Why Dionne Brand is the alchemist of language

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Artwork by Shantel Miller

It’s a sweltering July day in Toronto and I’m sitting on the back patio of a cafe in the city’s West End with Dionne Brand. We hold court on familiar ground, a giant of literature, despite the decades that have passed.

A block from us is Tyndall Avenue, where Brand was a member of a radical and creative black conclave in the 1970s. At the time, she was an emerging writer, garnering signatures and accolades as a poet , author and documentary filmmaker. These days, spent on a nearby patio with other black artists, were punctuated by rich and artistic music. It was also a time of organizing and fighting against the surveillance of Black Canadians, police brutality and structural racism.

I ask Brand to go back down memory lane. “As soon as the work is produced, I move on and forget about it. And I keep on moving, don’t I? she says. “[These are the] things I had overlooked in my rush to get as much work done as possible.
This work has earned him a lasting legacy. Forty years later, Brand is a staple of the Canadian literary world, the author of 23 collections of poetry, fiction and non-fiction (No language is neutral, A map of the door of no return and Thirsty, to only cite a few). The recipient of numerous awards, including a Governor General’s Award for English-Language Poetry and a Windham-Campbell Prize for Fiction, she was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2017.

On the terrace today, inspired by a past of organization and art, Brand and I look forward to his next venture: his new publishing house, Alchemy by Knopf Canada. In August, she also released Nomenclaturecomprising a new poem and eight volumes of previously published works.

But looking back on his heritage, Brand is typically humble: “I don’t think about [where I currently am] as arrived in any way. I only survived a few years.

In person, Brand is kind and gracious. She is measured in her responses, taking the time to think about the right words. Insofar as she is thoughtful, she is emotionally observant, attentive. On the summer day we meet, Brand is wearing black, catching the scorching sun. But between the two of us, it’s me who sweats. Despite the heat, I arrived with a lot of nerves.

The brand has always held an important place in my mind. In my first encounters with her writing, she brought vitality to the untold stories of a city I have always called home. In the years that followed, Brand’s writing greatly influenced my own work. Just a single line of A map of the door of no return (“To live in the black diaspora, I think, is to live in a fiction – a creation of empires, and also a self-creation”) earned me a six-year thesis project. I know that I am not alone in this case; The brand has become an integral part of the canons of many black and racialized writers.

Born in Guayaguayare, Trinidad, Brand immigrated to Canada in 1970. At age 18, she published her first poem, “Behold! The revolutionary dreamer. The coin ran in Spear: Canada’s Truth and Soul Magazine, a print publication focused on black cultural politics in Toronto. She wrote for Spear until his death in 1987.

But soon after Spear was formed, the RCMP created a dossier on the publication and its surrounding community, monitoring “subversive activity” among black people. Around the same time, officers charged with homicide in the murder of Albert Johnson, a 35-year-old black man from Toronto, were acquitted. This led to massive protests against police brutality and motivated several black artists and activists in the city, including Brand, to band together and form a collective.

Some of this growing collective of activists and artists gathered on the patio of filmmakers Claire Prieto and Roger McTair’s Tyndall Avenue residence. “[All of us at that time] were both community workers and artists,” Brand recalls. “These things were no different. They were feeding [and] it was the same thing. It was the beginning. Novelist Makeda Silvera and writer Clifton Joseph were among many other artists who passed through.

“Dionne has a vast and sparkling imagination. Thinking with her is always a gift.

During this early period, Brand was absorbed in anti-colonial literature, reading Toni Cade Bambara, Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, and Kamau Brathwaite. “I came across all of this wonderful writing about black liberation. It just grabbed me, it lifted me. Brand was also shaping his politics while reflecting on Toronto, an increasingly divided city, and discovering tensions along the way.

Regardless of medium, from her first published collection of poetry, morning dawn in 1978, to the many documentaries she made with the National Film Board throughout the 1980s and 1990s – Brand grappled with these tensions. In A map of the door of no returnBrand unpacked the collective loss of black stories and tackled the past stories of the current diaspora.

“The brand has given us cards that mark the complexity of black people – our laughter, our grief, our pain and our joy,” wrote author Rinaldo Walcott for CBC in 2019. “In doing so, she wrote history ordinary of our black queer existence without us spectacular as [anything] other than we could be.

In 2009, Brand became Toronto’s third Poet Laureate. It seemed a fitting position for a woman whose work so often struggled with Toronto as her benchmark. Brand used his time in the role to bring art to the streets of Toronto, creating “Poetry is Public is Poetry”, a project which saw poetry displayed on billboard-style panels throughout the city. “We want to have poetry in the moment between the donut shop and the car dealership, speaking through the cacophony of consumerism,” she told a college alumni magazine. She remained the City Poet Laureate for three years before joining publisher McClelland & Stewart as poetry editor.

His latest project, Alchemy, is a new foray behind the scenes of publishing. Conceived with Knopf’s publishing director, Lynn Henry, the book aims to decenter colonial models of literature. Alchemy is launching this year, with a first title to follow in the fall of 2023.”[Alchemy] is an old word, but it represents the different trajectories that arrive at a particular point and fall into a disordered order,” she says. Editing fiction and non-fiction titles, the publisher will also be accompanied by a series of conferences. The first conference will take place in November and events will span disciplines to dissect contemporary social and political issues.

Then there’s Brand’s final tome of poems past and present, Nomenclature. The titular poem, “Nomenclature for the Time Being,” spans 66 pages and confronts “our daily disasters” with storytelling from both a present and future perspective. (“Apocalyptic reports have come true,” he opens grimly.) “Brand’s ongoing works of testimony and imagination speak directly to where and how we live, and necessarily go to the beyond these worlds, their enclosures and their violence,” says Christina. Sharpe, Canada Research Chair in Black Studies in the Humanities at York University, of the poem in his introduction.

Sharpe will also collaborate with Brand on alchemy conferences. “Dionne has a vast and sparkling imagination,” she says. “Thinking with her is always a gift.”

Nomenclature also contains a continuum in Brand’s work: the recurring character and Toronto backdrop. “Something has continued in terms of the city and where we are right now,” says Brand. The violence has found new ways to spread: an ever-expanding housing crisis, a recession, a climate catastrophe, the opioid crisis.

But through his storytelling and activism, Brand has always found ways to respond and reflect the times. A common thread remains clear in his work: his commitment to Toronto is his commitment to the people, stories, histories and expressions of this place and beyond. The city may be trying to hold on to the poetess and all her magnificence, but Dionne Brand is still imagining better worlds.

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