s most tailored and impressive writing. Elizete enters Toronto illegally, seeking a more precise, less haunted, memory of Verlia and watching for signs that slavery is a dated ritual appropriate only to distant Third World history.

It isn’t. Cosmopolitan Toronto is just a sticky terminal on the continuum of materialism and its necessary enslavement of somebody. Brand’s indictment of the city and its ugly hierarchies erases any version of Toronto as haven for the dispossessed. “They were Third World people going to the white man country,” Brand writes. “That in itself lowered them in their own estimation, they could not hope to look forward to being treated right. Already what affected them was getting an inhuman quality.…They felt each morning as someone trundling a wheelbarrow and pulling a donkey as sleek cars whipped by.” The book explores these troubled definitions of Black identity and does so in an appropriately non-linear way; identity – national, sexual – involves an imprecation of who we’ve loved, where we’ve lived, and how we are scorned and scarred.

Part of Knopf Canada’s “The New Face of Fiction Is Here” campaign, Dionne Brand is marked as “Canada’s young Toni Morrison”; but aside from Brand’s ear for increments of slavery and the poetic structure of haunting, this comparison makes unrealistic promises. Politically and artistically, Brand shares more with Canadian writers such as Gail Scott and Michael Ondaatje, impressive enough company to keep.

As those writers do, Brand constructs an expressionistic version of selfhood. The act of reading, therefore, is made more compelling and demanding. Readers must suspend their nostalgia for a grounded narrative and instead float with characters who are indistinct for paragraphs at a time. A book that requires successive readings is not flawed. And though Brand’s prose becomes less exciting as the novel progresses, In Another Place, Not Here invites – insists on, thematically – a second, more precise reading.